Webscabs and Technopeasants

April 24, 2007


Here’s something that passed me by, but that makes fascinating reading: yesterday was International Pixel-Stained Technopeasant Day (via Boingboing).

On this day, everyone who wants to should give away professional quality work online. It doesn’t matter if it’s a novel, a story or a poem, it doesn’t matter if it’s already been published or if it hasn’t, the point is it should be disseminated online to celebrate our technopeasanthood.

The root of IP-ST Day lies in a (coherent and self-described) rant written by Howard V. Hendrix, well-published author and current Vice-President of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (the SFWA).

In his rant, Hendrix takes issue with those who he believes are undermining the writer’s craft and livelihood by posting creative work, online, for free. In fact, he goes so far as to refer to them as ‘webscabs’, using the old militants definition of a scab as “someone who works for less than union wages or on non-union terms; more broadly, a scab is someone who feathers his own nest and advances his own career by undercutting the efforts of his fellow workers to gain better pay and working conditions for all.”

It should be pointed out that this is in the context of an apparent leadership struggle within the SFWA, and of a divergence of opinion within that organisation: Mr Hendrix is stepping down because of it, and this is his will and testament. Other points cannot be argued with; we are all concerned by “the ongoing and increasing sublimation of the private space of consciousness into public netspace”, even if we do not view it as “profoundly pernicious”:

Since more and more of SFWA is built around such electronically mediated networking and connection based venues [wikis, blogs, &c.], and more and more of our membership at least tacitly blesses the webscabs (despite the fact that they are rotting our organization from within) – given my happily retrograde opinions, I felt I was not the president who would provide SFWAns the “net time” they seemed to want at this point in the organization’s development, or who would bless the contraction of our industry toward monopoly, or who would give imprimatur to the downward spiral that is converting the noble calling of Writer into the life of Pixel-stained Technopeasant Wretch.

Others, or course, disagree; hence IP-ST Day.

Mr Hendrix is not wrong in what he says. Technology is eroding the traditional separation of author and reader, it is allowing an increasingly broad range of creative works to reach the consumer, and it is driving down the price of creative works – in this case, to zero point – and this does effect those who make their living by writing.

There is a growing feeling, that has been current on the web for some time, that we should not have to pay for things. Publishers are being squeezed every which way by the traditional booksellers, by the supermarkets who demand the same discount on books as they do on bananas, by the internet retailers and their endless subsets on Amazon marketplace and beyond. Publishers’ costs, providing they are not greedy, are essentially static – printing costs are not falling with the price of books – so the squeeze is passed on to the final recipient of what little cash is left: the author. No wonder Mr Hendrix is worried.

One possible solution to the problem is a realignment of the industry, creating iTunes and Amie Street-like models to distribute low-cost electronic texts – but publishers, who have much to gain and much to lose here – are not exactly rushing to implement change. But if Mr Hendrix’s objections win out, and publishers, like the music industry before them, take the ostrich approach to electronic distribution, they’re going to face exactly the same issues of deliberate piracy and widespread digital disobedience – and soon. Here’s the complete works of Chuck Palahniuk, online, free. See?

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