A good friend of mine asked me what I thought of the Lanier article in the NYT. Well, first reaction is that I’m sick of this media narrative:
“Person X was once part of the Digerati. Now they have have turned against it! The fact that they were for it before and are now against it proves something more than people just being against it!”
Blah. I’m done with that narrative. Guess what? Sometimes old people see the error of their ways, and sometimes they just get cranky. The only way to tell the difference is to look at the quality of the argument.
So let’s look at the argument:
In the book he disputes the assertion that there’s no harm in copying a digital music file because you haven’t damaged the original file.
“The same thing could be said if you hacked into a bank and just added money to your online account,” he writes. “The problem in each case is not that you stole from a specific person but that you undermined the artificial scarcities that allow the economy to function.
This is actually a quite elegant metaphor, because it gets to the point: the scarcity is artificial, a construct of law, and the reason we create the scarcity is because supposedly the scarcity results in better art being created.
He then goes on to detail what the recent lack of scarcity has broken:
Sure enough, some musicians have done well selling T-shirts and concert tickets, but it is striking how many of the top-grossing acts began in the predigital era, and how much of today’s music is a mash-up of the old.
“It’s as if culture froze just before it became digitally open, and all we can do now is mine the past like salvagers picking over a garbage dump,” Mr. Lanier writes. Or, to use another of his grim metaphors: “Creative people — the new peasants — come to resemble animals converging on shrinking oases of old media in a depleted desert.”
Really? That doesn’t match anything I’ve seen. I’ve been a music fan my whole life, and I have never seen the array of creativity and talent that I see now in the alternative music scene.
Now does it have superheroes? The Jimi Hendrix that stands up and revolutionizes guitar? The Dave Davies fuzzbox moment? No, because we are in a postmodern era, and because with everyone more connected *more* people take part in the evolution of music. Just as safe sea travel ended the Age of the Explorers, so broadband ended the age of the music superhero. But you know what? It was the age of the music superhero that was the anomaly, not the other way around. It was a one-off. And I’m sorry for Lanier and his experimental music that he missed it, and there are no more openings for a Robert Fripp or Brian Eno, but there’s no more openings to be Sir Hilary or Henry Hudson or Marie Curie anymore either.
For those that can accept the beauty of the new paradigm, music has never been better. For Lanier, I guess, not so much. Which wouldn’t be so bad, except of course he wants to enforce artificial scarcity to get his world of heroes back. It sounds like a weird sci-fi plot to me, frankly, not a reasonable argument.
[Note: that sci-fi plot idea is solely my idea and my idea alone -- DO NOT USE. I'm brilliant, and one day the world will pay me millions in recognition.]