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Paint by Numbers

February 19, 2011

One thing that makes living with a cloud-mind palatable instead of deplorable is that large numbers of people maintain and contribute to our cloud-mind.  Wikipedia is the paradigmatic example of a project that can be done en masse–and perhaps only en masse–while still only taking 1/2,000th the amount of time that Americans spend watching TV per year (sad but true).

The optimistic spin voiced by Clay Shirky is that though humans can be pretty wasteful of their time as individuals, by virtue of the cloud and the collective, we can make Wikipedia in our spare time.  Sure, you can call it “crowdsourcing” if vocabulary like “collective” sounds rather Marxian.  But I think maybe we should be owning up to the fact that industrial modes of production, marked by ownership of the venture, are going the way of the dinosaur.  New models are emerging, including moderated commons such as wikis.  And when was the last time you used the imperial/industrial “Encyclopedia Britannica” as the superlative example of a repository of knowledge?

For another example of collective production, take the Omnificent English Dictionary in Limerick Form (they couldn’t get the rights to “Oxford” for the O). This project, set to be complete in 2035 (and I think they’re slow-playing it) will contain a descriptive and definitional limerick for every word in the English language.  And they’ll do it simply by opening the floodgates to user contribution.  Some strong early contenders include:

I’m anxious–you know it’s my first,
And in public as well, unrehearsed.
Will they all be impressed
And astounded at best,
Or gently supportive at worst?

To the toilet he hustles, chagrinned:
“I’ve been boozing all day, so I’ve sinned.
And for penance, I fear
Diarrhea is here,
So it’s clear I’m three shits to the wind.”

And there are already 66,252 other passable limericks.  What’s striking is that all of this creativity is freely devoted to a project without the possibility of monetary remuneration and only seeking the love and admiration of their (perhaps anonymous) peers.  In light of such effort, it seems almost perverse that in a capitalistic society, it is axiomatic that validation is a market-determined price of dollars exchanged for services provided.  Shouldn’t the value of the value of the project be determined by how much consumer welfare or savings it creates overall, rather than how much income it generates?  Isn’t that part of the Pareto calculus?

In terms of the value of one’s effort on a personal level, even the most ardent follower of Ayn Rand will tell you that money is a good thing because it constitutes a perfectly fluid medium between your work contribution to the public and the happiness you are entitled to receive from the public as a result.  For the volunteer creator/contributor, there isn’t anything wrong with cutting out the medium if merely doing the art provides you sufficient happiness.  Is this some kind of communism worth railing against?  If it is, what makes a nuclear family any different?

The point is that when it comes to anything but the exchange of material goods and services, it seems to demean the value of the exchange to put a dollars-and-cents price tag on it.  If it is really art worth creating, wouldn’t the creator be happy to create it?  And if they themselves enjoy the experience, wouldn’t they pay some (nominal) amount to see it through?  Figuring out how to satisfy one’s material needs as an artist or creative type has always been a challenge; the creative industries that have figured out how to get paid exorbitant sums by selling their art are the historical anomaly, not the other way around.  Francis Ford Coppola, one of the best filmmakers of this century, makes the case that demanding money in return for one’s art is increasingly puerile:

You have to remember that it’s only a few hundred years, if that much, that artists are working with money. Artists never got money. Artists had a patron, either the leader of the state or the duke of Weimar or somewhere, or the church, the pope. Or they had another job. I have another job. I make films. No one tells me what to do. But I make the money in the wine industry. You work another job and get up at five in the morning and write your script.

This idea of Metallica or some rock n’ roll singer being rich, that’s not necessarily going to happen anymore. Because, as we enter into a new age, maybe art will be free. Maybe the students are right. They should be able to download music and movies. I’m going to be shot for saying this. But who said art has to cost money? And therefore, who says artists have to make money?

No wonder you can’t pay me to blog.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. February 20, 2011 8:22 pm

    Where exactly is the facebook like link ?

  2. fish permalink
    February 24, 2011 8:26 am

    but rick! there’s evidence that people paid to get into the theater when shakespeare wrote. doesn’t that NECESSARILY mean that cultural contributions by the bard, or any other artist, would NEVER be made in absence of a robust and ever-expanding intellectual property framework, bolstered by draconian enforcement mechanisms, to protect the fortunes of the contributors’ unborn descendants?

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