What the French ideology from 1791 has to do with creative meritocracy and the future of information.
As the editor of what’s essentially a public-service curiosity portal, ad-free and supported through reader contributions much in the way public radio and libraries are, I’m the first to cry “Wolf!” at any oversimplified insinuation that putting content behind paywalls is the way to make journalism and entertainment sustainable endeavors. I am a firm believer in content meritocracy and the pay-what-you-will model as the future of publishing, but I am also profoundly saddened by the way editorial and curatorial merit are being hijacked, regurgitated, and spat out as sellable commodities not benefiting the original creator or curator in any way.
(In fact, just this week, the Huffington Post took my recent piece on this Victorian map of woman’s heart and did with it what’s referred to as over-aggregation — reposting a reworded article with no substantive additional reporting and no prominent via-link for proper source attribution.)
So when I came across Robert Levine’s Free Ride: How Digital Parasites are Destroying the Culture Business, and How the Culture Business Can Fight Back, I was ambivalently intrigued. One one hand, it opens with such binary war cries as:
By making it essentially optional to pay for content, piracy has set the price of digital goods at zero. The result is a race to the bottom, and the inevitable response of media companies has been cuts — first in staff, then in ambition, and finally in quality.”
Implicit to this argument is the assumption that if we did indeed make it optional for people to pay, most wouldn’t. This needn’t be the case — the disconnect between price and value is as much about price as it is about value. Most people won’t pay for mediocrity but, at least in my experience, will gladly pay if they see value.
But Levine then takes a deeper look at the complexity of the issue, starting by correcting the popular misquotation of Stewart Brand’s infamous argument that “information wants to be free.” (That’s the same Stewart Brand, by the way, who in the 1960s campaigned to get NASA to release the then-rumored satellite image of Earth — something hard to imagine was a point of contention in the age of breathtaking satellite timelapses available to the layman online.) As Levine points out, the full Brand quotation is much more nuanced:
On the one hand, information wants to be expensive, because it’s so valuable. The right information in the right place just changes your life. On the other hand, information wants to be free, because the cost of getting it out is getting lower and lower all the time. So you have these two fighting against each other.”
Levine goes on to argue that the real conflict of the web is between the media companies slaving away at the true value-creating work of journalism and entertainment, and the tech companies racing to distribute their content, be it legally or not. But the idea that information will inevitably be free is based on the theory that the price of any good would fall to its marginal cost, and the marginal cost of digital distribution is exponentially approaching zero, bringing down the marginal cost of media along. Levine pokes two main holes in this argument: it’s not only a theory, but also one economists developed for commodity goods, and implicit to it is the admission that if the price of culture fell to zero, content creators like movie studios and investigative journalists would have no way of covering their production expenses. At the root of this paradox is a dangerous conflation:
Much of the enthusiasm for free media comes from mistaking the packaging for the product. If you believe people once paid $15 for silver plastic discs, it’s only natural to think online distribution will revolutionize the recording business. But if you realize people were paying for the music on those discs, it’s obvious that someone still has to make it — and that someone probably wants to get paid.”
On the other hand, Levine points out the uncomfortable reality of the tools for extracting value — tools not of device drivers but of human drives:
Reporters can access online databases and interview sources by Skype, but they still have to read the documents and ask the right questions. In cases like this, ‘information wants to be expensive.’”
In criticizing the questionable and often outright illegal practices of aggregator sites, Levine scathes:
In Silicon Valley, the information that wants to be free is almost always the information that belongs to someone else.”
He wryly observes the predatory paradox of the early ecosystem that laid the foundations for today’s information value systems, including the notorious Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998:
For media companies, getting advice from technology pundits was like letting the fox lead a strategic management retreat in the henhouse.”
For my part, I started Brain Pickings more than six years ago as what’s commonly referred to as a “passion project” (though I don’t like the fleeting noncommittal relationship this phrasing suggests) and didn’t have a business model — but I did have a crystal-clear editorial model, which remains the same today: get people interested in meaningful cross-disciplinary things they didn’t yet know they were interested in, and in the process empower their networked knowledge and combinatorial creativity; break out of the filter bubble, if you will, though conceived long before we had the very vocabulary to articulate it. So when an aggregator like the Huffington Post, a business-model wolf wearing an editorial-authenticity sheep’s skin, takes my (ad-free) content and regurgitates it on its (ad-plastered) site, it lives up to the term “parasite” at the heart of Levine’s argument, derived from the Greek parasitos and used to describe “someone who ate at someone else’s table without providing anything in return.”
While Levine rightly recognizes the remarkable creative empowerment that affordable technology has effected, he also observes the flipside:
This explosion of creativity has enriched our culture immensely. But many bloggers face some of the same problems as newspapers: it’s hard to make money if half the people who read your stories do so on another site.”
Or, to put it more crudely:
How can any company compete with a rival that offers its products but bears none o the expenses? The free ride has become a road to riches.”
And while I have the luxury of not caring about the “traffic” such parasites are stealing — because I’ve made the choice not to measure the quality of merit of content and the quality of audience, you, in pageviews and ad revenue, the basic currency of the Internet and arguably the reason for the brokenness of it all — there’s still something to be said for the theft of creative and intellectual labor here.
In reassessing the vision for art and commerce thriving together, a vision purveyed at the dawn of the digital revolution, Levine laments that it’s time to acknowledge this isn’t happening and won’t “until we turn the online free-for-all into a free market.” (Cue in my faith in a pay-what-you-will meritocracy.) Levine drives the disconnect home:
Traditional media companies aren’t in trouble because they’re not giving consumers what they want; they’re in trouble because they can’t collect money for it. It’s the natural outcome of an online economy that transfers wealth from ‘each according to his ability’ to ‘each according to what he can get away with.’”
And parasites certainly try to get away with a lot. With their masterful search engine optimization — which produces what I call the HuffPostification of headlines, titles that sound like a fifth-grader or a caveman (or, in the most successful of cases, a fifth-grader caveman) composed them and frequently feature the word “awesome” — they have perfected the craft of giving machines what algorithms think people want, then collecting money for it. Never mind the cultural footprint.
Having just returned from the annual Futures of Entertainment summit for my MIT fellowship, where Harvard’s Jonathan Zittrain brought back the now-infamous web-age adage, “If you aren’t paying for the product, you are the product,” I was particularly taken with Levine’s thoughtful argument that this entire imperfect information economy, with its parasites and its promises, was “a choice of design, not a requirement of technology.” As editors, curators, and publishers, we choose how to measure our merit, collect our money if we so choose, and, most importantly, serve our audience. As Levine puts it,
Like TV, the Internet is only as good as what’s on it.”
Levine goes on to examine the many facets of information value and intellectual property, from the devastation of the music business to Google’s war on copyright to how Europe is handling censorship, and in the end reminds us the tough calls that shape the future of the Internet will not be made with technology R&D breakthroughs but with ethical decisions on how to use that technology and what to value. He offers a poetic reminder by citing the first French copyright law, circa 1791:
The most sacred, the most unassailable, and the most personal of all properties is the composition, the fruit of the writer’s thought.”
Ultimately, I completely agree with Tyler Cowen when he says, “Everyone who follows cultural economics should read this book.”
I, by the way, was happy to pay $13.99 for a Kindle copy of Levine’s book — and would’ve happily paid much more had he offered a pay-what-you-will option.