Why homebrew digital culture needs to get paid.

By Tasman Richardson

I was reading over the brilliant essay by Jaron Lanier recently and I was inspired to post this blog. Lanier for those of you too young to remember (or too old to have heard of it in the first place), is the renaissance scientist/artist who coined the phrase virtual reality in the 80s and founded VPL Research. Since then he’s been praised in Wired, Harpers, Forbes, and was even named one of the most influential people in the world by Time magazine in 2010. I share many of his opinions although only in a very broad general way and nothing near as complex and well thought out. So, if you’re looking for real food for thought and you don’t mind a BIG meal then I strongly recommend you check out the interview here. If on the other hand, you’d like a nice light snack, read on.

The internet is a market where you are the product. We’re giving away our hearts and minds in return for fame, and not much else. YouTube encourages us to broadcast ourselves, and if your following grows enough you can even make a small income by plastering your videos with pop up text and ads. You Tube is a free service, in the sense that, all the content you provided gets shown for free. Of course, without the content, there would be no YouTube, but since we’ve all resigned ourselves to being disposable culture makers, I guess we’ll just leave it there.

Facebook needs no introduction as a social media giant. The online service provides the infrastructure to post your location, activities, interests, age, gender, events, photos, videos, and just about anything else you can divulge. It’s a vast profiling machine that, could conceivably (according to the Telegraph) sell information provided by its users.  But hold on, aren’t the members  of Facebook the same thing as customers? Not at all, they use the service for free whereas the real customer is the one that pays.

Free services are never free. It’s not about barter either, since none of these services adjust quality of service to match the separate values of each individual user contribution. Their goal is to draw participation in vast numbers with the hope of generating a stable ecosystem of cost free producers.

There’s a contradiction here, in which people seek out, and appreciate independent music, film, and culture while at the same time feeling it has no monetary value. The demand is strong, but maybe the supply is too saturated? Since everyone has been enabled to be a basement producer, does it make all that new indie art less valuable? Apple started out by giving many consumers the ability to generate their own content. There was a big push towards user friendly editing and composing tools like iMovie and Garage Band but with the advent of the iPhone and iPad, that direction has been curtailed. More and more the focus is on portable devices that drive content consumption. It’s as if, having convinced everyone to make content for free, companies have then managed to get us consuming our own content for a charge.

In this case, the royal “we” is anyone who has ever posted and it’s safe to say, that may include anyone reading this. In effect, we are sold to ourselves. Until we can agree to slow digital consumption, we’ll never be able to avoid saturation, and with it, a feeling that all this culture is just a temporary distraction. Just because we can collect terabytes of music, books, and video, doesn’t mean we should. It’s not enablement, its paralysis. Many of us have grown up with the internet and the internet has grown up with us. Like children in a candy store we have gorged ourselves on novelty and newness. Now, as we and the internet mature together, it will take restraint and focus to make the best use of it, and ensure a strong, healthy, sustainable digital culture.

It starts when we value our own cultural creations enough to pay for them. It also means giving feedback to companies about existing practices and new directions we want to head into. Service providers could encourage content creation by offering discounts to customers that upload more than they download. Above all, keeping a balance between input and output means we’ll avoid being pigeon holed into categories like “producer” and “consumer”. If we can stop gorging on the cheap, the shift to fair priced high quality will lead us to a system where we can be paid for our hearts and minds.