Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Free Beer and Swords

I imagine I am not unlike a significant fraction of you, dear readers, in that I like to leave a nice, generous space between waking up and getting up. I like to fill that space with the reassuring tones of CBC radio (if for no other reason than it’s pretty much the only thing you can listen to on the radio unless your interests are “the same awful – read: popular – music over and over again” or “trying to solve your midlife crisis with a liberal application of hair metal”*) Today, I awoke to a very compelling treatise on economics, in particular the “hidden” or “deferred” costs of our purchases: Raj Patel*’s The Value of Nothing. The author’s first example was an icon of western consumer culture – the hamburger. A hamburger will run you about $4 under our present economic system. Calculate the overall resource use, social and environmental damage, what you might call the “true” cost of a burger, and you end up with a figure (supposedly) approaching $200. Where’s your “value menu” now, Ronald? This is but the tip of the iceberg, of course. Approaching “Third World Debt”, Mr. Patel invited listeners to consider that what “they owe us”, in terms of loan repayments and the like, is nothing in comparison to what we owe them as recompense for what we take (in, among other things, natural resources)***.

*As solutions go, I suppose this isn’t bad.

** You can find the interview here (scroll down to part 2), which I reccomend you listen to because a) it's actually quite engaging and b) this dude has a fantastic voice.

***Political realism would suggest that you can’t really call this a ‘debt’. After all, ‘debt’ on the international level is what you can effectively demand from other governments. In other words, we’re living in a great spherical high school where the bullies are free to live off the lunch money of the weak.

Not all of the “true cost” of that hamburger is extracted from poor nations, however; look into your own pocketbook, and you may find a very unwelcome siphon.  With your tax dollars* you’re subsidizing the criminally low wages that the hamburger joint is allowed to pay its employees. With your tax dollars you are paying for a healthcare system that is someday going to have to deal with the great reckoning of cholesterol and sucrose. With your tax dollars, you’re ideally going to be paying to counteract the environmental and climactic effects of all the deforestation and diesel-burning that goes on in the name of cheap meat.  Whenever someone says they are “I am passing the savings along to you”, what they probably mean is “I am passing the costs along to you, minus the sticker shock”. If - having become aware of this burden - you are uncomfortable with it, you’ve got a few options. The simplest of these is to try and rein in the excesses of the free market with legislation; you know, what we’ve ostensibly been trying to do pretty much since the industrial revolution. This is at least a serviceable option, but just how many asterisks can we append to the statement “Free markets are the best way of providing services” before we entertain the notion that just maybe we’re dealing with more than just errata?

*Ok so probably not many of you pay taxes. But you will.

Raj Patel’s ideas about a more just economic system seemed to hinge on what we might call “The Commons”, a useful concept which is also invoked in the work of Lawrence Lessig (and, as we will see, the two are very much connected). Most people, Patel said, hear commons and think:

Commons - a physical space which people are free to access without bias (in this case, the big field).

But it’s really more useful to think of The Commons in terms of resources. Space is a valuable resource; indeed many a developer would likely love nothing more than to pave over land with the kind of property value that a municipal commons must have! However, people like to have space, but individually can’t all afford to own little chunks. Allowing private development might create more wealth than leaving the commons as they are, but that wealth would be restricted to a select few. As a society, we’re okay with a certain amount of inequality, but we have decided that access to recreational space is something that we’d like everyone to have. What Patel (and also Lessig, but I’ll get to that later) seemed to me to be arguing is that we as a society should perhaps raise the bar a little. We should declare a few more resources to be made ownerless such that they can be shared by all, regardless of individual wealth.  Before the consolidation of capital into wealthy hands, we had de facto rules for managing these resources to ensure that they were equitably divided and – more importantly – preserved for the future.

If you’ve read Lawrence Lessig, you’ll find a lot of this very familiar. Just as the consolidation of capital in the hands of the few deprived so many independent craftspeople of their livelihoods, Lessig might say that the consolidation of content in the claws of communications conglomerates is doing much the same to creators who choose to operate outside the world of studios and record labels. Enter the Census (sic) of Files Available on Bittorrent*, which I stumbled upon this morning with thoughts of alternate economic systems lodged firmly in mind.

*As it is a mere representative sample, the term Census is somewhat misapplied.

So the data suggest that piracy is pretty much the rule on the ol’ inter-tubes. The comments on the article seem to be about a 2:1 mix of “people who might be free-culture moderates”:“people who are peeved at the cultural prevalence of theft on the internet”.  To my mind, one of the more interesting comments is:

“Of course, given that copyright has been a part of our history since long before the existence of the internet, it shouldn't surprise us that the number of cultural artifacts under copyright vastly outnumber the number outside of it.”

The piracy we see now could be a transitional phase on the way to a new model of culture. That’s probably not much of a relief to the purveyors of content, but then there’s not really anything they can do anyway, right? Zearle's* Hackers and Crackers proposes that warez are a form of liberation from economic oppression. After all, the creative power afforded by programs like photoshop and maya is only available to those who can, well, afford them. Now, from the data in this study it would look like the majority of bittorrent users are pirating tv and movies (also porn), not content-creation programs with which to empower themselves. It would be too easy to write this kind of behaviour off as lazy, cut-and-dry theft. Consider the following:

I'm not ok with the fact that 99% of the culture that people want to share is somehow "owned" by someone. That's not how culture works, and trying to force it to work that way simply ends up destroying that culture. Culture is fundamentally a shared experience. Take away our ability to share it freely and what you have is at best commerce, not culture.”

* I have written about Zearle in the past with...interesting results.

I could not tell you just how politically-motivated your average bittorrent user is, but I know that as a student I can't really afford to buy new DVDs, for example. Does that make downloading them on Bittorrent a form of protest? I don't really imagine so. What, however, is the net difference to the creator if I download something as opposed to buying it used, or from value village? I don't think the producers, creators, actors, set designers, etc. see an additional penny either way. Bittorrent happens to be the cheaper option for me, it has a superior user interface, and better selection to boot. Probably there will never be a paid option as compelling as bittorrent, nor perhaps could there be. If we're lucky, though, there won't have to be. Enter some alternative economic systems.

Frankly, we have opened the can of worms when it comes to free and ubiquitous copying; I don't believe there is really any hope – not in the near- to mid-term, at any rate – of returning to some gloriously ignorant past. The question, then, isn't how we go about ending piracy by force, but how we establish a relationship with creators in which no one starves. And we all get to enjoy our favourite TV show or whatever. There are at present a number of schools of thought on this issue, which can be generalized under the heading “post-scarcity economics”. That's probably an oxymoron to at least one of you reading this, isn't it? Economics is all about supply and demand; what do you DO when you've the capacity to all but eliminate both (even for just a subset of all possible commodities)? A surprisingly coherent answer is “sell what cannot be copied”. Sell a personalized experience that simply won't have the same kind of value to another person. So what if someone gives away a virtual concert, programmed to sound as though it were performed in their very own living room (as per an example in the linked article)? It won't be the same thing to anyone else, unless perhaps they recreate the space themselves! It's not a bad notion, and it does dovetail nicely with some of the other options I am about to explore, but I don't find it without weakness. Like the business model we're heading away from, this sort of philosophy will seem just as antiquated as the onward progress of technology slowly erodes the list of “things beyond copying”. Some sound devices already come with a calibration utility to help you arrange audio channels in an ideal way to suit the space, so what happens when we develop the technology to take an audio file and have it sound as though it is being played live in any given space?

As long as we keep the current paradigm of money, I think it's safe to say that people will try to save as much as possible. Would adopting an alternative currency help the situation? Consider the notion of “Whuffie”, which is sort of like a measure of prestige, or social credit. You can see this kind of system pop up in the fiction of several Science Fiction authors, among them Cory Doctorow (who coined the term) and Charles Stross (pretty much everything past the near-future in Accelerando). What I find interesting about this system is that it allows for a person who would in any other case be materially poor to live quite happily through their reputation. Where we tend to measure wealth in terms of purchasing power, liquid assets, etc, social credit systems are – as I understand them – a complex interplay of favours and loans with your integrity as collateral. Let's look at an individual – say Richard Stallman – under the lens of two different kinds of wealth measurement. We might expect, under traditional economics, to see a wealth breakdown that looks something like this:

But I would argue that even in our world of hard currency this doesn't REALLY measure all available wealth. I mean, think of all the free software geeks who would buy the dude a beer, or put him up for a night or several, or buy him a katana because of xkcd. We're not really accounting for the value of what this guy could have if he really wanted. Below is a chart more reflective of social credit:

Sweet Jesus the man is made of free beer and swords!

(I officially disclaim any relationship of these charts to the actual wealth of Richard Stallman, this is just an amusing example because who else can count both free beer and katanas in their pool of potential wealth?)

The idea of social credit based accounting is an interesting one, and its pretty internally-consistent. Where does all the beer come from? Well, if you make good beer, that's the kind of social credit that can probably alleviate most of your material concerns. Just sponge off people and provide delicious brew in return, right? Of course, if we follow this "who would you buy a beer" logic too far, you start to wonder at what point the beer itself shouldn't just become the currency?

The wonderful thing about beer-as-currency is that it allows for denominations which are currently impossible. To wit: behold the minus-ten-dollar bill bottle!

The obvious issue with a social-currency based economy is more or less evident when you consider the kind of person proposing it: they command a great deal of respect, they produce content, and they're active participants in at least some kind of community (online or otherwise). The pressure to make something that other people will like enough to credit you is kind of analogous to the struggle faced by the starving artist in present economics, isn't it?

I think we're so used to thinking of ourselves as consumers that we almost don't consider what we are actually doing. I'm creating something right now. I took my camera to school with me, and on the way both there and back I did even more creating! As I have said, with the means of production becoming cheaper and cheaper (on the software side moreso, perhaps) there are fewer hurdles between you and creative expression than there have ever been in history, more or less! And speaking of the commons and cameras, there is no better story to illustrate why the former is so important than that of the legal status of the latter. The whole story is - I believe - contained in Free Culture, but here's the deal: you can take photographs in public, and pretty much only famous people have any veto power over that. If the law had not sided with photographers, and made permission necessary, think of just how few people would actually take up photography as a hobby...or even as a career. After all, what would stop people from charging exorbitant amounts for the use of their image, if that was their perogative? Photographers enjoy a magnificently expansive commons, and pretty much everyone is the better for it. Without ubiquitous photography, we would be lacking not only a key technology which helps us archive our lives, we would be giving up an art form and a powerful ally in the service of democratic accountability (read: we couldn't really take pictures of police brutality)!

I'll upload more later, but for now my internet service is uncooperative. The Wonderful thing about creating is that it doesn't have to be a "good once only" kind of thing; by applying a Creative Commons license to my photographs, these become a potential springboard for future creativity....even a gift of sorts. Even better, the terms of the license stipulate that any derivative works YOU make have to be shared on the same terms - the gift keeps on giving!



Mark Herpel said...

Great post, I was reading it all set to write you a nasty note because your traditional economy model had way to small of a budget for beer...that was just not realistic. Then I can to the Whuffie budget...now that's more like it. So I'll leave you with something to ponder... "24 hours in a day-24 beers in a case, coincidence?"

Mark Herpel
Community Currency Magazine

King of the Paupers said...

"Would adopting an alternative currency help the situation? Consider the notion of “Whuffie”, which is sort of like a measure of prestige, or social credit."
Jct: That social credit measure is an Hour of human volunteer time.
"You can see this kind of system pop up in the fiction of several Science Fiction authors. What I find interesting about this system is that it allows for a person who would in any other case be materially poor to live quite happily through their reputation."
Jct: Reputation for returning the time they borrowed from the group is their reputation.
"Where we tend to measure wealth in terms of purchasing power, liquid assets, etc, social credit systems are – as I understand them – a complex interplay of favours and loans with your integrity as collateral."
Jct: Yes, your integrity in returning the time owed is all necessary to use UNILETS timebased currency

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