This is Violence

Why Must I Be The Thief

I had an art history professor who once put forth the idea that all the things man makes horizontal are metaphors for his relation with the land, and all things vertical metaphors for his relationship with humanity. I don’t know whether this was his original thought, but it’s stuck with me. I like this idea because it means we leave monuments not just of how we were, but of how we believed we were. Even buildings meant to evoke our future selves are really reflections of what we were then.

My friend Dave Allen (Dave) called yesterday and asked what I thought about his post in response to a post by David Lowery (David) which itself was a response to a post by Emily White, an intern at NPR. Dave’s post has generated enough traffic commentary on its own to be considered a mild firestorm. Each post dealt successively with the issue of music theft starting with Emily’s confession that she hadn’t bought much of her music.

So here I am. I try to be a good friend, and so I was up until midnight last night pounding out 1500 hundred words explaining my thoughts. When I woke up this morning and reviewed my writing, it was - boring. Maybe not the writing, or at least not just the writing, but the topic. I was bored even thinking about music theft, or music piracy, or any of it.

But why was this so boring for me? Why did this seem like such a passé issue? I consider myself an ethical person, and yet I couldn’t muster more than the slightest enthusiasm for the topic. In a turn that clearly bolsters generational post-post-modern ennui cred, it turned out that this was the part that interested me most: Why did I, and Emily, and so many other people find this topic not only not controversial, but a little boring?

If nothing else comes of this endeavor, I can at least spare you the few hours it took me to get through Dave, David, and Emily’s posts, as well as the dozen or so others that have spun out of each:

Stripped of everything else: I believe the crux of Dave’s article (and probably Dave’s raison-d’être the last few years) is this: The Internet has changed our culture, fundamentally, permanently, and without regard for the social or economic systems it’s displaced. You can adapt or you can perish.

David’s article in turn rests on this: stealing music is morally wrong. There’s a bunch of artifice built up around it - a bit that’s interesting, much that’s logically dubious, some that’s outright incorrect - but in the end, a couple thousand words can safely be reduced to: you shouldn’t steal music.

Where this gets interesting to me is the point where these two world views collide: David’s article is operating within the social construct of a culture Dave is asserting no longer exists.

To get at what makes this interesting, I think we need to start by breaking something down in a slightly semantic, but ultimately critical way: What does it actually mean to steal music?

A useful place to start might be try answering a question David poses in his article:

“Why are we willing to pay for computers, iPods, smartphones, data plans, and high speed internet access but not the music itself?”

Setting aside that anyone living in a major metro area in the US has almost certainly “stolen” internet access at some point - David, and a number of other people in comments (there are over 120 on Dave’s site and over 500 on David’s, to say nothing of the approximately 1 trillion on other sites with posts on David’s article) ask: how many among us would steal a laptop or an iPhone? Not many. And yet, we’re more than happy to steal the music we put on them. Why is this? The prevailing response seems to be: because it’s harder to steal physical goods that it is to steal music.

But I’m not sure this is right.

Rather, I believe it comes down to something any one with a computer is familiar with, and that someone raised on computers has likely internalized to a profound, and almost unconscious degree: it is, in fact, exceedingly difficult to “steal” a digital object. Again, the basis for this idea maybe nuanced, but I think it’s important if we’re going to be able to move a step forward here.

My dictionary defines stealing as “to take (another person’s property) without permission or legal right and without intending to return it”. The first part of this statement sure sounds like what’s happening right now - taking without permission, but the key here is “and without intending to return it”. It’s key because it implies the thing taken is no longer in the possession of the original owner.

If I walk into an Apple store, pick up an iPhone and walk out with it only to return a minute later a put it back I don’t think we’d call it “theft”. If, on the other hand, I walk into an Apple store and take an iPhone for good, they’ve actually lost something. Theft seems to be a two step process: I have to take it, and then you have to no longer have it.

But if a friend gives me a copy of an MP3, they still have that file; and the artist they got it from still has it; and the label still has their copy as well. There is no property to recover because no property was actually removed from anyone’s possession.

Again, I absolutely expect that Mr. Lowery would dismiss this point of view out of hand as some sort of semantic hand waving designed to excuse rampant thievery. But the fact is, what is actually being stolen isn’t the music, it’s the opportunity for a musician to make money on that music, and I believe this is critical distinction.

It’s critical, first, because it requires us to make the fairly huge logical leap that all of Emily White’s music was music she would have otherwise purchased. And this just isn’t the case. Emily points out in her post, for example, that 15 gigs of music was just dumped on her iPod by a friend. There’s no rational reason to believe that absent this she’d have sought out all of that music on her own. There was no opportunity lost, because there was never an opportunity to start with. Further, it could be argued that her exposure to this music created new opportunity where none previously existed. She cannot seek out music she isn’t aware of.

Second, it’s critical because I don’t believe there is any evidence that musicians have any less opportunity now to make money than they did 10 or 20 or 30 years ago. While perhaps royalty-based methods for making money are gone, that does not constitute all opportunity. Surely no one would argue that it’s society’s job to preserve any single business model. In the place of this one model, the internet and digital technology have created dozens of new models, and an unknowable number of methods yet to be tried.

For what it’s worth, it seems clear that any viable system for getting people paid consistently is going to have to deal with a reality in which when something is made digital, it’s gone wild. This means that if you want to get paid, you’re going to have to get paid up front. The best way I think to do this probably looks a lot like Kickstarter: A musician will have create a fan base, and then ask that fan base to pre-fund their album. When the album is finished, the people who funded it get their copies of the files and off they go to share as they’d like.

But finally, I think it’s a critical distinction because to have an honest conversation, we have to understand the social construct any 21 year old has been born into. Free Gmail, free Facebook, free encyclopedia, free photo sharing, and near constant access to media of any sort. I pay for cable to watch Mad Men, for my 27 year old brother, his first and only thought is find it online. It literally never occurs to him that there is another option. Nor does it occur to him that this might be legitimately viewed as theft. And why would it? He’s not “stealing” from Google when he uses Gmail, or from Tumblr when he sets up a free blog. All these things exist on the spatial plain for him. They’re all just “the internet”.

What’s most amazing to me is how little he actually understands technology. How little it’s physical underpinnings matter to him. Gmail, Twitter, always-on high-speed internet, these things might as well be aspect of nature. And while it might seem weird, or even dangerous to view things made by companies as “nature”, isn’t this really also the point anyone arguing for the preservation of things like the music industry, the publishing industry, or T.V. studios? Those too are nothing more than the architecture that reflects back to us a reality that was disruptive, and then natural, and now leaving us. As much as humans are inclined to believe we are always at the end of history, and that whatever exists now will exist forever, the fact is that the cultural and economic systems existing at any given time are a reflection of the reality in which they were created.

My brother’s generation, and the one’s that followed - like Emily - are the first to see the internet not as collection of technological building blocks needing to be assembled, but as fully functioning infrastructure that is now invisibly infused into their daily lives. They’ve only ever known a world with retweets and reblogs. Photos of gauzy sunsets shared and re-shared thousands of times.

And this is where, for all its ducks and weaves and jabs and sucker punches, Dave’s point is critical: All of this doesn’t happen outside of societal norms, all of this defines societal norms. Culture now is transition, it is change. In this light I believe David’s point of view - not that stealing is wrong, that much is human - but what it means to steal music, and how it might be wrong, is not so much incorrect as much as it is rendered nonsensical in framework of society right now.

I say this because ultimately he’s not arguing that Emily is stealing music, or even that she’s stealing opportunity. What his argument is really about is that Emily is stealing a specific social construct - the right to make money from music in a specific way. The problem is, this construct no longer exists, and so there is nothing left to steal.