The Value of Free?

This was the title of my last slide at my presentation at the 2010 Columbia Music Conference, one that I didn’t get to because of time, but was probably more important than discussing various filesharing architectures. What is the value of free? When price recedes as a determiner of value, what takes it place?

Because computers function as data-copiers and file-sharers, it’s getting harder and harder to put in place walls that force people to pay for content, whether it’s music, movies, or news. Restrict access too much and you’ll lose your audience. Culture wants to be free. But we live under an economic system where we are required to support ourselves by selling our labor for wages. To spend time making something — a song, video, mashup, blog post — and give it away for free runs counter to the instrumental logic of capitalism. And when more and more people have to work harder for less, such “free labor” can strike some as particularly galling.

Take, for instance, a recent Tweet by Paul Gilroy, a noted left academic who has written several books canonical to cultural studies. A major component of There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack and The Black Atlantic are meditations on the transnational links formed by the fashioning and refashioning of black music forms, arguing that these seemingly distinct genres are in fact a common conversation among the black diaspora. With his focus on reggae and hip hop, forms that have traditionally taken a loose approach to intellectual property, Gilroy might be sympathetic to the ethos of free culture and digital piracy. Or not.

Gilroy is apparently perturbed because someone has scanned and distributed his work. I must say that this sort of activity, if not exactly rampant, certainly has its place in university settings. I myself have shared content in contravention of the established IP rules of my institution; currently, I have professors who use a variety of methods to get articles longer than the allowable page limit to their students. Once it was an entire book. The logic is clear: students tend to be poor, and spend enough on books as it is. Library books are never there when you need them. A better way to make sure everyone’s reading the assignments is to simply scan and upload. But this cuts into several other bottom lines, including Gilroy’s.

It’s the last sentence that strikes me: “Consumer mentality fuels supposed radicalism.” Gilroy posits that the “free culture” move is rooted in the type of late capitalist acquisitiveness that wants as much as it can get for the lowest price possible. Filesharers have found the best sale price — $0.00 — so stock up! I must admit that there’s a kernel of truth there, that plenty of people amass great archives of content in a kind of conspicuous consumption. To troll the web downloading willy-nilly for free has a lot in common with a shopping spree.

But is this really what most people do? Sure, plenty of unapologetic filesharers will dogmatically demand free content while offering nothing in return. But this isn’t everybody. Many filesharers argue that as they become better illegal consumers they become better legal ones as well. “Support the artists you like” is the rallying cry at many a torrent community, and users boast about purchasing albums when they come out, seeing artists on tour, and buying merchandise. They are giving back voluntarily to the artists that give something to them. The value of free is that when content loses its value as a commodity, when exchange value — that value that for Marx quashes all other values — drops to zero,  new values can emerge. Social values. When money can no longer mediate between buyer and seller, smoothing transactions and insulating both sides from each other, we return to an older form of market relations. A deal must be struck.

Gilroy’s follow-up Tweet:

Instead of an etiquette, which is an established code of rules of politeness, I’m rather more excited about the potential of an ethic of digipiracy. An etiquette can only take place within a concrete social group; the dispersed, anonymous nature of the internet makes this types of codes difficult to enforce (not that there aren’t TONS of rules and codes among filesharers). An ethic is a decision one makes regarding the rightness or wrongness of one’s conduct. It is the recognition of responsibility to something beyond oneself. Some ethnographic field work I’ve been doing on flea markets has been instructive. Market situations with a strong social component — old world markets, flea markets, Web 2.0 — lack reassuring price tags and contracts that force social interaction into highly prescribed and regulated behaviors. Instead, both parties must negotiate, and come to an accord that satisfies buyer and seller. If one side bargains to hard, attempts to “get over” on the other side, the risk is not merely a breach of etiquette, but an ethical lapse, a tarnish that potentially jeopardizes future negotiations. Screw someone over, and they’ll remember it, and probably tell their friends.

A negotiation of this sort is happening right now between news publications and their readers over ad-blocking add-ons to web browsers. Digital publications make their money from ad views (not ad clicks, as was the old model). Ad blockers remove the ads, and also the income from the views. Readers with ad-blockers read for free. As Ars Technica and The Guardian point out, this is an ethical problem, a problem in what readers decide they owe the publishers/writers of what they read. (Contrast this to the stark moral and legal language used by the MPAA and RIAA in which free downloading becomes equated with terrorism and evil.) Ken Fisher’s appeal:

My argument is simple: blocking ads can be devastating to the sites you love. I am not making an argument that blocking ads is a form of stealing, or is immoral, or unethical, or makes someone the son of the devil. It can result in people losing their jobs, it can result in less content on any given site, and it definitely can affect the quality of content. It can also put sites into a real advertising death spin. As ad revenues go down, many sites are lured into running advertising of a truly questionable nature.

Ken lays out the repercussions of ad-blocking, and by doing so, makes the economics of web publishing more transparent to readers. He has to demystify the commodity he produces — writing and reporting — by shedding light on the labor processes and social relations undergirdding the text that seemingly magically appears on our computers. Commodity fetishism masks these relationships of production, but when the price tag goes away, the commodity’s status is destabilized. We might have to recognize that there are people working here!

I think in some ways the Internet and its vast anonymity feeds into a culture where many people do not think about the people, the families, the careers that go into producing a website. People talk about how annoying advertisments are, but I’ll tell you what: it’s a lot more annoying and frustrating to have to cut staff and cut benefits because a huge portion of readers block ads. Yet I’ve seen that happen at dozens of great sites over the last few years, Ars included.

Initially, Ars Technica blocked content from anyone with an ad blocker, but this was “bargaining too hard,” and they alienated readers. So they backtracked and did something different. They asked. They appealed to each reader’s sense of obligation to the site, but they didn’t force anything. And in return, if the comments indicate anything, many people complied. The crucial part of an ethical choice is that one must be free to choose.

At the Guardian, a similar discussion emerged. Many readers said they were forced into the use of ad blockers by intrusive and obnoxious ads. A negotiation will have to take place. Perhaps the Guardian can strike a deal with their readers to limit the use of flash ads in exchange for being put on the ad blocker “whitelist.” This deal will be unenforceable and impermanent. The paper will have to make its case to each reader that they have a stake in the continuation of the Guardian. Not just a stake, but a responsibility and a key role.

Ars Technica and The Guardian can make these ethical appeals because of their reputation as publications. Companies with poor reputations will have trouble convincing users to view ads or help them out. I’m thinking of Facebook here, a site that has revealed itself to be callous and insensitive to users’ privacy claims even as it begins to turn a profit. Will the mealy-mouthed Mark Zuckerberg, who seems to lack much in the way of ethics, be able to convince users to unblock ads? This is a two-way street. Users only have obligations to producers who have obligations to them. I might ask Gilroy what he thinks his obligation is to poor graduate students who want to grapple with his work, but have trouble affording to buy books at the bookstore. I bought There Ain’t No Black used off of Amazon — what’s his take on that? To settle this, he’ll have to enter into some kind of relationship with his readers.

I think I was beginning to gesture at this in a previous post on ethical consumption. Western fans, DJs, labels, and producers of dance music from the global south (we’ll avoid the dreaded GG term) were struggling to come to some kind of fair relationship with the creators and originators of these genres. I think the reason this came up was that most of us in the imperial core were getting our reggaeton, funk carioca, kuduro, etc. free from filesharing. For a lot of this stuff, I couldn’t buy it if I wanted to — free was the only way to do it. And though I was suspicious of the motives behind this — I think I was worried lines would start being drawn over who was “doing enough” for the funk back in Rio, for instance — maybe these motives were similar to those readers who unblocked ads on Ars Technica. People felt they owed something to the people making this music they liked and wanted to play with, but they weren’t sure how to do it. So what happened? Some of the more adventurous actually went to these places to meet artists, set up labels, put on shows in Europe and the U.S. Sometimes they worked, sometimes they didn’t, but people connected and experimented, never unproblematically, across borders that in a previous era were all but insurmountable.

This is the value of free. Instrumental relationships are supplanted by social ones. Questions are asked. Positions are negotiated. Thought is created. There are no guarantees.

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3 Responses to The Value of Free?

  1. jim says:

    very cool entry. i like the new blog layout too. keep it up!

  2. w&w says:

    i wonder whether gilroy would consider no longer writing/publishing if all his works circulated freely?

    • Gavin says:

      Interesting question, Wayne. The obvious corollary: should academics encourage the free circulation of their published works? I can see most publishers resisting this, but I’m wondering where the authors stand.

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