Free Access, Media Scarcity . . . . and the future of capitalism

Last week I was wandering around the Pergamon Museum in Berlin, riffing with Wolf (an OII DPhil) about how knowledge gets produced and distributed.  We looked at Greek statues “collected” by the Germans, moved to Russia by the Sovietes for 50 years, and finally on public display – and discussed the radically different ways of knowing made possible in a world of globally produced, distributed, and commented information.  “It’s an amazing privilege” I said to Wolf.  “But what are the long term implications?  There’s always  controlling access to information.  In the middle ages it was all physically locked up in places like Oxford.  Now I’m worried it will come to be controlled in some other way.”

Over the next few days, talks by Lawrence Lessig and Cory Doctorow highlighted how the movement towards free access means that control over information, media (and maybe knowledge) threaten established business models and legal frameworks.  Lessig showed how current intellectual property law is so far out of sync with practices of remix that it is criminalizing a generation of kids who use media like ideas.  For Doctorow,  the key change for media has been the decreasing potential for making money by making media excludable (controlling who gets a copy of something.  Faced with the fact that the “internet is a perfect copying machine”, businesses are responding by trying to make it an imperfect copying machine.  Like Lessig, Doctorow thinks this is reactionary and counterproductive.  He thinks the only viable business models will be based on new understandings of how to distribute media/information/knowldege, and not on controlling its reproduction.  Free access has created unprecedented participation in culture – the current market economy doesn’t work if there’s an oversupply of art and undersupply of demand.

Back in Oxford, my colleague/flatmate Bernie picked up the thread.  He’s been thinking about how capitalism has always depended on scarcity.  Informational capitalism has exploded such that information is no longer scarce – it’s easy to copy and distribute.  So what becomes of capitalism?

These transformations of information/media use and reuse highlight the importance of access.  Access is reconfigured through and with technical changes, practices, laws.  Unlike 500 years ago, you don’t have to travel to Oxford to find information – but instead you have to negotiate licenses, torrents, remixes, and misinformation.  How to sort it all out, and whether this can happen under capitalism, is one of society’s next challenges.  It’s a far cry from determining who gets to store the Greek statues.