Friday, January 29, 2010


I was thinking about the effect piracy had on music once mp3s became readily available. And I was thinking about books. Will the new methods of ebook distribution make books as easily pirated as music? Is the printed book going to end up facing near-extinction?

"Information wants to be free," said a friend. Which is true to an extent. I can type a few words into Google and locate all kinds of free facts, though some are of questionable accuracy. I can read magazines and newspapers online. I use free software to blog for free, Twitter for free, socialize for free, and I've even paid thousands of dollars to travel for a year so that people could read my stories about the world for free.

Putting aside the point that me getting paid for books is barely different than me not getting paid, am I participating in my own demise? Does information inevitably mean to be free?

Yes. No. Maybe. Nothing is free. "Free" is an illusion. Content creation in terms of expertise, music, art, and writing has lost traditional methods of support. Information, however, isn't free. It exacts horrific prices in other areas, most notably in power, raw materials, and environmental impact. When banks try to tell me how "green" it is to get my statement electronically, they are neglecting to mention that the burden of impact has merely shifted. When we talk about information being free, we overlook the cost to Congo which produces minerals for cell phones, or the cost to Sudan where oil continues to drive corporate and governmental interests to terrible ends, we overlook the damage of coal-burning power plants to our environment, and we gleefully talk about how green it is to get our information at the click of a button because we no longer cut down trees, in spite of damaging our environment in dozens of other ways.

I'm utterly guilty in the new world order. I own three aged cell phones full of coltan, two smart phones, one worthless laptop, one slower laptop, one usable laptop, one awesome netbook, one broken iMac, an old car, multiple quickly obsolete video cameras and still cameras, and I fly on unnecessary leisure trips. I love the convenience of going paperless and the modern world enables me to run off to other countries for years on end, while maintaining my life in the US by remote control. In the past, it was aggravating and difficult. I had tax returns sent to me in a hotel room in Bangkok by FedEx. I had my mother chasing bills for me. My nomadic lifestyle is now brought to you by,, and Facebook, which by the way, means I no longer have to abandon my entire social life to go off and have a grand adventure in the desert or jungle.

Am I complicit in a system which is killing off the outlets I am creative in? I blogged before we knew what blogs were. I create content for free and give it away. I love new platforms and embrace them. But there isn't a choice, not really. Complaining and resisting the inevitable doesn't help and anyway, I *love* gadgets. I take things apart because I want to see if they'll work when I put them back together. I have a platform online in a way I never had one on paper. The only publishers who will take my articles are here, on the big, bad Internet.

No action is required on my part. My complicity is essentially irrelevant. Onwards we go, into the world where expertise isn't paid and content is free. The world is changing with or without me. Either way, I won't be getting rich any time soon. But I'd rather be marginally relevant than nothing, so let's get a move-on.


Don said...

Creative people create because we must.
I don't understand this need we have for an audience, which leads to a search for the means to find one and requires the use of resources to reach it.
But, you, me, Picasso, dare I say Jesus, et al share the same trait.
This doesn't make us bad people. We are just feeding our need.

Ed Ward said...

Good rant. It's worth reading the entire essay from which the sound-bite "Information wants to be free" comes from. It's by Stewart Brand, he of the Whole Earth Catalog, and the next sentence, if I'm not mistaken, is "Information also wants to be expensive." The essay is about the tension between those two ideas.

Not monetizing content is going to have to change or there will be catastrophic results in culture and society. The sense of entitlement people now feel towards free content is going to have to be revoked. Fortunately, in Europe we're well behind the curve on this, and with any luck we'll remain so.

Meanwhile, I wonder how I'm going to pay for food and rent for the next couple of months. As usual.