The pirate’s gospel (1)

I’ve been delighted to see Kester Brewin blogging the talk he gave about Christian piracy at Greenbelt. For those that missed it, Kester gave a long-now account of why we’re enthralled by pirates and piracy, what pirates can teach us, and more generally how piratical philosophy can illuminate our thinking about faith. It was great. And yes, there were some appallingly bad pirate jokes.

A week or so before Greenbelt, I was reading his associated Third Way article. I was also deep in a book ostensibly about the new ways we deal with information, but which was also strangely in tune with what Kester had to say. The book is The Wealth of Networks, a weighty work currently beloved of those strange breed of people who might call themselves political economists of information. In English, those are the sorts of people who like to research the complex relationships between governments, big business, market economics, individuals, and information in its widest sense.

I like the book for many reasons. It’s properly academic, yet it wears its learning relatively lightly. It contains passages that I can read out word for word to first years, and (if they’re listening) they should then understand quite complex ideas. It contains other sections that masters students, or the sort of people that are attending Vaux’s Apple sessions, can dissect endlessly. Oh, and it’s also available for free if you want it.

One of Yochai Benkler’s key ideas in that book is that we’re going through a sea-change in how we deal with information. He talks about the old ways of what he calls the ‘industrial information economy’. In that, your DVD copy of (let’s say) Pirates of the Caribbean is given the green light by Disney, is produced by the million in a handful of factories all over the world, is shipped and distributed to places as diverse as Amazon and your local video store, and ends up in your hands once you pay for it. The information is stored in the physical object. You own your personal copy of the information, so if you lend your DVD to a neighbour then (normally) you can’t watch the same DVD at your house too.

That was the old system. But it doesn’t take a genius to work out that’s changing. Enter the networked information economy. Disney can put a single copy of Pirates… online, and it can be recoded to various forms – copied to iTunes, streamed from
a movie rental site, edited and packaged on YouTube, and ‘pirated’ on BitTorrent. The combination of ones and zeros that make up the film can be copied endlessly, remodelled, cut and pasted in the most general sense, and all without any single person being able to claim sole ownership of the information itself. The film could theoretically exist on every Internet-connected computer in the world at the same time. Want to give a copy of it to your neighbour? Depending on how you do it, and how the film company want you to do it, you could find that you don’t lose out by sharing. No more ownership of a physical object storing information. Copy, share, stream, remix – as far as the pure data’s concerned, anything’s fair game.

My generation lived – indeed, it’s still living – through this change. The dim crystal balls of the early web prophets, the ideologies of internet pioneers, and their talk of music ‘being free’, led to the Napster revolution of the late 1990s, which made millions all over the world law-breakers; renegades; yes, pirates. We realised we didn’t need to own a CD to have a copy of its music. And unlike the days of swapping worn-out cassette copies in the school yard, the digital copy could be indiscernible from the original to all but the keenest ear.

To say the least, the music industry got a bit worried about this.

A confluence of factors – the forcing of Napster onto a more industry-friendly business model, the rise of Apple and iTunes, the increasing speeds of home connections and the growing ease of streaming music – led to the original renegades becoming squashed or legitimised. Kester commented that ‘The heresy of Napster becomes the orthodoxy of Spotify.’ Or rather, the legitimacy of Spotify. It’s the free music model that (for the time being) keeps everyone happy: artists get paid, the music industry push their tunes out to millions, and music lovers don’t have to pay for their music. (Want to hear what’s been going round my head as I’m writing this? If you’ve got Spotify, you can).

It doesn’t always work that well though. There are huge bits of the networked information landscape still up for grabs. Benkler reckons that changes, such as the one we’re living through, create a time of flux for a generation or so, before things settle down. (And in Kester’s argument, a piratical critique of capitalism is usually quashed or moderated by the authorities that come to make sure things really do settle down.)

I fully realise that Kester’s argument has been developed far wider than music/film/video piracy, but I’m quite interested in exploring the questions surrounding just that. I’d quite like to know what a Christian way of thinking about such piracy actually is. I’d quite like to know whether we can even form a legitimate Christian way of thinking about Hollywood vs the individual, of Napster vs Spotify, of copy/rip/burn vs going down to HMV.

[Some specific questions surrounding just that in the next post, but it’s getting rather late now, this is getting too long, and I really need to get Alela Diane out of my head…]

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