October 23, 2006  ·  Lessig

So Nick Carr charges me with launching the Cultural Revolution, in a post dripping with references to the evils of communism, and with a triumphant close: “The Cultural Revolution is over. It ended before it even began, The victors are the counterrevolutionaries. And they have $1.65 billion to prove it.”

Wow.

The point of my Web 2.0 post is probably clearer to anyone who read my earlier post about the three economies of the Internet — commercial, sharing, and hybrid. As that post suggested, in my view, the really critical question for the Internet economy is how well companies negotiate the hybrid economy. In my view, those who follow Web 2.0 values are likely to profit most; those who don’t, won’t. Thus, when David Bowie tries to jump into the mashup/remix world by offering prizes for the best remix of his content, but demanding the rights to all the creativity produced by the remixers, he’s violating a Web 2.0 principle, and by doing so, weakening the extraordinary potential his effort could have. Put differently, sharecropping is no better a strategy for the virtual world than it was in the physical world.

Yet if you don’t see that there are different economies, then of course if follows that any effort to argue in favor of less control sounds just like communism. (Not technically, of course, because the control under all the communism we’ve seen was shifted to the state, it wasn’t eliminated. But this is a detail red-baiters often overlook). If there is just the commercial economy, then an argument in favor of exercising less control over content sounds just stupid — like arguing to GM that it should give every 5th car away for free.

But if you really don’t see that there are different economies, then I suggest you spend sometime reading the very best scholarship about what’s new about the Internet. Benkler, Weber, and von Hippel are my favorite examples; though not directly on point, much in Chris Anderson’s The Long Tail points in the same direction.

And if you don’t have time to read, then ask yourself a simple question: Is Jimmy Wales a communist? (Anyone who knows him knows how absurd the question is, but even if you don’t know him, you can figure it out.) There is no better, more effective advocate for the sharing economy. The project he’s helped steward — Wikipedia — is perhaps the sharing economy’s prize. But when he advises companies, and others trying to use the net, how best to build upon the value of the Internet, is he just doing Chairman Mao’s work?

I hope YouTube is an extraordinary success — much bigger than it has been so far. (Carr says YouTube is my “villain.” I must really be confused, because in the very same week, YouTube was my hero). It will be so, I believe, if it plays by the rules of the hybrid economy. A hybrid neither gives away everything, nor does it keep everything. And I’d suggest we’ll find that golden mean more quickly if we left the red-baiting to the 20th century.

  • http://www.cincomsmalltalk.com/blog/blogView James Robertson

    “Yet if you don’t see that there are different economies, then of course if follows that any effort to argue in favor of less control sounds just like communism. (Not technically, of course, because the control under all the communism we’ve seen was shifted to the state, it wasn’t eliminated. But this is a detail red-baiters often overlook). “

    And the part that red apologists miss is that such control shifting always happens, and that mass murder always follows.

    Seems like a bigger thing to overlook to me.

  • http://www.roughtype.com Nick Carr

    Actually, I called you a communalist, not a communist. (When Jaron Lanier used the term “Maoism” in reference to what you call the “ethics” of Web 2.0, he didn’t mean “communism.” He meant “collectivism” – or, more precisely, “foolish collectivism.” Personally, I think “communalism” is the more accurate term.) This isn’t about “red-baiting” (or about red-baiter baiting, for that matter); it’s about taking a critical look at the cultural utopianism espoused by a segment of the internet intelligentsia and how it promotes a distorted view not only of culture but of what’s actually going on on the web. Nick

  • three blind mice

    it reminds us of the comment attributed to Bill Gates: “There are some new modern-day sort of communists who want to get rid of the incentive for musicians and moviemakers and software makers under various guises. They don’t think that those incentives should exist.”

    there are, no doubt, some people who think this way. a lot of the “creative commons” mindset is in many ways indistinguishable from the left’s general struggle against private property and it’s a natural magnet for the flotsam and jetsam of organizations broadly labeled as anti-capitalist.

    on the other hand it would be wrong to conclude, as Mr. Carr does, that everyone associated with this movement is motivated solely, or even partly, by anti-capitalist sentiments.

    Mr. Carr’s use of the term “communism” is simultaneously a gross simplification and a pejorative, dismissive, and inaccurate labeling.

    it seems to us that most of these commie-pinkos are actually granola-eating, hemp-wearng, kum-bah-yah-singing idealists.

    (please note: that was not meant to be pejorative, only descriptive. we three blind mice quite like granola and are terribly fond of hemp in its various forms.)

  • three blind mice

    Actually, I called you a communalist, not a communist.

    ahem. that’s some pretty thin gruel (so to speak) Mr. Carr.

    There are those that maintain their ethical purity, that obey the Code, and there are the transgressors, the ones that have fallen from the shining path.

    we suppose you meant “shiny” path and didn’t mean to make reference to the south american maoist insurgency.

    It is hard not to hear the echo of Mao patiently explaining how the masses will make the transition from China 1.0 to China 2.0:

    that would be late chairman mao tse tung the communist leader of the people’s republic of china…

    not a communist? c’mon man.

  • Lessig

    True enough, Nick, you don’t call me “communist” — you used a word which is not really a word in a context in which you’re talking about Mao and Communist China. But even after the correction, your point misses the point in precisely the same way. Is von Hippel being utopian? You’re just missing the point.

  • http://www.roughtype.com Nick Carr

    I have no reason to think von Hippel is being utopian, but I do think Benkler is.

    While I have your attention, can I ask you a couple of questions? First, when you refer to the “ethics” and the “values” of Web 2.0, you seem to be saying that there is a moral element to Web 2.0, that it’s more than just technologies and business models. Is that a correct inference? If not, what exactly do you mean by “ethics” and “values” in this context?

    Second, it seems to me that “social production,” as Benkler, in particular, defines it, is very much an application of Marxist thinking to culture creation. I don’t mean that it’s a communist idea. I mean that it’s a Marxist idea. (And I have no problem with that per se; I do have a problem, though, with its assumptions and its implications.) Would you dispute that “social production” is an application of Marxist thinking to culture creation?

    These aren’t rhetorical questions. I’m very much interested in your answers.

    As to your contention that “those who follow Web 2.0 values are likely to profit most; those who don’t, won’t,” I see no indication in the real world that that’s true. I think you’re making a value judgement, not a business judgement.

    Nick

  • http://protopage.com/Hamish.MacEwan Hamish MacEwan

    Nick is a pessimistic contrarian who cannot conceive of any motivation bar payment in coin. He doesn’t understand attention, personal satisfaction or anything bar property and more of it.

    If someone found a way to harvest your sweat, Nick would want his “share” of the proceeds. Like Toffler, who was affronted by the fact ATMs, despite their benefits, make unpaid bank workers out of customers, both ignore the economic rationale that outside of coercion we make choices that suit us. That might include “communal” production (like those Maoist Mennonites and their “barn raisings”).

    I think Nick occasionally provides a welcome jaundiced eye, but lately he struggles with too little straw to make “dirty little secret” bricks out of what he considers the latest fad. I disagree with Steve Gillmor, he has jumped the shark in search of page views, ratings, attention? I know not which, but I sure ain’t payin’ him…

  • http://www.robmyers.org/ Rob Myers

    Thus, when David Bowie tries to jump into the mashup/remix world by offering prizes for the best remix of his content, but demanding the rights to all the creativity produced by the remixers, he’s violating a Web 2.0 principle,

    The entire point of Web 2.0 is that you get an army of free labor to fill your servers for you. It is Jemima Puddleduck economics. Tim O’Reilly’s trademark is for an idealistic fantasy, not a realistic description. It is as much a lullaby for dot com payroll geeks as marxism was for the previous generation of media workers.

    Put differently, sharecropping is no better a strategy for the virtual world than it was in the physical world.

    Yet if you don’t see that there are different economies [...]

    Hold on a second. “Sharecropping” for Bowie builds your reputation, which you can then cash out into the -er- cash economy. And you get prizes, so you are compensated for your labor. What exactly is wrong with this win-win scenario that doesn’t involve confusing multiple markets with a single market or (free?) culture with Free Software?

    much in Chris Anderson’s The Long Tail points in the same direction

    I love the Long Tail book but what it describes is just another example of pushing economic risk onto those least able to bear it. It is Penny Capitalism 2.0 . Ebay and friends have zero inventory but – wait, what’s this? Amazon are offering fulfillment services?!!?

  • three blind mice

    Nick is a pessimistic contrarian who cannot conceive of any motivation bar payment in coin. He doesn’t understand attention, personal satisfaction or anything bar property and more of it.

    c’mon now Hamish MacEwan. you don’t need to go all ad hominen like that.

    let’s keep our punches on the lessig blog above the waist.

  • http://www.robmyers.org/ Rob Myers

    Just to answer my own (rhetorical) question, my point is that this is about rights, not no or one or two or n “economies”.

    Bowie’s “sharecropping” is neither cash economic nor reputation economic. If I win the competition then I will be able to create economic or reputational opportunities and value off of this reputational boost. And any prize will be worth more in cash than a song that I can pay to release but that won’t sell.

    The fact that I cannot directly exchange the product that gives this reputation for cash is not a moral or practical problem in a multi-economy worldview. Bowie has effectively NC-ed his work. This is a way of protecting his reputation, and allowing me to build mine, without endangering his cash economic ability to exploit his own work. If we hold that culture is not Free Software and that people being able to steal our work and sell it without compensating us (in the cash economy, obviously) destroys incentives for the creation of work, we cannot complain about “sharecropping” in the same breath. We need something else to explain what is wrong.

    Bowie is denying me my rights over work I have created. This is obvious from the complaint of “sharecropping” but obscured by talk of reputation economies or sharing economies. This is about rights. Gift and reputation economies are the product of rights, and cannot be created after the fact by substituting economic or political concerns for those rights, however inconvenient those rights may seem economically or politically once they create something of value.

  • Chris_B

    Regarding the talk of sharecropping, this is a foolish analogy. There is really no similarity between celebrity remix contests and sharecropping.

    Regarding Rob Myers assertion “Bowie is denying me my rights over work I have created”. In a word, no. Not at all. You are assuming to asert rights over what was never yours in the first place. The terms of the contest were clear in advance, who could participate, under what conditions and what the results would be. Since you had no right to Bowie’s music before the contest, nothing was lost on your part and nothing was denied to you.

    Prof. Lessig:

    I too have a problem with the current utopianism of all things 2.0. Whether its intended or not, thats how things look to those outside the privilaged circle of intelligencia and self procliamed Internet Celebrities. I see why Lanier & Carr chose those the analogies and words that they did. Who are any of the so called “copyfighters” to moralize to me about how, when and where I should get paid for my work and how I should be giving it away to the derving masses? That kind of moralizing from people who never seem to have tried to earn their bread and butter creating something makes me sick. Really its worse than mainstream insdustry. No one at any record label, publishing house or media company I ever dealt with pretended to be doing anything in my interest.

    I respect the work youve done with the Creative Commons and the attempt to do something about over-extended terms of copyright, but when it even looks like the fellow travelers are on the move, I for one cover my wallet because no one is as dishonest as a man claiming to act in my best interests.

    Even though some of this comment is not entirely on topic, please be aware that publicly stated ideas have a tendancy towards cross talk. I probably could have stated my ideas better, but I suppose that would be a task for my own writing elsewhere.

  • http://sethf.com/ Seth Finkelstein

    Just a quick note, because this stuck out to me:

    “No one at any record label, publishing house or media company I ever dealt with pretended to be doing anything in my interest.”

    Really? No “Kid, we’re going to make you a STAR”?

    [As in, it's a cliche that they do pretend to be acting in your interest - and you have to cover your wallet]

  • Chris_B

    Seth,

    Good counter cliche, however, no, I never heard that tho I’ve heard similar words uttered to others who were fortunately looking for the dagger behind the smile.

  • http://webmail.robmyers.org/ Rob Myers

    Regarding Rob Myers assertion “Bowie is denying me my rights over work I have created”. In a word, no. Not at all. You are assuming to asert rights over what was never yours in the first place. The terms of the contest were clear in advance, who could participate, under what conditions and what the results would be. Since you had no right to Bowie’s music before the contest, nothing was lost on your part and nothing was denied to you.

    If I enter the contest, I do not gain the rights to my own work. They are denied me. That this is the current state of the law and enforced by a contract doesn’t necessarily make it right. There are plenty of historical examples of this.

    no one is as dishonest as a man claiming to act in my best interests

    Yes, this is why I as an artist am very wary of The New Permission Culture being formulated by law professors and record company bosses.

  • http://bennett.com/blog Richard Bennett

    Don’t hold your breath waiting for Lessig to answer your two questions, Mr. Carr – debate isn’t really his thing.

    Your articles about Web 2.0 are fundamentally correct: it’s a scheme that encourages people to offer their works to the world for free on virtue grounds, which is constructed in such a way that a small number of content purveyors profit enormously from the “free” exchange. Web 2.0 entrepeneurs like Craig Newmark, Jimmy Wales, and the You Tube and Facebook folks profit handsomely from the free stuff of others, and it’s all supposed to be making the world a happier community.

    Web 2.0 and Free Culture are a con-man’s dream.

  • http://www.sfgary.com SFGary

    Maybe I missed the following point in either this post or Nick Carr’s response: A lot of the content in youtube is “borrowed” and then posted or mashed up and posted. Are you saying that this is OK?

    I hasten to add that sharing is great, giving stuff away is great, your Creative Commons push is wonderful but the idea of taking somebody else’s creation without permission ( I am assuming that based on various reports including the recent noise out of Japan) and posting it on youtube or any other website for that matter should be unacceptable.

    If this is included in your definition of the Web 2.0 culture then something is seriously wrong.

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