Chris Anderson of Long Tail fame “cheekily” coins freeconomics as shorthand for his more recent thesis on “economics of abundance“. (I should mention that he does so with apologies to Freakonomics) Anderson points out how technology that was once scarce is fast becoming a cheap enough commodity to be offered for “free,” with cross-subsidization that is... The economics of abundance are different from those of scarcity in ways that will be recognized by all of us. The rise of Amazon, Netflix, Reality TV and YouTube are examples of the new economics.
In our world of privilege (if you’re reading this you’re part of it) computing power is as widely available as household appliances. Amazingly, the information technology revolution is in its infancy, although it can be hard to realize it when we’re hypnotized on a daily basis by all the pretty lights – they make us think we’re all grown up and in control. No doubt things are moving fast, perhaps too fast for comfort: technology is eroding the frictional barrier to information sharing, and threatening the more “fictional” barrier of intellectual property. Its exciting and scary all at the same time.
We can’t really conceive of where this “information superconductivity” is leading . Our social and legal fabric is understandably maladapted to it. Thankfully folks like Chris, Larry Lessig, Ed Felten, and Danah Boyd among many others, are examining the leading edge of technology driven transformation.
While folks such as Chris, Seth Godin, and Malcolm Gladwell strive to help us understand market dynamics, which tend to generate overwhelming interest in our capitalist economies, some historically less popular subjects have also been under particular pressure, such as telecommunications and intellectual property, particularly copyright and patent law. This challenge comes because information is far more accessible and transmissible, and more people have far more free time than even a few decades ago. What in past centuries used to be roles of privilege, exercising one’s talents as an inventor or a scientist, is an opportunity that is now abundant. What used to be non-obvious is now obvious to many. Most great discoveries or inventions did not happen in isolation, typically they were hotly contested. Inventors and scientists were typically privileged folk standing on the shoulders of giants, also typically privileged. Intellectual property law is built upon past constraints many of which no longer exist, will disappear or be transformed in the coming decade. Imagine what will happen with hundreds of millions of participants in the science and technology arena. Or billions. No-one creates or invents in a vacuum and the model of information as property just doesn’t scale well. We will need a new system to compensate “creators” or we need to accept a Brave New World of draconian rights management.
Recently what existed only as a thought experiment was unleashed in a real but virtual laboratory, the popular MMORPG Second Life. The now infamous “copybot” was unleashed allowing players the Star-Trek-replicator ability to copy creations within the virtual online world. This probably wouldn’t have been such a big deal if there wasn’t a real world economy underpinning the virtual economy of SL.
Why do I think this won’t be the last time “Second Life” provides a valuable scenario for real society to deliberate on? Second Life, being a simulated world, already exhibits the kind of information superconductivity which will eventually reach even the most computer-phobic real world denizen.
I wonder if, mirroring the real world effort to create alternative compensation systems for creative works if Linden labs or a group of SL inhabitants with commercial interest will create a replacement, legal copybot with a feature ensuring that the original creator of the copied work gets compensated by the copier…