We’re living in the 21st century but in many ways we are still looking at life through 20th century glasses. It is this conflict or clash that characterizes most contemporary debates about privacy and copyright.
From Mass Production To “Handcrafted” Digital Artefacts
In the wake of the Industrial Revolution, humanity became accustomed to the consumption of products in whose production human hands had no (significant) function: from the assembly line straight to our homes.
In the 20th century this principle of a “consumer society” based on mass produced commodities was experiencing its climax, boosting sales with carefully constructed brand images and aggressive advertising campaigns that attacked all the senses.
People were buying music on vinyl, then on tape, and when the CD came out they purchased all their records again in a digital format. This process could have continued indefinitely if there had come one physical storage medium after the other.
Instead, the preferred format suddenly shifted from a physical format to a purely electric one.
As McLuhan wrote in Understanding Media: “Electricity does not centralize, but decentralizes”
Therefore, as soon as the preferred format (mainly a matter of convenience) became purely digital, such as the MP3, various movie file formats and lately the ebook, cultural commodities suddenly have become very difficult to control. This doesn’t mean that people aren’t trying to exert the same centralized power over cultural goods as in pre-digital or pre-electic days, but rather that these means of control are deeply anachronistic and in conflict with the very nature of these formats.
And while some of us are busy fighting natural developments – these quixotic but apparently necessary allergic reactions to everything new – others are trying to reevaluate consumption processes on the basis of a changed playing field. Thanks to the proliferation of digital devices, now everyone can create and distribute digital media themselves. In a similar way that the washing machine has allowed people to do the laundry in their own homes, the computer has allowed us to create movies, books and music from the convenience of our decentralized locations.
Free Vs Paid: a false dichotomy
In a time where cultural goods are largely independent of their physical storage medium, the concept of pricing and selling has to be reevaluated as well. When a musician doesn’t pay a single cent for giving away millions of promotional “copies” of his works, the division between “advertising” and “product” is obliterated. Contrary to the razor and blades model, there’s no “catch” here. Artists or intellectuals can offer their works for free, no strings attached, because through the distribution of these works they gain recognition for other (potentially non-free) works. But even when we’re talking about one and the same product, there’s no reason why “paid & free” is a contradiction.
In my experience this works both simultaneously and asynchronously.
Here are two examples:
When I found out that one of my books got “stolen” I decided to offer the book as a free download. The result: the book continues to sell, even better than before. In other words: the fact that something is available for free doesn’t prevent it from generating income. It’s the same for having articles freely available and accessible on a blog and at the same time offering paid collections for ereaders etc.
This is a more classic but still very interesting approach that I’ve been experimenting with. Whenever a new book comes out I make it free at first, such as my recent short stories (there’s a new one out just now). In this way, whoever stays in touch and reads this blog, etc. will be able to consume almost everything I produce without paying a single penny, whereas I’m still able to continue living (and creating more stuff) off royalties from subsequent sales.
In other words, there’s a lot of work to do in reevaluating these processes, and in a way I’m grateful for draconian anti-piracy lobbies because they create the background on which projects like the Humble Ebook Bundle or my own experiments can gain a new momentum.