Past ideologies and cultural movements were usually associated with a class, or a gender, or a specific subset of the population that wears funny hats and goes to art shows. These days they’re associated with whole generations, Gen Y in particular. And Gen Y’s ideological leanings are ambitious. A recent article in Adbusters claims that “there is a revolutionary current running through the subconscious of this generation that has yet to be realized or defined. We champion piracy, instinctively believing that information should be free and open, that intellectual property law is contra-progress and that capital is not a necessary intermediary for social organization.”
Capital is not necessary for social organization – that is, we want things to be free. Today, everything from news to music to classified ad services has a new benchmark to attract our attention: no cost to us, and preferably none of those pesky ads, either. It is a race to the bargain basement, which Gen Y began, but which now encompasses everyone. Meanwhile, content providers are struggling to keep up (and many are not). And the “culture of free” has become an ideology.
I’m going to make the bold statement that I don’t believe we are revolutionary for wanting to get things for free. This supposed worldview – that information should be accessible and open – was and is just a convenient position to hold right now. It is no coincidence that the noble championship of piracy arose when most of the members of Gen Y were teenagers, making them a) not yet old enough to be generating capital of their own and happy to get something for nothing; b) at the age when they wanted to “stick it to the man” (or however that sentiment is phrased now), especially the capitalist pigs who profited off their (parents’) hard-earned cash; and c) able to master new pirating technologies before anybody else could devise a clever way to stop them doing it.
Piracy therefore developed so rapidly simply because there was an option. People figured out how to share music (and books, and movies, and opinions) in a new way, and so they did. It started with just ripping and burning, making mix CDs rather than mix tapes. Eventually P2P took off because it was offering a useful new service: downloading music directly to one’s computer. There was no legal competitor, so the free (not-yet-illegal-but-definitely-immoral) version took off. And now it is expected by all that the thieving will continue unabated. We are affronted when record labels attempt to regain their lost profits from hapless downloaders. We scorn those who prosecute the programmers at Pirate Bay. And we revel in the fact that blogs are thriving while subscription-fuelled media giants are hemorrhaging readers.
Now, there is certainly something to the argument that the freer exchange of copyrighted materials that enables piracy can be a good thing. It exposes people to more music, and many people who “pirate” music get engaged then proceed to purchase more music or go to more concerts than they would otherwise. But I dispute the idea that the free stuff movement is anything more than a convenient justification of existing behaviour. Ideologies rarely stick solely because they are noble and altruistic. More often they are useful, and solve practical problems. The “free stuff” movement solved the problem of paying for copyright materials.
History has seen many excellent, convincing justifications for getting something from nothing. Real pirates and thieves perfected the art of it, and were/are only stopped with effective policing (whether by international tribunals or the more traditional method of hanging). Aristocrats, priests, and the nobility for most of human existence claimed that they deserved by divine right to profit from their vassals’ labour. They were only coerced into some semblance of fairness by the threat or occurrence of violent uprisings. And communists claimed the right to free things with an ideology based on the natural inequalities between humans. From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs, as Karl Marx wrote. But Communism has never really been successful because whenever some people are getting something for free (or with minimal labour), others are working hard and getting nothing.
This is a fact that modern pirates inherently know: the record label executives and established acts are suffering, but so are the sound engineers and indie artists. So how did stealing from others turn into an altruistic ideology?
Part of it is the appeal of the “web 2.0” culture: it is democratic, innovative, and authentic. It bypasses the elitist filters of Hollywood, publishing or old media. According to Andrew Keen, a leading critic of the Web 2.0 movement, it “worships the creative amateur: the self-taught filmmaker, the dorm-room musician, the unpublished writer. It suggests that everyone–even the most poorly educated and inarticulate amongst us–can and should use digital media to express and realize themselves.” It is appealing because it allows us all to be dabblers, part-time writers (through blogs) or directors (through YouTube) or experts (through Wikipedia). This is, Keen argues, exactly what Marx promised of Communism:
[I]n communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, shepherd or critic.
And yet the dabbling, for all its appeal, is why the “culture of free” is ultimately unsustainable. Humans want recognition as individuals, and Gen Y wants this more than anybody. But dabblers are rarely experts, and their output is rarely singled out for recognition. As Keen notes, the problem with the democratization of media is that it creates a situation in which everybody has an opinion but nobody has an audience. And no audience means no capital, which will become a problem when Gen Y moves out of their capitalist-pig-baby-boomer-parents’ houses and has to pay for their own internet connections.