When all art is free, how do the artists live?
This concern carries the fourth chapter of You Are Not a Gadget. Many people support the idea of an open or free culture, where content is free and available to all, not just for viewing, but also for use.
Lanier polemically refers to these people as digital Maoists, rejecting hierarchy for the most part while embracing “digital metaness, in which a mashup is more important than the sources who were mashed. A blog of blogs is more exalted than a mere blog (79)”. (Lanier does recognize that open culture does not claim authoritarian control of the communication of ideas.)
When the meta level becomes king and everything is subsumed into the noosphere or hive mind, Lanier claims that only advertising has value. Because every form of expression (blogs, music, movies, art, news), in becoming open and free, is to be “remashed, anonymized, and decontextualized to the point of meaninglessness” (82), the advertisements become what has value. When advertisements are the only thing to have value, then the advertisers have all of the control over what is seen, as they decide what to contribute the value of their advertisements.
Ironically, this move of valuing advertisements is, in a sense, a failure of the noosphere according to Lanier. If the hive mind is capable of doing a better job than paid experts, then it seems that the hive mind should be able to direct us in our decisions rather than advertising. If advertising is paid persuasion, it tries to say that there is something where those who are paid do better than the hive, that is, give advice on what to do. So in reality, if we are given completely free and open content, the advertisements attached to that content become overly pervasive. They do not butt in on our experience, but are always sitting there, speaking to us.
As mentioned in the previous chapter, Lanier doesn’t find the hive mind to be appealing, but he also does not find this advertiser run life any more appealing. He says:
If money is flowing to advertising instead of musicians, journalists, and artists, then a society is more concerned with manipulation than truth or beauty. If content is worthless, then people will start to become empty-headed and contentless (83).
I would argue that if you look at the musicians/journalists/artists that are most popular/successful/wealthy, you’ll see something that looks far more like advertising than music/news/art. This move makes sense, due to the fact that you can make a lot more if you have endorsements and advertising in addition to album sales and concert profits, especially with the uncertainty that appears to be accompanying the future of media distribution. However, at that point, it is not longer about the music/news/art. Lanier is concerned that if advertisers control everything, that eventually those who want to make a living on the basis of mental activity will have to be part of institutions or commissioned by patrons in order to survive. While this possibility is not in the realm of impossibilities (although it may be in the realm of improbabilities), I think there is a model already emerging for music distribution that may prevent musicians from having to be patronized in order to make a living.
This model for music distribution is noisetrade.com. NoiseTrade is a website started by a group of people (including Derek Webb, a former/present(?) member of the band Caedmon’s Call) that dubs itself as “Fair Trade Music”. The idea behind NoiseTrade is that artists can upload songs/albums onto the server for NoiseTrade and people for the price of your zip code and e-mail address, you can download the music from NoiseTrade, leaving the artist an additional tip if you’d like. Since artists make the significant portion of their money from tours, having the zip codes of those who download their music allows them to plan their tours more efficiently and having the e-mail addresses allows them to keep in contact with those who download their music. I believe the artists have to give something like 20% of their tips, but pay no other costs.
I give the plug for NoiseTrade, because I think it is an interesting model for musicians. Webb offered an album of his for e-mail addresses and zip codes over the course of a month in 2006. Interestingly, the sales of that album increased and the attendance for his shows increased drastically. The artist puts the music out there for the fans to decide what they want to pay upfront. If the music is good, they’ll tell their friends who will download with the same zip code, which then becomes a place where the artist will want to try to tour, and the fans will come to the show and pay the artist back in ticket sales for the great music produced. The music, while free, is connected to the artist, and although NoiseTrade does have advertisements on their site, the advertisements tend to be for magazines that promote indie music, much like the artists available on NoiseTrade.
While Lanier might be leery of something like NoiseTrade, I think NoiseTrade is one example of how social networking can support artists apart from the artistic-integrity-bashing-because-we’re-ruled-by-advertising model that Lanier concerns himself with. How something like this would work out for journalists, visual artists, or even philosophers, since we don’t tour, I’m not sure, but I’m not willing to give up hope that even in Lanier’s worst case scenario, something would emerge. If the thing that emerged was sold out philosophical speaking/questioning tours, I personally think that the world would be a better place… and I know some philosophers for whom I would love to be their opening act on tour.