Saturday, June 16, 2007

the information/wealth conundrum

In modern, postindustrial societies, the ability to generate, control, and distribute information is increasingly synonymous with wealth. This must present problems for people-- especially artists-- who believe that (1) wealth is something that should be redistributed to balance out current inequities in society while also believing that (2) an artist should earn what s/he deserves for the work s/he does.

Along come the copyright violators-- the people who, for example, have pirated Michael Moore's new film "Sicko" and placed it on the Web for free, thereby draining potential profits from Moore et al. (NB: Moore himself has claimed he doesn't mind pirating). Such pirating is a form of theft, I agree, but if you're a redistributionist, you're going to have a hard time arguing that pirating is harmful when it is, in fact, the next logical move in the campaign to redistribute wealth.

Personally, I think the war against piracy was lost long ago. The advent of digital information-- information that is both perfectly and rapidly replicable-- means it is now impossible to "contain" a work, to funnel the works' earnings to the people involved in its creation. It's a sad development, to be sure: individuals who spend so much time and effort creating great works should receive their due. But nothing can be done about the problem except, perhaps, to revise our understanding of intellectual property. In the future, it may be that artists will have only one-time rights to their digital creations: they will receive money only during the first wave of production and distribution, and after that point, their works will be free and available to the public.

But that phrase, "their due," leads us to the other side of the coin: while it may be that information is rapidly becoming the equivalent of wealth, it's also true that influence is its own form of capital. An artist might not gain monetary wealth from a work, but if the work is good enough and if the artist is consistent enough, it's possible the artist will nevertheless gain intangible capital in the form of influence. Ryan Wieber and Michael Scott, they of lightsaber dueling fame, strike me as an example of this. It's not just anyone who can do what they do. You can pirate their future works, but you can't be them. Wieber was picked up by George Lucas when the first lightsaber duel video won Lucas's fight choreography contest. That's influence, and it's a direct reflection of artistic and technical merit. The works might be copiable, but the work that goes into them isn't.

When we look at phenomena like blogging and YouTube, we see that people are more than willing to produce digital content for no money because most of them are, on some level, trying to earn that intangible capital, influence. The power to affect and to persuade is nothing to sneeze at. Those who do it well in the information age are often rewarded. How important will money be in an increasingly digital world? Where do you think we're headed?


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