Free information vs. no compensation

I wrote this during the Writers’ Strike, when discussions of what writers and other content producers would be paid (and paid for) as print media is replaced by the new paradigm of… cyber-media?  Net media?  I don’t think the strike resolved what we would call the damned thing.  But the confusion doesn’t end there.  A lot of people seemed to believe that it wasn’t the fault of internet companies shortchanging their employees.  Instead, they blamed the internet itself!  Here’s an essay I wrote about one such person, John Lanier.

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I’ve never heard of John Lanier before reading this, but he doesn’t seem to be the “idealist” he describes himself as, but more like a naive bumpkin who got taken by an industry whose sole purpose is to make money.

“Information wants to be free” is a wonderful concept of how ideas and knowledge can and often do travel through society. It is NOT, however, a rule to be followed by software developers and cyber-engineers trying to earn a living. I give Mr. Lanier kudos for realizing this, but he’s still missing the larger picture.

A lot of the Silicon Valley technies (Steve Wozniack, for example) who developed the internet had a philanthropic mindset. The technologies they developed were made to enhance the transmission of information across the globe. It wasn’t for the money, it was for the elevating the possibilites of human communication. But for many hackers and nerds in the early days, these were pet projects, not the source of their bread-and-butter. When the internet first hit big in the mid-1990s, businesses who already had lots of money but were looking to the web for opportunities to get richer threw mounds of money at people and hastily-assembled venture groups who often would play around with new systems, software, and networks. But they often never got around to actually producing sellable products, and the smarter ones retired on their former bosses’ handouts.

When the internet economic bubble burst almost 10 years ago, business finally wised up. Instead of “investing” their money in unreliable people and unproven ideas, they just sat back and let other people try and fail until an idea caught on (like MySpace or YouTube), and then just bought them out. Now a bunch of corporations own large parts of the internet, but they still need creative people to come up with new ideas to compete in the dot-com industry. Apparently Lanier was pollyanna enough to believe that the new bosses would be the same as the old bosses, charitably handing over large sums of cash and giving sensitive techies plenty of space and time to produce at their leisure.

Since working for someone else and not asking for financial security hasn’t worked out quite as well as he planned, he now thinks the problem is the internet itself! See, he and his cohorts made the internet “free” (unless you count the cost of buying a computer and paying for internet access, which apparently he doesn’t), so in his mind the best way to rectify the situation is to redesign internet technology so the net will no longer be “free” but “affordable”.

To help writers and artists earn a living online, software engineers and Internet evangelists need to exercise the power they hold as designers. Information is free on the Internet because we created the system to be that way.

We could design information systems so that people can pay for content — so that anyone has the chance of becoming a widely read author and yet can also be paid. Information could be universally accessible but on an affordable instead of an absolutely free basis.

What he doesn’t seem to realize is that the problem isn’t consumers not paying for content, it’s business not paying for content. Info-technologists don’t have to redesign the entire Internet, they have to redesign their relationship with their employers. Redesigning information technology like the Internet would just pass the cost onto the consumer, while business’s profits would remain unaffected. The corporations that are buying out the Internet piecemeal are trying to pit creative laborers against information consumers, and unfortunately people like Lanier are falling for it.

Think about it this way: if Big Business is having no problem making money on the internet (how many banner ads, spam emails, and pop-ups have you had to deal with today?), how can that SAME internet possibly be to blame for creative workers getting the short end of the stick? If the internet can sustain individual and corporate enterprise (Microsoft, Amazon, eBay, dollar-a-minute camgirls, etc.) but not corporate labor, then the problem is with the corporations internet laborers work for, not the internet itself.

The “religion” isn’t not charging for content, it’s not charging for WORK. Consumers could still get their content for “free” (again, not counting the price of software, etc.) if the internet writers and designers were compensated by the businesses they work for (and the best way to do that is cyber workers’ unions, which is hardly a new idea). Business, to paraphrase Weird Al Yankovic, would just have to settle for the medium-sized jacuzzi.

The idea that the entire Internet needs to be thrown away and redesigned is a very Bill Gates kind of idea: “The old version sucks, let’s come up with a New Version as quickly as possible, make as much money off it as possible, and when flaws and bugs become apparent, just throw it away and build a New New Version. It doesn’t matter how much people invested in the old version OR the New Version, we have no obligation to actually produce a quality product. We just blame everything on the market–or those freeriding p2ps.” If the internet is really supposed to be a sustainable economy, then it can’t be treated as disposable–and neither can its workers and consumers.

Of course, the Internet is not going to be redesigned anytime soon, if ever. It’s egalitarian nature is simply too entrenched. Attepts at a “tiered” internet (where business people have the fast and safe internet and the rest of us have slow and insecure internet) have so far made little progress. Even the creepy plutocratic “Web 2.0” scam never really went further than social networking sites, and even they might go open-sourced one day.

Internet workers and consumers should be united against the Big Businesses that are gouging them both. Charging customers for content only plays into corporate hands. Lanier hasn’t grown up at all–he’s just as naive as ever.

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One Response to “Free information vs. no compensation”

  1. […] was right, I was right, lalalalalaaaa Remember when I said social networking would probably go open source one day? WELL THEY […]

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