Reading Diary: Information Doesn't Want to Be Free: Laws for the Internet Age by Cory Doctorow

While I was reading Cory Doctorow's Information Doesn't Want to Be Free: Laws for the Internet Age, I was reminded of a quote of his that I blogged about a few years ago:

The people in Makers experience a world in which technology giveth and taketh away. They live through the fallacy of the record and movie industries: the idea that technology will go just far enough to help them and then stop. That’s totally not what happens. technology joes that far and them keeps on going. It’s a cycle of booms and busts. There are some lovely things about when you’re riding the wave and some scary things.

The Information Revolution is not bloodless. There’s plenty to like about the pre-Information era and a lot of that will go away. We can mourn it in the same way we mourn the knife sharpener who walked down the road with his wheel, the same way we mourn the passing of the lace tatter and all the other jobs that were made obsolete by one kind of technology or another. But we can mourn it without apologizing for the future that disrupted it.

(Doctorow, C. (2009, November). Cory Doctorow: Riding the wave. Locus, 63(5), 7, 60-61.)

Which is basically what IDWTBF is about -- how to make the bloody information revolution a bit less painful for creative artists trying to make a living is a radically different economic and social environment. But Doctorow isn't making suggestions is a "Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss," Animal Farmish "The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which." kind of way. He's no fan of the big record companies or mega-publishers that want to figure out how to redirect new forms of revenue streams to old-fashioned intermediaries. Doctorow is trying to figure out how creative artists can succeed on their own terms, even if those terms end up requiring the support of those very intermediaries. He doesn't hate the "dinosaurs," he just wants to put the decision-making power where it belongs, with the creators.

Of course, he's a realist too, and doesn't try and convince anybody that the new world order is universally delivering riches to everyone who embraces it. On the contrary, he's quite blunt that almost everyone who wants to make a living as a creative artist will fail to do so. Just as it has pretty well always been. It's hard work, that requires a mixture of grit, luck and drive as well as the embracing of some new skill sets.

Doctorow presents his three laws of the Internet age, for figuring out how to succeed after the revolution:

  1. Any time someone puts a lock on something that belongs to you and won't give you the key, that lock isn't there for your benefit.
  2. Fame won't make you rich, but you can't get paid without it.
  3. Information doesn't want to be free, people do.

I won't go into too much detail with what the various laws entail, but basically what Doctorow is saying is that DRM ultimately works against the best interests of the creator by making it harder for the consumers of culture to own their cultural products in the way that makes the most sense for them. Why pay for something you don't really own, after all. The next challenge is recognizing that the creator's biggest challenge is overcoming obscurity, not defeating piracy. Creators shouldn't be blind to the implications of piracy but should spend more time making sure their potential audiences know who they are and what they have to offer and most of all, how consumers can support the creators financially. And finally, what do people want from the Web? They want to use it as openly and freely as possible. Getting in the way of that desire -- which ultimately can't be thwarted in any meaningful way anyways -- doesn't do anybody any good. Embrace the freedom and the only way to succeed rather than a self-fulfilling guarantee of failure.

Which is brutal, of course, because most creators will fail at making a living at their art, as it was always been. But Doctorow's advice would be to embrace his laws as a way of at least giving yourself the best show at success. Engage and delight your audience, that's the key.

This is a short book, full of sharp shocks. I would recommend it to everyone who either produces or consumes culture in the modern world. Which is just about everyone! Did I agree with everything? Not really. Doctorow is maybe a bit cavalier about what we loose in new business models. Thinking of the knife sharpener in the quote above, it's still better to get your knife sharpened than to leave them dull or just treat cheap knives as disposable. Or even to not need knives anymore because you don't ever prepare your own food. Sometimes old ways and old things are worth fighting for, as tough and useless as that fight might end up being. After all, if you don't fight back and resist you can be sure you'll lose. And I'm sure other readers will pick other bits to argue or dispute. Which is one of the pleasures of the book in a way. Doctorow is pretty confident in his opinions, and that provocation can a healthy exercise. He's thought these things through pretty thoroughly over the course of many years and many books and articles, after all, so spotting flaws is a challenge.

In the end, this is a worthwhile read, one that would benefit pretty well any library.

Doctorow, Cory. Information Doesn't Want to Be Free: Laws for the Internet Age. San Francisco: McSweeney's, 2014. 162pp. ISBN-13: 978-1940450285

One response so far

  • Jamie says:

    "He’s thought these things through pretty thoroughly over the course of many years..."

    Well, up to a point. Protecting artists' incomes is necessary in a society that requires people to "make a living". If we had a basic income guarantee, however, artists could concentrate on their art and not worry about who was buying it and who was ripping them off. Information doesn't have to be a commodity, just because some people want it to be. And art doesn't have to be in the service of "making a living" just because that's the current condition. Someone who's "thought deeply" about all this might want to take a second look at those unexamined assumptions that make his case seem sensible at first blush.

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