Free; and this parasitical dependence on ritual

March 13, 2009

I’ve been thinking about “Free” again, in the context of, well, art. Specifically books of course, but lets look again at some other spheres of free.

With all the discussion of what Free means, we haven’t been talking a lot about perfectly viable models of Free that are happening right now. Newspapers and music occur to me as the big ones.

I don’t know if the Metro, London Lite and thelondonpaper are profitable or sustainable. But they do seem to be working right now. And this is pretty interesting. So’s the fact that increasing numbers of people get their news free – via the web, including from papers that put out a paid-for, paper version. The model is in part and in some cases subsidised by “real” paper sales, but it’s intended to be ad-supported. The same model that underpins the new music models of and Spotify. Plus some subscriptions, but the ads are really what’s going to make or break it.

The content here, whether it’s news reporting or ‘art’, is separable from the physical thing. Once digitised, the reproduction cost tends to zero, and the true value is unquanitifiable. Therefore, it’s hard to charge for. If you try, people will route around it. For anything non-physical, that doesn’t occupy a visible, allotted time (service) or space (object), you no longer have a “right” to charge. It exists now; it is out there; it no longer belongs to you. Its aura, as Walter Benjamin described it, has been separated from the act of creation, and is mediated between the creator, the viewer, the culture and the cultural lineage.

The pressure to charge for these things – the resistance to Free – comes from current producers of things whose value no longer rests with their production. Worse, the less visible things that they do that do have value – editing, marketing, distributing – serve only to highlight the thing, making more people want it for Free.

Merlin Mann makes the follow-up point well in this article:

In the mean time, though, you have to wonder how much artists like Kutiman really need the mixed basket of theoretical benefits that big companies with big distribution can provide. For a long-lived career, does a boot-strapping indie artist with giant niche appeal gain enough from a big-company relationship to offset the loss in agility, equity, and flexibility? I guess we’ll find out soon enough.

And in this, we know that we don’t have to worry about art itself. Passion has always been a reliable substitute for money. The drop in perceived value isn’t about to stop the thing being produced. Lit, art, music: we’ll still have these things, but produced for different reasons, and to different purposes. (In part, what Tom says: “Being interesting is as important as being useful. Making things that delight and inspire is as important as creating value. Old systems are crumbling; the best you can do is be nimble, smart and make some trouble.” TMFHWOTI bears this out.)

Back to the point: what can be charged for, then? One thing is reliability. I don’t mean reliable quality, because God knows we can’t guarantee that. But reliability in time. Current-ness. Being, reliably, of the moment. I think subscription models – the old-fashioned Singles Club system – serials, pamphlets, the old Dickens-style stuff, might come in handy here.

The freesheets aren’t just selling space to their advertisers, they’re buying readers with utility. They’re there not just where you need them, but when. Spotify and do the same thing. We’re wandering into ad-supported territory again, and I’m not sure that’s the right route for books, but it might be possible to recreate value through the same kinds of utility. Interesting utility.

Last night’s Analysis on Radio 4 heard from, among others, a University lecturer who “bans” her first-year students from using Wikipedia and Google (I’ve lost the name, sorry). That’s not good – but her point is a point: they have libraries and books and peer-reviewed journals that contain a better class of information than you’ll find – for now – through skimming search engines and Wikis. It is a challenge, and it’s a challenge that speaks to the same kind of utility, the need for good stuff, now.

When Walter Benjamin talked of the “parasitical dependence on ritual” he meant the old order of cultural production and criticism. But if we can build new rituals, engage in new ways, encourage new behaviours and interests, and above all engage with, rather than fight, Free we may discover new values too.

And that’s where I’ve got with that, really.

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