July 13, 2009
Giving Things Away Is A New Liberal Art
The title is half a joke, but half true. Part of navigating the logic, grammar, and rhetoric of this century of scarcity and abundance is going to involve not just working and understanding flows of goods and money, growing and eating things, understanding marketing or images, or managing your attention and identity (or identities), but also trying to figure out what you give away and what you charge for, what you take and what you pay for, and why and how you do all of these things.
Many, many people have been at least as interested in how and why we printed only 200 copies of New Liberal Arts and then gave digital copies away as they’ve been interested in any or all of the entries. And you know what? I’m kind of more interested in that too — at least for the past thirty minutes or so.
Kevin Kelly’s formulation of what we did is worth repeating: “The scarce limited edition of the physical subsidizes the distribution of the unlimited free intangible.” We knew that we wanted to make an honest-to-goodness well-made book*, AND that we wanted everything to be freely available on the web. I don’t think there was ever a conversation about doing it any other way.
But I think there’s a difference between just selling a physical thing and giving it away for free. One of the things that I think was clever was the “ransom” model that Robin came up with, whereby the free copies were only released after the print run was sold. I think it was the motive of patronage, the aligning of the interests of the purchasers with the freeriders, that made it work.
(Aside: When I was a kid, I remember how the Detroit Lions’ football games on TV used to be blacked-out in Detroit whenever the Silverdome didn’t sell out. Since the Lions stunk, this happened a lot, and CBS wouldn’t even show you another football game, you’d just be stuck watching reruns or infomercials instead of football, which made you hate the Lions even more.)
Janneke Adema keys in on this:
Actually this is just a variant of the delayed Open Access model, in which after a certain embargo time the books or journals are made Open Access. What I like however about the example Kelly mentions of the New Liberal Arts book, a Snarkmarket/Revelator Press collaboration, is how they combine this delayed Open Access model with a community support or maecenas model.
In another, earlier entry, she elaborates:
It looks like we might be slowly returning to the old Maecenas system, or Maecenate, when it comes to culture, flourishing as it did in the old Rome of Virgil and Horace, and still visible today in many a countries’ subsidy system, stimulating (historically) mostly the so called ‘high arts’ which in some cases and some countries have known some kind of patronage or state subsidy for ages (the Dutch system is a good example in this respect).
What seems clear however is that this new digital Maecenic culture will be quite different in many respects from so called subsidy systems. It will be way more ‘democratic’ for one, no longer favoring art picked out by committees of wise experts but directly benefiting those chosen by the public to merit their money. It will also not be a ‘traditional’ Maecenic culture in which a few rich people out of philanthropy and the goodness of their hearth give their money to the arts or the projects they endorse. This new Maecenic culture will probably be upheld by large communities of people of all income classes, all offering a little money to support their favorite band, artist or cultural entrepreneur (think of those small labels again).
The new digital Macenate! Just typing it gives me shivers of delight.
Until I read Adema’s post, though, the way I’d been thinking about it was less classical, and maybe less flattering. I was thinking about Polish farmers in Prussia.
Okay, I’ll explain. Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism begins with a weird and probably a little racist anecdote about Catholic farmers in the Eastern province of Germany. The farmers, and young people from the farms who’d emigrated to the cities, didn’t seem to respond to economic incentives. They were traditionalists: if you showed them a new way to farm that yielded more crops, unless the difference was overwhelming, they didn’t care; they’d just do it the way they always did it. If you paid them more for their crops to try to get them to produce more, they’d work less, because they could live off of the same amount of money they’d always had.
Actually Weber very smartly avoided the racist conclusion - that the Polish farmers were congenitally lazy — that most of the Prussian farmowners who employed these Polish workers had made. Instead, he concluded that to work your butt off to make more money than you could most likely spend was actually a very strange way to live - that it wasn’t, as some of the early economists and social engineers thought, a natural and universal response to maximize utility, but a historically contingent phenomenon.
He spends the rest of his startlingly brilliant book trying to trace the conditions under which that phenomenon could have emerged based on the startling economic success made by Protestant sects in Western Europe and the United States, all of which hinged on new notions of work and personal austerity that turned out to be, quite accidentally, a primary engine in the development of modern capitalism as it emerged in the West.
So, where am I going with this?
Well, the NLA model is like a color negative of the noncapitalist peasant. I say a color negative because the economic conditions have actually reversed. The peasant could earn more, but he didn’t really have any place to put it. Once his physical needs were met, he had no reason to keep working. He would curtail the potential abundance of nature when the scarce physical resources were purchased.
What can do is the opposite - to unlock the potential abundance of the artificial once the scarce physical resources have been paid for. Instead of stopping work - stopping the flow of goods and closing the circuit of circulation - this opens it up. This is only natural.
*My calfskin-and-vellum copy is particularly nice.