Why work for nothing? (4)

The idea of ownership is important to our sense of ourselves. Most of us have at least a few possessions which we feel are really part of us, which somehow help to define us. I have thousands of books, reflecting the development of English literature from Chaucer onwards, most of which I rarely look at, but each one is linked to a moment in my past. Whenever I’ve moved house, getting my books up on shelves has been fairly high on my list of priorities.

And yet things are changing. I used to feel much the same way about my music collection, which includes vinyl and CDs, and I still value those old sleeves and covers as design objects. But the only time I’ve bought a physical CD in recent years is at gigs. Otherwise it’s all been (paid-for) downloads, and at a stroke what was quite an important part of male socialisation (the inspection of the record collection as a ready way to judge someone’s taste and intelligence) has all but disappeared.

Packaged music itself has proved a short-lived phenomenon. Recorded music has only been with us for a hundred years, and slickly packaged good quality recordings for far less than that. Formats have shifted in that time, and it seems that even the desire for ownership itself may be a generational thing: a lot of people now are using streaming services like Spotify as their primary source of music. There’s something grimly ironic about this, because much as though the internet seemed to offer radical disintermediation (that is, connecting creative people directly with their audiences) the only people making money out of Spotify are the service’s owners and the record labels.

This may be a temporary aberration, which will work itself out as musicians renegotiate their terms with their audience. Musicians are fortunate in that they have (just about) alternative sources of income, through playing gigs and perhaps teaching. It may be in the future they will also work out better ways of being paid for recorded music, or it may not. The second half of the twentieth century was a unique period in western culture, when new technologies made the mass distribution and sale of recorded music possible, and with it the possibility of making significant money from your efforts. It might be that we will revert to a situation where you can only get paid for live performance, or through some kind of patronage, as it was in the past. It may be that we have to lose the social mobility that for a few decades was associated with being creative.

The situation is slightly different for writers. It’s true that it’s becoming harder and harder to make much of a living through sales of books, but book sales themselves have not entirely collapsed. The business of publishing is certainly changing, with self-publishing lifting itself from the mire of vanity publishing.

There’s loss and gain here. The changed economics of digital publishing (where there is no marginal cost associated with each ebook produced/sold) means it should be far easier for poets and literary writers to get their work out to what are now niche audiences: they should even expect to keep the greater part of the cover price, so digital publishing offers a viable route to a readership.

The loss is that doing so means joining in the cacophony of stuff out there, with accordingly diminished chances of being heard. Some have expressed concerns too about diminishing quality because traditional publishers imposed an editorial layer before a text saw the light of day, but this is to confuse a relatively simple task with a complex economic structure: there’s no reason why writers cannot themselves seek out editors and work with them before self-publishing, just as there is no reason why the marketing and design services which remain a publisher’s only raison d’etre could not be offered as a standalone and properly costed option.

Before getting too excited about this brave new world we should be concerned that a single commercial entity has become monopolistically dominant. To be fair the deal Amazon offers authors is a pretty good one compared to traditional publishers, and better reflects the vastly lower intermediary cost of publishing electronically.

But there’s plenty to dislike about Amazon’s corporate ethics, to the point where creative people of good will might reasonably not want to contribute to its profits. More directly there’s a twist in the whole concept of ownership: notoriously when Amazon was caught in a copyright dispute people who had bought ebooks in good faith suddenly found they could no longer open them.

Amazon acted to correct what it claimed was a mistake, but there must be an underlying worry that something we’ve come to take for granted as a public property (ie the book format itself) is being privatised, because we will depend on the goodwill of a commercial entity for its continued use (this is directly analogous to the problem with GM foods, discussed in a previous entry in this series).

This worry runs through much of what’s going on as we adjust to the omnipresence of the internet. The UK government recently, rightly, expressed concern that much official information is created and stored in a proprietary document format: Microsoft’s doc or docx. Right now I’m sure Microsoft has no intention of going under or restricting access to those formats (it also moved a few years ago to make the docx format “open”, though no one was really fooled), but we should not be comfortable with this dependence, especially when there is a ready alternative in something called ODF (open document format).

ODF is not only “open source” (in that its code is freely available to other developers) but is managed through an open licence, which means that it’s not owned by anyone. It was created and is maintained by net activists concerned to defend the promise of the internet, its promise to empower us all. It sits at the heart of LibreOffice and OpenOffice, which themselves are created and maintained by a mixture of volunteers and engineering time donated by big sponsors. Many of these people work for free because they believe that activities we once did without proprietary qualm (like writing) should not be tied to any kind of corporate control or interests.

So here’s the paradox. The internet promises to open up everything. It appears to be transferring the power once concentrated in the hands of commercial publishers (who controlled distribution) directly into the hands of artists, writers and musicians, so they can manage a direct relationship with their audiences. But the reality is different.

We’re in danger of becoming more and more dependent on just a few mega platforms: Google, Amazon, Facebook, and perhaps Apple and Microsoft. We’re becoming dependent on them to do amazing things, which is why we have turned to them in the first place, but more worryingly those advanced things have wrapped themselves around more basic things which we also still need to do. The internet seems to be enabling a social new model of connected smaller communities who can share interests and resources, but beneath lie just a few monolithic corporations.

I suggested at the outset that creative people might have to accept the brief period where they could make a reasonable living from publishing or recording has come to an end, and that they would have to look to other means to fund their creative habit (actually poets have been in this position for a long time).

But it’s not as if there is no money going through the system, and all things considered it seems the creative people are getting a raw deal. It’s true that Google has various schemes to share advertising revenue, but it and the other monoliths are sucking up the greater part of it for themselves.

Datacentres and the networks that link them cost money to run and set up, and the corporations who do so can’t be expected to do so for free, but right now the market is not proving effective at bringing forward and rewarding the real creation of value in all this. This big connectivity is in truth a commodity. and though the search or shop software at the front end is important, what gives it real value are the resources or content available through that front end. But this simple truth is being obscured by the general upheaval surrounding the multiple impacts of the internet. We’re all creating stuff for free, and even feeling grateful to the platforms for allowing us to share it so easily, happily letting them make money off our “eyeballs” as advertising targets, and recklessly ceding our privacy in the process.

We need to worry more about this. I don’t doubt the integrity of Google founders Brin and Page with their “don’t be evil mantra”, though more corporate minds like chairman Eric Schmidt’s are not in the same space (which is to say nothing of Amazon’s Jeff Bezos). And that’s the point: ordinary corporate minds would need to evolve before they could be trusted with the role they are taking on.

In the meantime the cracks are beginning to show. As I write the giant France-based publisher Hachette is locked in a dispute with Amazon about discounts and prices. There’s an obvious irony in holding up a traditional publisher as some kind of white knight, but there may be comfort in the implicit assertion of the value of the content over the value of the platform and I really hope Hachette sticks to its guns.

If the internet is to fulfil its true potential for social liberation we need serious commons-minded alternatives to these commercially-driven platforms. There are it’s true many smaller scale publishing sites, for different media, but they seem mostly invisible in the shadow of the monoliths.

All the same, the future might be very different from the way things are now. In a recent address to the RSA Jeremy Rifkin speculated on the possible radical impact of zero marginal costs, 3D printing and home-generated renewable energy. He argues that the non-profit “social commons” already represents over five per cent of GDP in the US, Canada and the UK. It is growing faster than global markets, and it will change everything. He under-describes the economic tensions in that growth but there’s a compelling vision beyond those tensions, a vision of a society transformed by collaboration, sharing and self-production, where money has far less presence and importance (because there is far less scope for corporate profit).

In this model ownership becomes less significant than access. Why own a car if there are better ways to secure efficient convenient personal mobility? This kind of shift would require supportive change across our economy and infrastructure, but then the way we’re managing these things at the moment is literally unsustainable. Perhaps we will get to a future where creativity is better valued among other exchangeable goods, a world where people are no longer working for nothing, but for a sustainable, comfortable and natural common good.

That probably sounds idealistic, but it may yet prove more realistic than a society in which a tiny minority grows rich beyond its spending powers from the unrewarded efforts of the vast majority.

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