A funny thing happened on the way to the market. Evidence points to millions of computer users (internalizers or “consumers” of electronic information) who have realized there are alternative markets for the particular information they seek.
Whether it’s a movie, a song or the process for deriving a cancer or AIDS-fighting drug, there are hopeful hints that for the first time in centuries there may arise a strong challenge to the notion of privatized intellectual property. An Economics 101 student might see in this new, consumer-generated market trend a sort “creative destruction” and assume that soon traditional media and perhaps the patent dictatorships that serve as a lifeline to obsolete companies will wither away as the inefficient distributors of information they indeed have shown themselves to be.
For example, we don’t have milkmen anymore, and this job we could say was lost to new distribution and consumption patterns enabled by the refrigerator through the process of creative destruction. Technology made it more efficient to deliver thousands of gallons of milk in a day to refrigerated supermarkets (and then refrigerated kitchens) instead of dozens of gallons.
This efficiency you might argue, did cost thousands of milkmen their jobs, but it made the process of buying milk easier for the consumer and perhaps in some instances cheaper. The efficiencies of new technologies also created many benefits for certain bigger milk companies who saved millions in transportation costs, loss-of-product costs and worker costs. Trapping these types of benefits into huge profits for a small number of individuals is how huge fortunes are made. (You might wonder why some people keep all the benefits when so many worked to develop and generate them, but then you might be labeled envious, or even socialist).
These types of benefits, on a scale closer to the oil racket (which also surveys for the shallowest discoveries), easily explain why the entertainment industry is so rabidly opposed to information “piracy.” These types of profits also explain why Big Pharma and their legal thugs defend patent laws with such corporate-funded furor. The problem here, the cause for alarmed intellectual dictatorships, isn’t milkmen losing their “must have” jobs. The cause of this legal and legislative aggression from these industries is the already-wealthy losing out on “really want” millions.
If we examine the worldwide fight against to SOPA, PIPA and ACTA, Anonymous’ long-waged guerrilla campaign against intellectual property, as well as the worldwide struggle to liberate simple available chemical formulas for life-saving drugs, we find at the heart of these struggles a very interesting similarity: the demand that privatized information be released for public consumption. The three movements represent different points on a spectrum but they already represent a consumer based drive for information efficiency. The power players of these industries (from Big Pharma to Big Law to Hollywood and ironically enough tax-enabled web-based firms) for all their profiteering bravado, are existentially mortified by this reality smackdown from the “invisible hand” of the market.
The big dogs of these industries now have a mastered chokehold on distributing the information people want or need. These companies know perfectly well this dictatorial (and legally enforced) grip is where their profits come from and they’re not likely to give up their sources of overabundant wealth. (You could imagine a system where people aren’t coerced into purchasing information by a consolidated and profiteered market but that might make you a believer in economic or information democracy, and again possibly a socialist.)
Like many long-time inheritors of economic advantage, the entertainment industry, much like Big Pharma, constantly portrays the delusional narrative of cutting edge innovation (as displayed in era-defining originals Die Hard 4 and Jason 10) constantly being undermined by near-terrorist “pirates” who ruin “what could be” by stealing billions of potential profit they pinky-swear they’ll invest into bringing you a better product. (You could point out that they could have done that in the first place and paid themselves a few less million while bringing the consumer a better product, but then you might be labeled logical.)
The fact that a narrative so “patently false” maintains onward is a testament to how much money and effort has been used to project and defend it. This narrative is a direct statement of the types of market control sought by Big Media and Big Pharma (to name a few) along with their well paid friends in the legal departments.
Over the last hundred years the music and movie industries have done exceedingly well (speaking strictly on a metric of personal financial advantage, not on quality). Having created many volumes of expensive, not-yet-electronic data (in the form of mostly materialistic, ego-centric media like pop movies and culture) in formats they could control (an expensive projection set-up or vynil pressing machine as opposed to the relatively cheap alternative of a folk song strummed in the city square or the process of uploading a home-made tune from GarageBand to share freely) the entertainment industry made trillions in profit over the course of a century.
Prohibitive production costs, limited consumption venues and ultimately very protective legislation have kept them in the profits from the post World War I era until our very day. As Americans slowly accrued more expendable income, the entertainment industry was quick to offer their products, for a fee, through very well controlled methods of distribution (from theaters to eventually VHS and DVD’s, both of which made the industry even richer).
For three or four generations this status quo was presumed to be unquestionable. Not anymore. As the data people want has become more fluid, in this case transportable electronically through the web, consumers and activists alike are seeing the possibility of information democracy. Across North America and Europe activists online and in the streets have come out fighting against increasingly restrictive and punishing “piracy” laws. A very similar trend can be seen in developing countries who are kicking off the bridle of billionaire-protecting patents that make simple medicine mortally expensive for millions of human beings.
Forced by present economic, distribution and consumption conditions, but enabled by present technology, consumers are increasingly toying with the idea of grabbing the information they either want or need. Whether it’s a movie or the formula for much needed medication, there is a growing feeling that much currently available information should be used to alleviate suffering or improve life, regardless of the obsolete considerations of profit.
In many ways, Anonymous’ lulzboat armada all-cannons world struggle against any and all intellectual property dictatorships defines the heart of the position that unites the “song-pirate” and the pharmaceutical-formula-pirate. At this heart is a premise that there should be a total democracy of information–all information. Human innovations are inherently based off the work of billions of previous humans. From fire to replaceable parts, from written language to complex physics, the heritage of human knowledge is something that we all feel compelled to contribute to for one simple reason: we have all benefited from it. This complex tapestry of innovative and productive contributions from billions of humans before us has long served all memers of humanity (though some more than others). All human innovation (even the use of such innovations like the very reading of the word “innovations” with a specific shared meaning) are at least in some way based off ideas developed, curated, crowd-sourced, circulated and maintained through shared heritage by billions and billions of other human beings.
Illegally downloading information that unpacks into a song may be motivated towards different ends then illegally using information to develop and distribute medication in a developing country but both actions are driven by the same moral and logical engine: the current information dictatorships are inefficient and illegitimate. Alternatives will be found or created. Not from above, but from below.
What we dismiss as piracy and patent-theft today we may soon be describing as information democracy. The future is the only thing murkier than the past but perhaps with the right effort, there may be one hopeful morning when information freed from profit-driven dictatorships is viewed and legally treated as a human right, and not a crime. As for those who say innovation is solely driven by avarice and an addiction to profit, we can only offer our condolences for their cynical and moribund worldview.
Image: Christopher Teh