Tuesday, July 14, 2009

What if freedom IS free?

Chris Anderson has a new book called "Free." I haven't read this. I also didn't read this article that summarizes the book, but you can if you want to. There's also a video, which i didn't watch. If I was an economist or getting really serious about working out these economic theories, i'd have to read both of Anderson's books (he also wrote "The Long Tail") but for now i've got the concepts behind them, and it's enough to go on.

What i did read is Malcolm Gladwell's review, which summarizes and critiques Anderson's idea well enough to get me started here.

Anderson is on to something, but he's also dead wrong for the reasons Gladwell goes into (read the Gladwell if you wanna be able to follow the rest of this post). The thing is: Free does happen. Anderson is only wrong because he doesn't realize that his iron law makes The New Economy a total hurns. Giving people what they want for free and then charging them for extras they don't want? Call me crazy, but that seems like a terrible hopeless business plan.

Gladwell gets this, but doesn't really respond. Like Gladwell, I recognize the cheap hopelessness of the New Economy and the New Media, that these New things are wiping out the Old Economy and Old Media only to replace them with insubstantial, unreliable, mediocre nothingness. Like Lear's daughters (to reference a recent Shakespeare project) The New Economy is poisoning the Old Economy and then killing itself. This economic process has an entropic effect: society (art, culture, politics, whatever) are heading toward the situation of the most even distribution of energy, turning everything into bland grey colored lukewarm mush. See the concept of "existential liberalism" found in the Call for the political ramifications of this, hint: there's violence, lots of it.

Gladwell offers no solutions, seems to think the old economy will somehow persevere. But, as unsustainable as it is, the (perhas sad) fact is, Free does happen. Going with the YouTube example, Anderson thinks YouTube is free because bandwith is almost free. Gladwell corrects him, that almost free X billions = really fucking expensive, and cites the losses YouTube is suffering as an example.

Right. But, what is YouTube supposed to do about it? Start charging? Pay for content to attract advertisers? Fold? If youtube starts costing money to use, or closes up shop, then people will simply start posting and watching videos elsewhere for free. Replacements already exist (vimeo, peer to peer, bit torrents, etc). Golly, you can even get that copyrighted content youtube is paying for, free! We live in a situation where anything digitally or virtually reproducable is or can easily be made available for free.

How can you make people pay for it? Enforcing intellectual property rights law is one option, one which Gladwell seems to advocate. Problem is, all libertarian or punk-rock anti-authority sentiment aside, enforcing laws costs money. Lobbying the government to prioritize these laws over all the other laws is expensive, especially when other laws lobbied for by special interests with more popular support than the RIAA are easier to enforce. The end result is still that TV and Hollywood movies will continue to cost more to produce while bringing in less profit. If Hollywood passes on these lobbying costs to consumers, more consumers will watch cheaper stuff, found stuff, or archived stuff, or stuff made by producers with less overhead and profit requirement.

So, what to do? Accept failure? Give up on art? No. There's something that'll exist on the other side of this, a post-new-economy situation is possible, and it's one i'm personally very excited about. How exchange and distribution in the post-new-economy will work is simple: producers will offer things for free, and people will pay for them anyway.

What? Why? HOW? It's a post-capitalist relation of distribution, which befits a post-capitalist relation of production. Start by looking at the social norm that makes the basics of capitalism work. It's called "civil society" and it's sort of like Kant's catagorical imperative. The reason most of us don't steal what we want from a store is because we know that if everyone stole everything they wanted from the store, the store would have to close, nobody would be able to get what we need, and it'd be a resounding hurns all around. Granted, there are laws and security gaurds and little magnetic beeping things, but those are for the deviants, the people who don't accept these social norms and decide not to participate in civil society. Such things could not work if everyone became a shoplifter.

When it comes to digital media, because it's so close to free, and because the RIAA are such bastards and Hollywood is so shallow and cheap, the rules of civil society no longer apply at all. Everyone is willing to be a pirate, some people pride themselves on it. Ripping the system is a political act for some: the celebratory destruction of an economy that alienates, exploits and worst of all bores them. Security systems effective against a whole population of shoplifters and pirates will cost more than it saves.

This isn't a matter of my preferences. I'm not a theif, and honestly pre-capitalist (ie mafia) economics scare the shit out of me (and should scare you too). This isn't what i want to see happening, it's what i do see happening. If someone has a reasonable alternative explanation or some way to show that this isn't happening, i'd love to hear about it. Maybe i should read more of Anderson's book, but if Malcolm Gladwell can't find anything in it, i probably won't either.

In the meantime, we should either start developing a taste for lukewarm flavorless grey mush, or start making some reverse entropy. Specifically we need a new social norm where people WANT to pay for something, not because they're afraid the store will close, but because they love and want to connect and support the person who created the something.

How do we get there? This is the point where we can talk about spirital awakenings, new moralities, advanced ethics, pantheism, post-dualistic conceptions of self, social alchemy and any number of other quasi-religious methods of social control. But you'll have to talk to other people about that stuff, cuz it makes my head spin, and i suspect it's been talked about beyond the point of the words meaning anything anymore already.

The question i'm more interested in answering is: what if we're already there? The fate of YouTube, facebook and Hollywood can't tell us this. There's no connection, no good reason to give those bastards our money. The only producers who can survive in this post-capitalist economy are ones that establish a direct connection with their consumers. A genuine direct connection, not facebook's mimicry of connection.

I see examples all the time. Last saturday two friends and I went to a show advertised as FREE and dropped $20 in a "donations please" jar. I hope we weren't the only ones. I don't think we were. We stood in a room with the entire production team, talked with them, saw their peformance, loved it, and gave them some money cuz we're anxiously awaiting their next show.

The upcoming Ulysses' Crewmen tour will be testing this hypothetical system. For many of our shows we will only succeed if a post-capitalist economy already exists, these shows are going to be free, with donations requested. The results of this experiment will be dutifully reported on this blog as the tour progresses. Because if we want people to give us money for no reason other than they think we're worth supporting, transparency is absolutely necessary. Maybe we're too early. Maybe we'll fail utterly. But we'll never make it over this grey lukewarm puddle of mush if we don't all start trying to jump sooner or later.


Tim S. said...

This is a great subject, one of my favorites. I also liked parts of Gladwell's critique, but his prescription is dead wrong. Our current conception of intellectual property is insane, un-egalitarian, does nothing to protect artists and ultimately perverts art. It needs to be changed, not reinforced.

And while your concept of artist revolution may work for public performances, I'm not convinced it protects the intellectual property those performances may rely on, or for physical media (CDs, movies, etc.) Plus, even when they're distributed in small amounts and sold on a sliding scale, the manufacturing side of things relies on the existence of a mass market. Or at least that's my understanding of things.

Further, I wonder if most people give at donation-based events because they're used to paying for theater, not from a rational ethical compulsion. If that's the case, if we ever lose the programmed urge to pay for fun, I don't know if we'll get it back.

That said, you do have scarcity on your side. People steal media that's widely available. So I think you guys may end up doing pretty well.

Ben Turk said...

You're right about my system not working so well for mass market or physical media. But capitalism works so well for these things that film and recorded music almost wiped live performance (theatre, live music) out completely. (wiki Walter Benjamin and The Age of Mechanical Reproduction for more)

I for one don't mind if these fortunes are reversed, theatre artists found a way to survive the advent of film, committed film artists oughta be able to find a way to survive the resurgence of theatre, and most of them would probably welcome the reduction of competition from bloated hollywood producers who are able to spend billions saturation-promoting their films.

Anonymous said...

Hey Rex:

The "free" thing works if and only if there is plentiful, cheap, high quality energy (like Saudi oil).

Once that's exploited away (which is nigh, if it hasn't already happened), then nobody will be able to afford to give anything away for free.

Marketing such as been described by this author can only work in an economy which is supported by cheap energy.

Mary Dally-Muenzmaier said...

As always, a hell of a good read, Ben.

From the standpoint of independent artists and groups, your theory of establishing a direct and meaningful connection with an audience who will in turn voluntarily pay even when they don't have to is a solid one, and examples of this occurring already exist.

However, there is something to be said of the psychological reasons underpinning an audience's willingness to do this and one of these reasons is very obviously to flip the metaphorical bird to The Man.

So the question is, if the traditional tension that exists between the establishment and the independent camps is absent does the number of audience members willing to pay for what they can get for free dwindle to an unsustainable level? Dunno, but it's worth pondering.

Nevertheless, I'm eager to hear the results of your Ulysses' Crewmen tour experiment, so get to it, man!

Ben Turk said...

Mary, i see what you're saying, and i definitely hope to establish these social norms as a positive affirmation of what we're creating, rather than a negative reaction against the establishment.

Anon, you also raise a good point. But if the old economy is about running machines to mass produce physical objects, the "new" economy about running servers to virtually reproduce online content and the "post-new" economy about creating experiences it seems reasonable that cheap energy dependency will decline, but only if the experiences created are "poor theatre" type experiences, where you need little more than actors and audiences. Broadway theatre is terribly high through-put.

K said...

Chris Anderson is a notorious shit-disturber and, frankly, I am shocked by how seriously people are taking this book. Can you imagine what would happen to the world if all creative commodities became crowdsourced? Well, to say the very least, Anderson would lose his job because his industry--the already crumbling realm of print media--would cease to exist altogether.

Ben Turk said...

K, i agree, this is death, if "grey lukewarm mush" isn't evocative enough language for you, i'll say utter collapse of cultural foundations, art, media, and social interaction all reduced to nothing.

The idea that Anderson seems happy about this disgusts me. But, uh... he does seem to be describing something that is happening, right? Or do you see some other tradgectory for the new media and the new economy?

Chris M. said...

Maybe I'm pessimistic, but I think the biggest part of the problem is really the new ethics/psychology of the consumer. Plenty of folks will give lip service to "stickin it to the man" or the establishment, but I think this is only a fashionable posture for most of them. Making sure they are standing on the cool side of the line in the sand, but pleased enough to be seen just standing there. I think greed, selfishness, and convenience are at the bottom of most piracy and theft. I also think that the net of "establishment" gets cast over the producers of anything at all - independent producers included - with some folks who really just want to have lots of shit. And sometimes they call themselves libertarians, and sometimes they wear punk-rock buttons. As social animals, a lot of the things we wear on our sleeves peel off very easily.

If, as you hope, that more than just you and your friends dropped money in that donation bucket ... I'd suspect that the fact that there are people that can see you put money in there is the motivation for some of the donations.

I hope that a new creative economy doesnt rely on baby-sitting a bucket. For theater, it makes more sense, since the producers of the work are physically present. But not for other forms, like film and music and visual art. A "live" tour or performance is an option, but it shouldnt be a necessity. By and large, its not how these things are consumed anymore.

Ben Turk said...

Chris, i share your concerns. Some new consumer norms might be shallow, selfish, and unethical, but they clearly exist, and they present a challenge we must face. We can either face that challenge by condeming, reviling, punnishing, and attempting to control consumers, or we can adapt our actions to support these new norms.

If that means films need to tour in order for the producers to have face time with their audiences, so be it. If it means film as a medium will decline in profitability and relevance, thems the breaks. The advent of film hurt the profitability and relevance of theatre, recorded music basically killed many musicians who lived on touring and performing live. Film makers and record companies called that progress. Well, this is progress too.

The new creative economy doesn't need to rely on babysitting a bucket. After performing in Atlanta last year one audience member who'd already paid at the door shook my hand and gave me an extra $40 and asked us to please come back soon.

The current economic model relies on gaurding empty seats in theatres, blocking potential audience out in order to force people to pay admission. That makes much less sense to me.

Chris M. said...

Hmmm ... maybe I should put out something for donations for my next show. Obviously aside from museums and certain special events, shows of visual art pretty much never charge admission. I always liked this, as it encouraged as broad an audience as possible to show up. But I have to say, after 11 years of showing work, I've never been given a donation.

This situation is definitely the reality now - the little ghost of super easy piracy and reproduction is never gonna go back in the box. But over the years, I learned something from giving my work away for free (which I used to do very frequently, and I've been making art for longer than the 11 years Ive been showing it): it is very rarely valued at all in these cases. I doubt that much of what I gave away even exists anymore. I mean the good stuff, not the junk.

Everything considered, I'd have to strongly disagree with one of your word choices ... I would call this "change", but I wouldn't call this "progress".

Chris M. said...

Not to blather on, but I would add one more thing. Certainly recording has taken its toll on more local creative economies, but I wonder what the numbers would be ... romantic notions aside, has recording killed as many bands and other productions (financially, physically, and emotionally) as touring has?

Ben Turk said...

Chris, as a visual artist, you face different challenges than I do. You create unique individual objects that are valuable based upon their scarcity, the fact of there only being one like it. I create performances, experiences that exist for only a short period, but can be "owned" equally by everyone in attendance.

If the best economic model for film and recorded music is capitalism and the age of mechanical reproduction, then it seems the best economic model for visual arts is patronage, which is unfortunately a holdover from feudal economies.

I don't know the best way to solve your problem, donations in galleries is an idea, another experiment might be putting donation bucket (or lockbox or wall slot) by each work of art. Ask people viewing the art to put a little money in the box by their favorite works, to support those artists' ability to make more work. That's probably too transparent, to low class for the typical gallery, though. I don't know, like i said, not a master of the visual arts.

I do consider a shift away from an economic and technology model that favors art produced by giant corporations who exploit and turn artists into celebrities, who flood the market with crap, and who look at the audience as nothing but a revenue stream as progress, encredibly exciting progress.

Touring groups that focus their energy on live performance, and adopt something like the model i'm talking about (rather than the RIAA model of tours to support record sales) actually HELP local artists. Ask any small local band who gets to open for one of their favorite national acts. It's an exciting boon, usually one of their biggest audiences. The kind of touring i'm describing will only succeed if the touring act generates some excitement, and the local act brings in their loyal fans. It also provides a network for when locals wanna go on tour.

Chris M. said...

You make some good points, Ben.

Patronage is a holdover from another era, but it seems like touring is too. But really, so are the respective media that you and I do. I'm going to guess that neither of us really feels irrelevant when we are working though, or thinks that our respective disciplines are "finished".

But for every musician (I'll stick to music as an example) that loves hitting the road, you can probably find one that doesn't or is tired of it. And really, both of them could be making great music - because the actual creation of music doesnt really require roads. I think the vagabond/minstrel/whatever myth is related to the celebrity-making apparatus, and it is sold in both directions.

Ben Turk said...

Chris, it's not a question of what the artist enjoys, it's a question of what means are most available to produce art. If some artists are incapable of adapting to these means, then they will suffer. 100 years ago there were different means required, different artists adapted in different ways. 100 years from now, different means will be available again.

I don't think any medium is ever finished. They only adapt. I think art was relevant in fuedalism because it's aristocratic patrons thought it affirmed their nobile status. Painting had it easy. Theatre became more like painting (procenium stages, with elaborate gilded frames).

Art's relevance in capitalism comes from it's potential to make big profits. Therefore mechanically reproducable stuff has it easy. Theatre adapts to focus more on what film can't do, ie audience interaction. Visual art becomes more like theatre (installations, museums).

Now capitalism is on it's way out, (or if you don't buy that, you've at least got to buy that the age of mechanical reproduction has been replaced by an age of virtual reproduction) how does that change the mix?

I'm arguing that the age of virtual reproduction is hopeless and will be short lived, so artists should prepare for the age that will follow it. We can only speculate about this age, but it seems there will be no interest in reproduction at all. The interest will be in the creation of complete situations, total experiences, direct symbiotic connections. Blurring of art and non art, such that ALL labor becomes artistic labor.

Art as life and life as art has already been dreamed of and attempted (joseph beuys, etc), just like feudal painters dreamed of and attempted photographic realism. The future might be about realizing those dreams.