Sunday school: “If almost-as-good is free or nearly free, what is the market value of slightly-better?”

Six years ago Friday, I launched BloodhoundBlog with the words cited in the headline:

In a subsistence culture, the work of the mind is precious and literally unsupportable. We are by now so rich that millions of people can create intellectual resources that they give away, in turn to be remarketed by others. This may or may not work in the long run for companies tapping into and amplifying open-source-like works of the mind. Consider that aggregator software levels the playing field for small players. The interesting thing is what it will do to companies whose entire business model is based on scarcity and hoarding. If almost-as-good is free or nearly free, what is the market value of slightly-better?

I’ve hit that theme again and again over the years: How much future is there in a job that millions of very smart people are willing to do for free?

Stewart Brand said “information wants to be free”. This has intellectual property implications far beyond ordinary information. But with respect to that ordinary information — news, opinion, fiction, poetry, almost all music, etc. — the war is over. Hoarding lost. The challenge amidst this vast abundance is not getting people to pay for your information — but simply getting them to pay attention to it.

The daily newspaper has no hope whatever of nicking me for fifty cents. The question that will decide if there is even to be a newspaper is, can they hold onto my eyes for as long as fifty seconds? And will someone pay for those eyes in the random hope of piercing my vast indifference to advertising?

It comes down to career advice, I think, for the newspaperati and for all of us: How much future is there in a job that millions of very smart people are willing to do for free? Maybe not the same work, but so close that any differences become academic. And: If you’re committed to sharing information even in a marketplace where ordinary information is so abundant as to be without monetary value, what are you going to do to make a living?

At Forbes magazine, Susannah Breslin offers advice on why you should not be a writer. Her arguments seem a little defensive to me, but it’s hard to fault her for that: She’s getting paid to write — for now — but getting paid to create ordinary information seems like a diminishing return to me. Here’s why: The quantity of ordinary information available to you is ludicrously infinite. The quantity of time you have available for that information is tragically finite. You can’t begin to make a dent in all the stuff that is available to you for free. Why would you pay for more?

That’s a question that elicits a dinosaur’s roar from paleo-journalist Leonard Pitts:

The function served by daily newspaper journalism is critical to the very maintenance of democracy.

That reads to me like the the opening argument in a plea for tax-payer subsidies. Good luck with that…

The death of pay-for-play in the lesser arts results from the massive horizontalization of art. If I used to read the newspaper at lunch but now I catch up with my Facebook friends, why am I still subscribing to the newspaper? Reading is reading, and reading about people I like is more fun that getting heartburn over the antics of Obama or Romney. Mindshare is finite and the content competing for it is infinite. What is the market value of a commodity available in infinite quantities? Zero. Don’t like that? Dang…

Salon magazine wonders, “What happens if no one pays for music?” The answer? The band plays on. What currency actually motivates artists? Attention. They want to get paid, but they need to be noticed. If the artists who want to get paid more than they want to be noticed go get other jobs… no one will notice. The working conditions at the Malaysian shoe factory are terrible, but the line outside the personnel office is two miles long. Meanwhile, for consumers, crap art is crap art, and free crap art is the richest kind. How do we know all this is so? Because the crap artists who used to get paid by standing athwart the chokepoint now sing lyrics written for them by Leonard Pitts: “The function served by forgettable-music-for-pay is critical to the very maintenance of democracy.” Yeah. Good luck with that, too…

This is all very funny to me, because it is obvious to each one of as consumers, and, simultaneously, completely opaque to us as producers: We want everything we can get for free, but we want to be paid for everything we have for sale. Here’s the way the world really works: You own your property to the exact extent you can defend it. This has always been the case, it’s just more obvious as the marginal value of commodity goods plummets and the marginal cost of defending them soars. Rock stars want for you to subsidize the expense of defending their essentially worthless property. Journalists go them one better, appealing for coerced hand-outs in exchange for their worthless prose. Neither of these irrational arguments is likely to hold up for long. How many taxpayer-funded ceremonial blacksmiths do you have in your town?

Here’s the funniest bit of all, though: Academics want to know who is going to pay them for regurgitating the same swill over and over again, when a much better teacher can do the job once, perfectly, and teach a billion students effectively for free:

Inevitably, as colleges struggle with competition, they will be torn between using their credentialing authority to better sell their own courses rather and allowing students to choose the courses offering them the best value. Will they uphold the public trust that is manifest in degree-granting authority—or use credentialing to pursue profit-maximizing strategies?

If you have any doubts about the answer to that question, take it up with Leonard Pitts — or your favorite ex-rock star.

Again: If almost-as-good is free or nearly free, what is the market value of slightly-better?

Not much. And if you think that’s a bad thing, you just might be a dinosaur…

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