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Tuesday, April 1, 2008
“Content,” huh? Ha! Where’s the container?
Perhaps these words appear to you on the pages of a book, a physical object that might be said to have “contained” the thoughts of my friend and co-conspirator Cory Doctorow as they were transported in boxes and trucks all the way from his marvelous mind into yours. If that is so, I will concede that you might be encountering “content”. (Actually, if that’s the case, I’m delighted on Cory’s behalf, since that means that you have also paid him for these thoughts. We still know how to pay creators directly for the works they embed in stuff.)
But the chances are excellent that you’re reading these liquid words as bit-states of light on a computer screen, having taken advantage of his willingness to let you have them in that form for free. In such an instance, what “contains” them? Your hard disk? His? The Internet and all the servers and routers in whose caches the ghosts of their passage might still remain? Your mind? Cory’s?
To me, it doesn’t matter. Even if you’re reading this from a book, I’m still not convinced that what you have in your hands is its container, or that, even if we agreed on that point, that a little ink in the shape of, say, the visual pattern you’re trained to interpret as meaning “a little ink” in whatever font the publisher chooses, is not, as Magritte would remind us, the same thing as a little ink, even though it is.
Meaning is the issue. If you couldn’t read English, this whole book would obviously contain nothing as far as you were concerned. Given that Cory is really cool and interesting, you might be motivated to learn English so that you could read this book, but even then it wouldn’t be a container so much as a conduit.
The real “container” would be process of thought that began when I compressed my notion of what is meant by the word “ink” – which, when it comes to the substances that can be used to make marks on paper, is rather more variable than you might think – and would kind of end when you decompressed it in your own mind as whatever you think it is.
I know this is getting a bit discursive, but I do have a point. Let me just make it so we can move on.
I believe, as I’ve stated before, that information is simultaneously a relationship, an action, and an area of shared mind. What it isn’t is a noun.
Information is not a thing. It isn’t an object. It isn’t something that, when you sell it or have it stolen, ceases to remain in your possession. It doesn’t have a market value that can be objectively determined. It is not, for example, much like a 2004 Ducati ST4S motorcycle, for which I’m presently in the market, and which seems – despite variabilities based on, I must admit, informationally- based conditions like mileage and whether it’s been dropped – to have a value that is pretty consistent among the specimens I can find for a sale on the Web.
Such economic clarity could not be established for anything “in” this book, which you either obtained for free or for whatever price the publisher eventually puts on it. If it’s a book you’re reading from, then presumably Cory will get paid some percentage of whatever you, or the person who gave it to you, paid for it.
But I won’t. I’m not getting paid to write this forward, neither in royalties nor upfront. I am, however, getting some intangible value, as one generally does whenever he does a favor for a friend. For me, the value being retrieved from going to the trouble of writing these words is not so different from the value you retrieve from reading them. We are both mining a deeply intangible “good,” which lies in interacting with The Mind of Cory Doctorow. I mention this because it demonstrates the immeasurable role of relationship as the driving force in an information economy.
But neither am I creating content at the moment nor are you “consuming” it (since, unlike a hamburger, these words will remain after you’re done with them, and, also unlike a hamburger you won’t subsequently, well never mind.) Unlike real content, like the stuff in a shipping container, these words have neither grams nor liters by which one might measure their value. Unlike gasoline, ten bucks worth of this stuff will get some people a lot further than others, depending on their interest and my eloquence, neither of which can be quantified.
It’s this simple: the new meaning of the word “content,” is plain wrong. In fact, it is intentionally wrong. It’s a usage that only arose when the institutions that had fattened on their ability to bottle and distribute the genius of human expression began to realize that their containers were melting away, along with their reason to be in business. They started calling it content at exactly the time it ceased to be. Previously they had sold books and records and films, all nouns to be sure. They didn’t know what to call the mysterious ghosts of thought that were attached to them.
Thus, when not applied to something you can put in a bucket (of whatever size), “content” actually represents a plot to make you think that meaning is a thing. It isn’t. The only reason they want you to think that it is because they know how to own things, how to give them a value based on weight or quantity, and, more to the point, how to make them artificially scarce in order to increase their value.
That, and the fact that after a good 25 years of advance warning, they still haven’t done much about the Economy of Ideas besides trying to stop it from happening.
As I get older, I become less and less interested in saying “I told you so.” But in this case, I find it hard to resist. Back during the Internet equivalent of the Pleistocene. I wrote a piece for an ancestor of Wired magazine called Wired magazine that was titled, variously, “The Economy of Ideas” or “Wine without Bottles.” In this essay, I argued that it would be deucedly difficult to continue to apply the Adam Smithian economic principles regarding the relationship between scarcity and value to any products that could be reproduced and distributed infinitely at zero cost.
I proposed, moreover, that, to the extent that anything might be scarce in such an economy, it would be attention, and that invisibility would be a bad strategy for increasing attention. That, in other words, familiarity might convey more value to information that scarcity would.
I did my best to tell the folks in what is now called “The Content Industry” – the institutions that once arose for the useful purpose of conveying creative expression from one mind to many – that this would be a good time to change their economic model. I proposed that copyright had worked largely because it had been difficult, as a practical matter, to make a book or a record or motion picture film spool.
It was my theory that as soon as all human expression could be reduced into ones and zeros, people would begin to realize what this “stuff” really was and come up with an economic paradigm for rewarding its sources that didn’t seem as futile as claiming to own the wind. Organizations would adapt. The law would change. The notion of “intellectual property,” itself only about 35 years old, would be chucked immediately onto the magnificent ash-heap of Civilization’s idiotic experiments.
Of course, as we now know, I was wrong. Really wrong.
As is my almost pathological inclination, I extended them too much credit. I imputed to institutions the same capacities for adaptability and recognition of the obvious that I assume for humans. But institutions, having the legal system a fundamental part of their genetic code, are not so readily ductile.
This is particularly true in America, where some combination of certainty and control is the actual “deity” before whose altar we worship, and where we have a regular practice of spawning large and inhuman collective organisms that are a kind of meta-parasite. These critters – let’s call them publicly-held corporations – may be made out of humans, but they are not human. Given human folly, that characteristic might be semi-ok if they were actually as cold-bloodedly expedient as I once fancied them – yielding only to the will of the markets and the raw self-interest of their shareholders. But no. They are also symbiotically subject to the “religious beliefs” of those humans who feed in their upper elevations.
Unfortunately, the guys (and they mostly are guys) who’ve been running The Content Industry since it started to die share something like a doctrinal fundamentalism that has led them to such beliefs as the conviction that there’s no difference between listening to a song and shop-lifting a toaster.
Moreover, they dwell in such a sublime state of denial that they think they are stewarding the creative process as it arises in the creative humans they exploit savagely – knowing, as they do, that a creative human would rather be heard than paid – and that they, a bunch of sated old scoundrels nearing retirement would be able to find technological means for wrapping “containers” around “their” “content” that the adolescent electronic Hezbollah they’ve inspired by suing their own customers will neither be smart nor motivated enough to shred whatever pathetic digital bottles their lackeys design.
And so it has been for the last 13 years. The companies that claim the ability to regulate humanity’s Right to Know have been tireless in their endeavors to prevent the inevitable. The won most of the legislative battles in the U.S. and abroad, having purchased all the government money could buy. They even won most of the contests in court. They created digital rights management software schemes that behaved rather like computer viruses.
Indeed, they did about everything they could short of seriously examining the actual economics of the situation – it has never been proven to me that illegal downloads are more like shoplifted goods than viral marketing – or trying to come up with a business model that the market might embrace.
Had it been left to the stewardship of the usual suspects, there would scarcely be a word or a note online that you didn’t have to pay to experience. There would be increasingly little free speech or any consequence, since free speech is not something anyone can own.
Fortunately there were countervailing forces of all sorts, beginning with the wise folks who designed the Internet in the first place. Then there was something called the Electronic Frontier Foundation which I co-founded, along with Mitch Kapor and John Gilmore, back in 1990. Dedicated to the free exchange of useful information in cyberspace, it seemed at times that I had been right in suggesting then that practically every institution of the Industrial Period would try to crush, or at least own, the Internet. That’s a lot of lawyers to have stacked against your cause.
But we had Cory Doctorow.
Had nature not provided us with a Cory Doctorow when we needed one, it would have been necessary for us to invent a time machine and go into the future to fetch another like him. That would be about the only place I can imagine finding such a creature. Cory, as you will learn from his various rants “contained” herein was perfectly suited to the task of subduing the dinosaurs of content.
He’s a little like the guerilla plumber Tuttle in the movie Brazil. Armed with a utility belt of improbable gizmos, a wildly over-clocked mind, a keyboard he uses like a verbal machine gun, and, best of all, a dark sense of humor, he’d go forth against massive industrial forces and return grinning, if a little beat up.
Indeed, many of the essays collected under this dubious title are not only memoirs of his various campaigns but are themselves the very weapons he used in them. Fortunately, he has spared you some of the more sophisticated utilities he employed. He is not battering you with the nerdy technolingo he commands when stacked up against various minutiacrats, but I assure you that he can speak geek with people who, unlike Cory, think they’re being pretty social when they’re staring at the other person’s shoes.
This was a necessary ability. One of the problems that EFF has to contend with is that even though most of our yet-unborn constituency would agree heartily with our central mission – giving everybody everywhere the right to both address and hear everybody everywhere else – the decisions that will determine the eventual viability of that right are being made now and generally in gatherings invisible to the general public, using terminology, whether technical or legal, that would be the verbal equivalent of chloroform to anyone not conversant with such arcana.
I’ve often repeated my belief that the first responsibility of a human being is to be a better ancestor. Thus, it seems fitting that the appearance of this book, which details much of Cory’s time with the EFF, coincides with the appearance of his first-born child, about whom he is a shameless sentimental gusher.
I would like to think that by the time this newest prodigy, Poesy Emmeline Fibonacci Nautilus Taylor Doctorow – you see what I mean about paternal enthusiasm – has reached Cory’s age of truly advanced adolescence, the world will have recognized that there are better ways to regulate the economy of mind than pretending that its products are something like pig iron. But even if it hasn’t, I am certain that the global human discourse will be less encumbered than it would have been had not Cory Doctorow blessed our current little chunk of space/time with his fierce endeavors.
And whatever it is that might be “contained” in the following.