The New Information Economy

The long out of print Alternative Tentacles hardcore compilation, featuring the Dead Kennedys, Bad Brains and Flipper.

There’s a point in Don Letts’ Clash documentary Westway to the World where bassist Paul Simonon talks about the uncertainty that they all felt about their status after they’d signed their first record contract with CBS Records (for £100,000) in January 1977.

“I remember for days afterward me and Joe [Strummer] walking up the street and deliberating over the content of the songs. Like ‘We can’t sing about career opportunities anymore because we’ve now got some cash.’” This is a perfect illustration of a conundrum faced by all of the bands in the first waves of British punk: what exactly constituted success?

Pace whatever radical social or political commitments that they might have espoused, the success condition for the Clash (and for the Sex Pistols, The Slits and The Damned and all the others) was the same as it had been for their precursors in the London pub rock scene, and the same is it had been for every band from Bill Haley and the Comets to Mott the Hoople. Sign a big old record contract and let the checks come rolling in. In that moment, The Clash were faced with a very modern problem: To what (if any) extent is it possible to keep the medium from entirely co-opting the message?

In those days (and for a long time afterward) the record industry could claim to be providing a valuable service to the acts they signed. They did the ground work to take bands (at least some of them) from kind of popular to very, very big, and if they skimmed off the majority of the dough that this generated that was, from the perspective of the artists, just the necessary cost of doing business. But this, of course, put the artists into an unfortunate cycle of dependency, and if most of them would have failed to find fame anyway, the media control exerted by the major labels made such failure even more crushing.

Anyone who knows the history of the Clash will remember the band’s horror at finding that the contract that they had signed was for ten records (rather than the five that they expected.) As Joe Strummer notes bitterly in Westway, “They obviously weren’t going to sit down and talk about Clause 95B with us.” The band was saddled with so many costs and obligations that it wasn’t until their final album that they actually got into positive earning territory. By that time drug abuse and personal conflicts had so fractured the band that they didn’t survive long enough to reap the benefits.

Of course, for the vast majority of bands even this rosy scenario is out of reach. For those that do win the lottery (so to speak) their relationship with their record label is that of a loss leader for that very small class of bands that do actually turn a serious profit, with the loss being born predominantly by the bands themselves. For bands in the various regions of the underground scene, from the hardcore punk and crust scenes to the underground hip hop and electronica communities and beyond, this issue is mostly ignored.

Born Against

Distribution networks operating outside the range of the major media conglomerates were established long before the common availability of internet technology, and the dissemination of that technology has simply facilitated the sorts of exchanges that had existed before. The change now facing both artists and the media corporations is to what extent the rise of easily accessible digital media will make obsolete not only the questions that so perplexed the punks of the 1970s, but the whole system of media production and distribution itself.

The current narrative of the recording industry is one of crisis, with a decade of declining sales and the spread of torrent-based illegal downloading generating a stream of apocalyptic predictions from both artists and executives. The changes that technology has wrought upon the music business are only a more extreme form of those affecting all areas of intellectual and artistic production. At their root is a transformation in the way that information flows (or can flow) through modern societies.

These changes are the subject of a new book by best-selling author and blogger Cory Doctorow with the provocative title, Information Doesn’t Want to Be Free. Doctorow, whose work as a science fiction writer and as co-editor of the legendary boingboing has given him a position of uncommonly informed insight into the changing shape of information, argues that the question is not whether the old business models can thrive in the new information economy. They can’t. The real question is: how will producers of creative and intellectual content be able to take advantage of the ever-increasing information porousness of the modern world.

Doctorow sums up his analysis in three propositions, or laws as he designates them. The first of these is: Any time someone puts a lock on something that belongs to you and won’t give you the key, that lock isn’t there for your benefit. This perfectly expresses one of the ironies of the digital age. Making copies of things (the facilitation of which is the most fundamental innovation associated with digitization) has become so much easier that it threatens to swamp the market entirely. There is, Doctorow correctly notes, a double-edged sword in play here. Success for the creative artist is elusive, and it is in one’s interest as a creator to gain the widest exposure for one’s products in order to have the greatest chance of finding someone willing to actually pay for it.

One of the major roles of the middle men (record labels, publishing houses, and the like) was that they were hooked into networks of production and distribution in such a way as to be able to achieve economies of scale and thereby to provide a service to artists. They could act as (and presented themselves as the only) conduit to wider exposure. But ever since the invention of the cassette recorder, and ever more so in the era of digital reproduction, the fundamental imperative of the middlemen has been to find ways to prevent wider dissemination, or at least to make sure that it doesn’t happen without their getting a bite. As a result, it is standard practice now for media contracts to stipulate that the products will only be issued in formats which the middlemen control.

London Calling
As seen on the BBC.

Admittedly, this has some problems. As Doctorow notes, one study showed that the average time that it takes a cut released on iTunes to makes it into a torrent site is approximately 180 seconds. The distributors of print media have been somewhat more successful in limiting the flow, but the fact that for many major literary releases pirated editions (composed either by scanning or by old fashioned brute force typing) and even pirated translations can generally be found in a matter of days. Still, for the moment, the middlemen have a viable business plan: get paid enough of the time and limit the proportion of those proceeds that leak back to the artists themselves. But the sun is setting on this way of doing business.

Doctorow’s second law addresses one of the central conundrums of the artist: Fame won’t make you rich, but you can’t get rich without it. If the Internet (and digital technology generally) makes practically infinite iterations possible, one of the big services provided by the middlemen disappears. Really, at this point, all something like iTunes does is act as an aggregator so that people who are too lazy to search the web intensively (read: most consumers) can simply one stop shop for other things that sound like the most recent Taylor Swift album.

Doctorow points out that the key now is to find creative ways to raise one’s profile, of which collaborating with some sort of media dissemination entity might be one, but certainly not the only. All the while, Doctorow is careful to keep expectations tamped down. Your chances of real fame via art are vanishingly small. Your chances of earning more than a pittance are also not great. But they are not zero, and they improve at least a bit when you make use of available technologies judiciously.

Doctorow’s third law is a rejection of Whole Earth Catalog founder Stewart Brand’s 1985 bon mot: “On the one hand information wants to be expensive, because it’s so valuable. The right information in the right place just changes your life. On the other hand, information wants to be free, because the cost of getting it out is getting lower and lower all the time. So you have these two fighting against each other.”

Information, Doctorow notes, does not want to be free. This is true in the first instance because, as a thing (as opposed to a person) information doesn’t “want” anything. Doctorow’s rejoinder runs, “Information doesn’t want to be free, people do.” This he offers as a better means of combatting the insistence of media middlemen that not only is rigorous control of information necessary, but that they cannot possibly survive in business if they aren’t allowed to intrude into your computer to protect their own interests. These interests link up with those of the global security community who, as the Snowden files showed, are already actively engaged in penetrating and destroying every vestige of personal privacy.

Nirvana: The figurine licensing clause.
Nirvana: The LEGO licensing clause.

Doctorow’s counter-proposal, as least as regards music, is the issuing of blanket licenses covering various forms of use rather than either dickering over every individual employment or criminalizing users (or demolishing privacy). These would, he argues, not only facilitate a fairer distribution of the proceeds, but also take the pressure off of ISPs to be the cops for the entertainment industry. What Doctorow is seeking to avoid, among other things, is artists getting sucked into the fight on the side of the restrictors and the privacy destroyers (as, for instance, Metallica have done, in a big way.) The system that Doctorow seems to propose is a utopia of small producers and distributors, but does not also preclude the existence of some giants. Unlike so many of the utopias that have been proposed over the years, this one seems eminently achievable.

The implications of the digital revolution, as well as some cognate developments in other areas of production (particularly the increasing availability of 3D printing) have been explored by Jeremy Rifkin in a recent book entitled The Zero Marginal Cost Society: The Internet of Things, the Collaborative Commons, and the Eclipse of Capitalism. Rifkin, a journalist, consultant, and  lecturer at the Wharton School of Business has made a name for himself in the last few decades with a brand of high-octane futurism. While sometimes adopting the role of a Jeremiah, his recent work has focused on the capacity of technology to improve human life. Indeed, his recent work, addressing such topics as biotech and the hydrogen economy, has tended to evince a kind of buoyant, saccharine optimism. Rifkin’s claim in The Zero Marginal Cost Society partakes of just such an outlook.

Rifkin argues that the capacity of items to reproduced digitally, or printed individually, combined with the spread of new attitudes to sharing and consumption constitutes a “third industrial revolution” that will eventually lead to the collapse of the capitalist mode of production. As is so often the case with Rifkin’s writing, he has taken an interesting idea, pumped it up on steroids, and released it into the world.

Rifkin’s idea owes much, whether he acknowledges it or not, to Marx’s claims in the third volume of Kapital on (the law of) the tendency of the rate of profit to fall. For Marx, the underlying reason is a combination of competition and technological development, the latter taking up an ever increasing proportion of capital outlay and reducing that spent on human labor (the only source of profit in Marx’s system). Rifkin operates on a similar principle, but bases himself on the spread of technological means to the population generally, implicitly claiming that Marx’s rigorous topography of class distinctions based on ownership of the means of production has been broken down by the diffusion of computers and related technologies.

Rifkin himself admits at points that zero marginal cost is really a misnomer, and that what is really in play here is very low marginal cost. Some things, computer files and the like, cost the same whether one makes 50 or 50,000. Others, like materials produced by a 3D printer, require a certain amount of material for each iteration (in addition to a large front end outlay). Rifkin’s argument is that the reduction in profitability, in combination with changes in social mores and the attitudes of consumers, will eventually cause the market system to collapse.

Press your own vinyl. VP records, 2007.
2D printing. VP Records, 2007.

As is so often the case with Rifkin’s writings, his arguments sound a lot better before you think them through. His new society is predicated on the proliferation of sensors that will allow people to track and respond to their environment at ever finer levels of granularity, as well as the greatest degree of information porousness technologically available. That this would vitiate any possible remnant of privacy, or that the expansion of sensors to every location (even inside the human body) would lead to a condition of surveillance far surpassing Bentham’s panopticon, are recognized by Rifkin, but not seriously addressed. One man’s technological utopia is another Orwellian nightmare.

But, more worryingly, Rifkin also seems unmoved by another possibility implicit in current developments (and intimately connected to those just mentioned). Rather than a reordering or economic and political life in the direction of a post-capitalist utopia, there is every reason to believe that the outcome of these developments will be a sort of neo-feudalism, as those currently in control of large pools of capital use their position in the global pathways down which goods, information, and power flow to regenerate their structure of social control through globalized structures of debt and resource appropriation.

Both Doctorow and Rifkin are correct to note that we are at a pivotal moment in the development of the digital economy, one at which the changes that will be wrought by it on the broader political and economic formations of the world are still difficult to gauge. Both are correct to see great opportunities for producers of content to achieve greater control over their products and to slip the bonds of the middlemen who currently exploit them.

Of the two, Doctorow has the more realistic take, focusing more on how creators of content can contend with the system as it exists today. But the ideals of each could easily be derailed by the continuing machinations of the forces of information control, both in their media and government guises. If both Doctorow and Rifkin are proposing (more or less practical) utopias, it is nonetheless the case that the very foundations on which such ideals must be built are under immediate and growing threat from a liberal capitalism in the process of metastasizing into something even more sinister.


Photographs courtesy of Septicbreath, Rongem Boyo,  Andrew Becraft, and Christina Xu. Published under a Creative Commons license.

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