Analog Fundamentalism, Digital Ambiguity

From: Kevin Kelly To: Andrew Keen Subject: Absolutism amidst ambiguity Andrew, I’d hate this discussion to get bogged down in the gritty particulars of music copyright. It’s a very well-worn topic, and, like the abortion debate, there seems to be … Read More

By / May 30, 2007
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From: Kevin Kelly To: Andrew Keen Subject: Absolutism amidst ambiguity


I’d hate this discussion to get bogged down in the gritty particulars of music copyright. It’s a very well-worn topic, and, like the abortion debate, there seems to be no middle ground.

A few years ago, before I wrote the infamous “Scan This Book” piece about copyright and books, I published another similar piece for the New York Times Magazine on the future of the music business. In it I outlined how technology has changed the business and the nature of music for the past hundred years, why it will continue to do so, and how people will continue to make music no matter what the business does. I suggested that the attraction of digital music was not just its supposed free-ness but also its liquidity—the ability to mess with, mash up, and manage the music.

Not much has changed since I wrote that article, except that some musicians have adopted my ideas on how they might make their living in the new copy-full world. The funny thing about all the dire predictions about the end of music is that there are more songs released and more musicians playing than ever before. Music is not dying, although the old business practices around it are. In other words, the establishment is changing. And change can hurt.

However, because this is a no-middle debate, I doubt you will be swayed by my arguments on how technology is forever changing the music business (emphasis on business). It is clear that this economic shift is very important to you; indeed, in your book, you attribute your epiphany (that amateurs are at the root of all Internet evil) to the demise and bankruptcy of the Tower Records chain store. When this corporate superstore fell, it felt like music fell, because Tower was the GM of indie music. It kept many small labels going. And if music-as-we-know-it shifts, our sense of self shifts with it. I understand that feeling of loss.

What I don’t understand is this remarkable statement of yours: “I don’t see anything gray about this…It’s people stealing music and movies from their rightful property owners.” According to your logic, the culprits undermining the goodness of the music-business-as-we-knew-it must be the “amateurs” unleashed by new technology. Because when people lose their jobs, who better to blame than people with no jobs? Setting aside that sloppy logic, I’m still baffled by your insistence on seeing black and white where gray reigns. If there were no uncertainty about the old business model, it would not be meeting a steady rising tide of widespread resistance.

Despite the misguided laws, draconian enforcement schemes, and high-priced lobbying financed by the status quo music, publishing, and broadcast industries, there is now more music (and text and movies) being shared than ever, as you admit. Indeed, many musicians (in contrast to music business owners) now also clamor for regime change in the music biz. I don’t believe your ignorance nor your absolutism are so great that you don’t see the inherent ambiguity in digital copyright. I believe that you see the gray, but find it more useful to ignore it and engage in polemic. And I think your absolutism is wrong. We can see the uncertainty in this realm by asking some simple questions:

· If I sing “Happy Birthday” in a restaurant at my kid’s party, am I stealing music?

· If I copy a song—from a CD I have purchased—onto my iPod, am I stealing music?

· If I download a song—found on a CD I have purchased—from a file-sharing network to put on my iPod, am I stealing music?

· If I copy a song—that I have purchased online—to a CD, am I stealing music?

· If I quote three bars of someone else’s song in my song, am I stealing music? Two bars? One bar? One note?

· If I quote three phrases from someone else’s book in my book, am I stealing words?

· If I read a book at a library instead of purchasing it, am I stealing the book?

· If I listen to music at the library instead of purchasing it, am I stealing music?

· If I listen to music—copied from a purchased CD and mounted on the server at work—instead of purchasing it myself, am I stealing music?

· If I listen to music—copied from a purchased CD and mounted on a file-sharing network—instead of purchasing it myself, am I stealing music?

You don’t even need to answer these questions. My point is made simply by the fact that when I show these questions to lawyers, musicians, business people, fans, amateurs, and pros, I get very different answers. There is no clarity. In the last hundred years the mass—the physical weight—of exported economic goods has dropped in proportion to their economic value. We make more desirable and useful things with less material. As goods have dematerialized, they have become more valuable. However, it is not the loss of mass per se that makes them valuable; it is the acquisition of intelligence, design, interaction, and ideas. We are embedding our creations with a bit of ourselves: some of our mind, some of the intangible spirit that makes us alive. So now, rather than having an economy governed by the movement and cost of matter, we have an economy that is increasingly governed by the movement and cost of ideas. But there’s a big problem with an economy of ideas. An economy requires a system-wide rule of law that will reward both innovation and the commons. Over many centuries we evolved a very good set of laws to govern property rights. We can all agree that the U.S. struck the right balance in the trade-off between protecting inventors, artists, and entrepreneurs for their risks in creation, while feeding their creations back to the commons as fast as possible for the benefit of society. That worked great for an economy run on matter—an economy in which it was very clear who owned what.
Ownership of ideas and digital copies is almost an oxymoron. As Thomas Jefferson himself noted, ideas are problematic because I can give you my idea and yet I still have it. Often my idea increases in value the more people share it. Who owns the idea in your head if I gain value from it? Can you return an idea? Even more complicated is the fact that any idea is valueless by itself; it only has value as part of a web of other ideas, which others may claim as theirs. Remove those supporting ideas and the new idea is empty.

We also admit that many ideas are unowned, or unownable. As we use high technology to generate and discover new ideas (combinatorial sweeps, etc.), it is becoming harder to distinguish between obvious and non-obvious ideas, between concepts and information that can be claimed by us, and concepts and information that have always been out there in the commons. Digital creations share some of these almost metaphysical qualities. They spin off copies all the time in the course of their creation, distribution, storage, transmission, and consumption. These copies have nothing to do with property.

In fact, the more one delves into the nature of property—how does one own a gene, say?—the more uncertain the fundamental notion of ownership becomes. Can one own a note of music, a particular sound? Can you own someone else’s rendition of your song? What does it mean to own it if everyone in the world is singing it in their heads? Do you own all of a song, or just parts of it? If you use computer software to create the music do the “owners” of the software own part of it? These are unanswerable in the generic, and, in many cases, unanswerable in the specific.

Anyone holding a gadget can see how it is transmitting not just electrons but also ambiguity. The paradoxes of information (what is information anyway?) buckle under the old rules, and everyone can smell this. The natural rules of ideas are not clear and evident.

Yet you cast it as an unambiguous black-and-white conflict, the good guys and the bad guys, angels on one side and the devil on the other. “When I look at today’s Internet, I see the eruption of rampant intellectual property theft, extreme pornography, sexual promiscuity, plagiarism, gambling, contempt for order, intellectual inanity, crime, a culture of anonymity, hatred toward authority, incessant spam, and a trash heap of user-generated content.” My goodness, what fundamentalism!

The problem with this good/evil absolutism is that it belittles the truly evil things we ought to be righteous about. Let’s start with unjustified war, ethnocide, and infanticide, as examples.

The second problem with this absolutist view is that it hurts your own agenda. I sympathize with some of your concerns, particularly with respect to “fragmenting the self into a series of invented beings.” Many people, myself included, would agree with you that our identities are turning into “a hall of mirrors.” It is becoming harder and harder to answer the once-obvious questions—what does it mean to be a male or female, an American, or even a human? But when you suggest that the students copying music online are “thieves” or “digital narcissists,” this is small-minded trash talk. Where does this impulse to degrade come from? When you suggest that the Internet has brought us a world of sin—that millions of ordinary people around the world who are pouring their time, energy, and creativity into building it (the fastest, largest human construction ever)—have really just sold their souls to the devil, almost no one believes you. Five minutes with any student who’s been blatantly downloading music will tell you that they are not cagey pickpockets but aliens in a strange land; not pirates, but lost pioneers; not devilish, but generous; and very aware of the karmic debt they intend to repay. And they will.

So when we can’t believe you on that trumped-up charge, it’s hard to take you seriously on the rest.


Next: The Cult of the Audience

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