Published on Jan 14, 2010
After criticizing Lanier on his arguments about the problems with “digital collectivism” I am finding some of his other arguments more compelling. He gets closer to hitting the mark, for example, when he talks about the detrimental impact of the “free culture” movement on knowledge producers who increasingly rely on indirect methods like advertising to reap economic rewards for their efforts.
Now, if you’ve read Wikinomics, you’ll know I’m a supporter of the idea that one of the Internet’s great promises is a universally accessible library of all human knowledge and culture. New science results that might have been available only to deep-pocketed subscribers would be widely and freely available for education and research. Older resources that might otherwise have wallowed in dusty archives could be given new life and new audiences in digitized formats. Imagine if every book, film, song, photo and essay ever published was sewn together into a vast tapestry of interconnected knowledge and culture that could be shared for the betterment of science, the arts, wealth, and the economy.
The question is what happens to the incentives for artistic and scientific creation in a system where every knowledge-based product is free? Like Lanier, I am very sympathetic to the need for everyone from artists and writers to scientists and filmmakers to be able to control how their works are disseminated and repurposed on the Internet. People need to get compensated for great works of art, writing, software, etc, in a way that makes sense for them. For some people that means giving it away to maximize exposure and reap rewards through some complementary avenue. But I tend to agree with Lanier when he argues that the world will be a poorer place if nobody pays directly for high quality content anymore. The expectation that everything will be free is turning out to be toxic.
The deeper issue here is the impact of “free culture” on the knowledge economy. People have been saying for a long time that the digital revolution has undermined the economics of scarcity that make markets work. For over a decade, a lot of people, including me, had “hoped” that new business models based on abundance would materialize and some new business models surely have. Lots of people continue to make a good living in the Linux ecosystem, even though the IP is open. However, we could be seeing some definitive evidence that those business models, while benefiting some players, have failed to address the needs of a much larger pool of people engaged in making the news, music, movies, software and other knowledge-based goods.
I don’t have any definitive answers yet, but the most promising solutions will allow knowledge producers to choose from a menu of digital use-permissions that range from completely proprietary to completely open. That means placing control in the hands of individual creators rather than the media empires. After all, a future state with lots of proprietary islands of knowledge and technology, where most everything is owned and controlled by a few content empires, is hardly desirable either. So we need to continue to be innovative in the way that we aggregate, repurpose, and make our vast sum of human culture available to the world.