It is no overstatement to say that we live in volatile times bordering on revolutionary. It is only natural, therefore, to revere whatever is new, young, and iconoclastic, particularly when a vanguard of upstart techies provide us with the tools to expand our democratic power to stick it to The Man. I am grateful to live in a time when social media, for instance, can transform the brutality of a Lt. Pike into instantaneous and global satire, or when the democratic yearnings of the Arab Spring can do more with a Tweet than a Molotov Cocktail. Unfortunately, this empowering sensibility, I believe, clouds the judgment of many of my ideologically-aligned friends and colleagues with regard to the copyright legislation now being debated in Congress.
On the surface, the digitally blurred line between the consumers and the creators of content is not only benign but perceptually a societal good. Openness, transparency, and access to information are expected in a free society and a mandate for the same has quickly permeated less-free cultures through technology. Unfortunately, the free flow of shared content has blurred the lines so completely that it creates a perception among many that all content is destined to be free. Partly, this is fostered by the unholy alliance of entertainment and news; and if it is the destiny of social media to break that marriage, I’m all for it. On the other hand, if the technologists of Silicon Valley had their way, even creative content would be free because they don’t make their money from content; they make their money from gadgets, from software, and from selling us to advertisers.
With regard to SOPA and Protect IP, the marketing and lobbying forces of Silicon Valley have managed to portray this battle as ideological, as a David v Goliath story in which the generally liberal, educated, and artistic crowd is perversely aligned with one corporate behemoth because of its mistrust of another. In other words, we have been trained to despise the oligopoly of mass media conglomerates and to champion the technologists of the Internet to the extent that we forget that Google is big business, too. Hollywood, like the music industry, is treated as an old paradigm business that needs to wake up to the fact that they don’t have a monopoly on talent; and this is true. But for all the exposure YouTube might offer the fledgling filmmaker, poet, singer, etc. these web companies have a dirty little secret they don’t divulge — they profit from enterprise-scale piracy.
So, while YouTube may provide the means for the next breakthrough director to be discovered, it is systematically undermining a film production company’s ability to hire that young director by failing to take effective remedies to shut down illegal activities that drain the movie industry’s ROI. Extend this condition out a decade or so, and ask how this is sustainable — either for the individual artist or for the economy in general. Moreover, I ask the question whether tech companies oppose these bills in the name of freedom or in the name of market share?
It is the nature of the creative class to mistrust The Man, and these days there is little love earned either by government or legacy corporations. The generation behind my own, inheriting broken systems in the public and private sectors and in higher education, is looking for what’s next. The entrepreneurial promise of web-centric gurus is alluring, and a great deal of what they preach is even true; but just because Silicon Valley is a 23-year-old in jeans and a hoodie doesn’t mean he isn’t The Man 2.0. When I hear a technologist talk about innovation and freedom of information, it reminds me just a bit of the mantra of every pharmaceutical company: “We put patients first.” It’s not that there isn’t any validity to the statement, it’s just that one should be a little wary of altruistic proclamations from companies that produce billion-dollar products.
It is anyone’s prerogative to resent the idea that media conglomerates have the right to control the delivery of their content to consumers; but it is beyond naive to forget that Google, Facebook, Twitter, et al are highly valued by investors on the promise that what they deliver is us consumers to other corporations. Now, who’s The Man?