the trouble with abundance

Look, I’m an  open source kinda guy.

I downloaded one of the first Linux distros through a 28k modem, racking up a $60 America Online bill in the process. I run Ubuntu as my main OS at home. I believe things like “given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow.”

And I am deeply offended by both DRM and the vengeful, angry actions of the recording and movie industries over the last decade.

All of the above said, though, I begin to wonder whether ‘free’ is such a good deal for consumers of culture.

There is a reasonable argument that musicians and writers and artists need to get paid in some fashion for their work, after which the ground gets shaky.

On the un-free side, the apparent common sense argument is that people won’t pay if they don’t have to pay, thus depriving artists of the income they need to keep working.

That argument rattles and shakes and all but falls apart when you consider that people have long made tapes of their favorite records, or passed on a book they like after they’re finished with it. There is no system in which the maker of a cultural product will capture anything close to 100 percent of his or her potential income.

On the pro-free side an equally common sense argument has developed which acknowledges there are always free riders, and that those free riders can serve a valuable purpose for a culture maker by spreading awareness of the product – the book, the song, the movie – to people who might not otherwise have seen it.

That’s especially true if you have too much culture, which I believe describes our current state. The danger, as people have observed, is not being ripped off; it’s being left to languish in obscurity, snowed in by the never ending, always getting deeper pile of stuff.

In general, I side with the pro-free folks, but there may be a problem here, one that’s as old as the failures of paradise. Once you can have anything, what’s worth having?

I have a moderate case of this myself; I have a lot of music in cd form, and somewhat fewer albums in download and vinyl form. I also have a lot of books and movies and tv shows. But there are limits – I only have so much space and money, and those limits define the value I place on what I do have. In other words, because I can’t own every Blue Note jazz album ever made, I put a higher value on the albums I do have. I have made my choices; for all I have, I don’t have every possibility open to me.

What allows me to have such limits is the fact that I have standards in terms of the quality of the sound – I can’t listen to most compressed music – and standards in terms of packaging. I want the whole thing, the cover photos, the liner notes. You have to buy to get those things.

But if I didn’t care as much about quality, I could pretty much get what I want, when I want it, for the cost of my internet connection.

Where to start? At first, it would feel like an endless Christmas morning, with one bright shiny present after another. Eventually though, owning so much music, having so many choices, can add up to having no practical choice – you’ll never listen to all you have, not even once, let alone often enough to really decide how you feel about more than a handful of albums.

Exhaustion sets in, along with a desire to be done with it.

But let’s say you’re more reasonable (or less of a music/movie/book lover) than I am, and all you want is the occasional favorite thing for free.

On the surface that works better for you as a consumer, although I suspect that somehow, the knowledge of what you could have creeps in, unbidden.

Even if it doesn’t, the problem doesn’t go away. The occasional consumer getting things for free cuts against the most popular artists/writers/musicians – if you see two or three movies a year, chances are you’re downloading Avatar or Iron Man 2.

But if you use ‘free’ to go deep in cultural products, you’re getting to the lesser known, the eccentric, the struggling. And I am arguing that you are *less* likely to grasp the uniqueness, the value of individual items when you are overwhelmed by choice.

You become less sensitive to the delights in front of you. You get less pleasure from it. It’s the mirror image of $20 cds, in which you could not hear enough to be well-grounded in music. You could never hit take-off speed for your enthusiasms, because your pool of references wasn’t big enough.

Obviously, what continues to be needed here, and what has yet to be accomplished because the sides are fundamentally at odds, is a wide but bounded choice, at a low but not insignificant price. Fat chance on it happening though; for the committed ‘free’ consumer, there is “nothing beats free” and on the producer side there is “why should I cut my profits at all?” Like so many other things in life, it’s the battle of the extremes, with those of us broadly in ‘the middle’ unable to get any traction for what would make sense – everyone gives up a little or a lot, so that we can all go forward.

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