Sunday, January 02, 2011

Not Everything is Free

I released a Lisp package into the open-source universe recently; this was developed as part of an an abandoned development project at my previous company, which graciously it to be released to the wild where it may be of use to someone.

But the only reason I'm mentioning it here is that it gives me an excuse to post this haunting song by Gillian Welch about the plight of "content creators" in this modern digital world we are creating. At least, that's the most obvious interpretation of it.

Here's an earlier post on a similar theme, or see here. I personally love giving my work away for free, and only wish that we lived in the kind of anarchist propertyless utopia mentioned in the blog tagline, so I didn't feel partly like a sucker doing it. The current world of open-source and peer content creation is great in many respects, except that one set of people does all the work, and a different small set of people gets to collect all the economic benefits.

It's like the hacker community set out to make itself into a property-free utopia regardless of whether the rest of the world went along, and deliberately undermined most of the ways in which software developers got paid. Contrast this to musicians, who like most artists are hard-nosed about money and had the same thing imposed on them (by digital copying and file sharing), but not by their own choice.

Don't get me wrong, I still think open source is a tremendous win, but it would be more of a win if the rest of society was organized along more socialist-communitarian lines. Technology has decreed that content creators get to be the vanguard of socialism, despite groceries and real estate still operating according to the old laws of scarcity.


TGGP said...

Mencius used to use the phrase "wu wei" as referring to the wisdom of monarchist rulers (Rothbardians interpret Taoism more anarchistically of course).

I've linked to my misgivings about pride/gift markets before, but I don't consider the production of entertainment to be that vital and so view piracy as mostly no-lose.

Your blog's subhead didn't strike me as anarchistic before. Interestingly, I recently read somewhere (I forget where) that although people often deride geocentrism as inflating the importance of Earth (and humanity by extension) the medieval Christians who believed it also thought hell was at the very center of the earth and the ideal heavens were far outside it.

I don't know if you read James Scott, but "The Art of Not Being Governed" has a lot on using "higher" as a metaphor. Lowland fixed-field agricultural civilizations often talk of going "up" to cities that are actually low-lying and "down to" the boonies, which are often up in the hills. Scott also uses the term "tusi" in reference to the Chinese practice of using some barbarians against other barbarians, which Mencius referred to as "yi yi zhi yi". Of course in the U.S context rednecks are obviously tax-paying patriotic army-enlisting "cooked barbarians" and the urban lumpenproletariat whose economic activites are off the books are the "raw barbarians" the state views as more threatening.

mtraven said...

Heh, The Dispossessed probably was responsible for me clinging to shreds of anarcho-socialism for 5-10 years longer than I should have. Libertarians tend to be appalled by it.

You may be intepreting geocentrism too literally. The medeival images of the world had god at the center of existence, while the devil and hell were at the center of the Earth -- but Dante had to go through the latter to get to the former. Not sure how that was supposed to work.

Haven't read Scott yet but he is certainly in the queue.

BTW, your comment didn't appear earlier because Google's spam filter has gone apeshit in the last week or so.

fsascott said...

Real estate and groceries probably operate "according to the old laws of scarcity" because land, or at least arable land, is in fact scarce. More of it isn't being made, if we except the little bits of Holland that are painstakingly wrested from the sea bed. And groceries are scarce because they are the product of arable land.

Digital content, on the other hand, is not limited by such factors of production. Little capital investment is needed to create it.

In my observation, musicians are hard-nosed about money because so many of them are struggling to make any at all from it. For every Keith Richards, there must be thousands, maybe millions, of musicians who barely eke out a living. Many of these are talented people who have put a great deal of effort into their training. On the other hand, there are even more people for whom music is simply a hobby. Again, little capital investment is needed to make music, and there is consequently a large supply of it, mostly of indifferent quality.

Musicians and software developers thus share many of the same circumstances. Unlike software development, music has a long history, one which is interesting from an economic as well as an artistic standpoint. A mere three hundred years ago, most musicians worked either as a specialised sort of servants in the households of great magnates, or as lay retainers of the church. A few entered the world of entrepreneurship as composers of operas for presentation in the public theatres, but these were in the minority until the late eighteenth century.

It's useful to contrast the careers of Haydn, who spent most of his life in a comfortable berth with the Esterhazy household, and Mozart, who led a hand-to-mouth existence as a free-lance composer after leaving the employ of the archbishop of Salzburg, and died in relative poverty. The nineteenth century saw the development of the 'superstar' along lines still familiar today; Liszt and Paganini are early examples. The economics of music have followed this pattern since, with the introduction of recording and broadcasting serving to exaggerate still further the chasm between the economic status of the celebrity artist and the nearly anonymous journeyman musician.

Time will tell how the economics of software development will evolve, but to suppose that a 'propertyless utopia... organized along socialist-communitarian lines' will result seems premature. The less lucrative an occupation proves to be for its average (not superstar) performer, the less eager prudent people will be to undertake it as a livelihood. Bereft of monetary reward, software development is likely to become an activity that parents and teachers advise young people to take up only as a hobby (like music) because there's no money in it.

TGGP said...

I have yet to hear of any less than very enthusiastic opinion of James Scott.