THE WARPED PERSPECTIVE
What's all this fuss about Napster,
anyway? Why does the government pay farmers to stop growing things when people are
starving? Does Microsoft have a monopoly? How can I protect my privacy on the Web?
What in the world do all these things have in common? Let me connect the dots for
There is a strange sort of paranoia, it seems, among the people who really understand
technology -- that is, the people who *create* technology. They think that Big Brother
is closing in on them, shutting down Napster, mandating secure communications with
government back-doors, and protecting the copyrights of the very companies they
claim to be prosecuting (Microsoft). Is there a realistic reason to fear these seemingly
oppressive legalistic regimes?
Fundamentally, the issue here is one of property rights. Who owns a piece of information?
Some would say "whoever created it." That's funny; tell that to the family
of Jimi Hendrix, who had to fight for years to gain the rights to distribute and
profit from their dead son's recordings. Tell that to Petr Taborsky, a Czech immigrant
who spent several months on a state prison chain-gang in Florida because he refused
to renounce his three coal-processing patents and donate them to Florida Progress
corporation. Tell that to the makers of artistic drawings that mimic child pornography,
who risk confiscation of both images and physical computer equipment.
Why do we even argue the concept of property rights when it comes to information?
The reason is simple: we have been indoctrinated into believing that information
has the one quality in common with physical property that makes it economically
viable, and that is SCARCITY. When a craftsman creates a piece of furniture, he
creates one physical item that cannot be replicated at zero cost. Therefore, since
it has a cost, it can become an economic commodity. To take this object away from
this person without payment -- either by force, by threat, or by deception -- is
to deny this person the benefits of this item.
But information is not like that. When I speak aloud, my words are available to
all who hear them, and their information content can be repeated without cost. (That's
called gossip.) If I tried to ask the government or a government-backed commercial
corporation to regulate and limit and charge for these words, I would probably be
laughed at (and possibly be considered a loony). Nobody regulates gossip, nor can
anyone reasonably prevent it without denying people significant personal freedom.
Even great ideas like freedom, integrity, and justice are spoken of through both
formal and informal means, and the words spoken about these non-gossipy topics supersede
any ruling elite's attempts to control or profit from them.
The problem with information issues today is that no ruling culture today, even
in any "modern" country, recognizes that the issue of scarcity is both
*unnatural* and *obsolete*. It is unnatural because, for example, agricultural products
are inherently super-abundant. Weeds grow when we wish they wouldn't. Farmers produce
"too many" crops and must actually be paid to destroy them, or at least
to stop planting. We know that even energy is not a scarce commodity, because the
electric-generating windmills in California were not even being used during the
recent power crisis. And of course gossip is available in unlimited quantity at
essentially zero cost. (It is quite possible to gossip and work at the same time!)
Scarcity only arises out of man-made restrictions -- namely, man-made distribution
limitations. Let me repeat that: scarcity is obsolete. We have an economy that assumes
that all commodities are scarce, but almost nothing is scarce any more. Instead
of a problem of limited production, we have scarcity solely due to limited *distribution*.
Instead of the craftsman with his single piece of furniture, we have huge factories
churning out millions of identical (though mediocre) pieces of furniture. In order
to keep the price high, distribution networks place artificial barriers between
potential buyers and sellers. The unsold product is liquidated or destroyed. The
same thing occurs in almost every field of production -- agriculture, physical goods,
information. We have an economy whose foundation is the assumption of scarcity,
and whose framework is the promotion and the preservation of artificial scarcity
for the purpose of maintaining an obsolete system of lazy elites, petty corporate
dictators, and power-hungry government officials.
The world economic system is therefore not equipped to deal with any technology
that exposes the lie.
Governments are not equipped either legalistically or psychologically with the idea
that every person on Earth could simultaneously access the same piece of information
at essentially zero cost. The corporate music distribution network that takes a
low-cost event (a band playing a song) and rations it -- yes, RATIONS IT -- must
be preserved at all costs, the government believes, because the entire foundation
of the capitalist system is the assumption that a price system and thousands of
government regulations are needed to maintain the illusion of scarcity.
The only way a Napster-style program can be accepted by the powers-that-be is if
it incorporates a rationing mechanism to add artificial costs to the distribution
of music. But the Internet is like a genie already out of the bottle; it may be
too late to re-introduce scarcity now that people have gotten used to the reality
of near-zero-cost communication. It's hard to ration infrastructure without erecting
Therefore, there is a close connection between crop subsidies, the Microsoft case,
Napster, and privacy. Yes, privacy is also becoming obsolete, because information
exchange is becoming a zero-cost activity. Before the Internet, information exchange
was expensive. Now, *preventing information exchange* is expensive. Before mass-production,
food and material products were expensive. Now, *preventing excess production* is
expensive. ("Excess" being defined not as "enough for everybody"
but rather "enough to make a profit.") Microsoft is essentially a distribution
monopoly, since anybody has the freedom to engage in unlimited *production* of software.
But money is only made by rationing its distribution -- through PC preloads, control
of the retail stores, and government-backed crackdowns on alternative channels (such
as "piracy"). Piracy and privacy issues are both examples of attempts
to artificially restrict the distribution of information; one for commercial gain,
the other for personal gain.
Thus it should be obvious that, in the present economic order, the owner of information
is whoever controls the media upon which it exists, and the channels through which
it is distributed. Microsoft's copyrights deal not with software creation, but rather
software distribution. Microsoft's monopoly is therefore a distribution monopoly,
and any government attempts to punish Microsoft for its crimes must deal with the
issue of software distribution, preloads, and artificial barriers to simultaneous
competing distribution (through proprietary interfaces). Similarly, issues such
as Napster, privacy, and education are all matters of who controls the dissemination
of information. None of these issues can be resolved satisfactorily to all parties
without deciding first just what restrictions, if any, should be placed on information
distribution -- and who should decide those restrictions.
Most recent revision: February 28, 2001
Copyright © 2001, Tom Nadeau
All Rights Reserved.