Digital Scarcity is a Con

by @edent | , | 5 comments | Read ~620 times.

In the early days of the web, I used to go hunting for Beatles Bootlegs. I scoured forums, emailed dodgy geezers, and swapped poorly encoded RealAudio™ files on USENET. The Beatles had recently released their Anthology series, and us nerds were desperate to hear more unreleased goodies.

Sure, there were rarities and out-takes, but we wanted more. We wanted Ultra Rare tracks. That one song no one had ever heard since it was first recorded.

Digital music is now done. There is nothing more which can meaningfully be added to it. We have multi-channel, lossless, audio at higher fidelity than the human ear can perceive. It can be compressed with imperceptible losses. But, most importantly, it is instantly and freely replicable.

Once a digital file exists, it is shareable. And once shared, it can't be un-shared.

Trying to make digital files uncopyable is like trying to make water not wet.
Bruce Schneier (2006)

There is no such thing are a rare track any more. Once it has been leaked on YouTube, it's out in the world for good.

You never give me your money

Profit in capitalism is generally predicated on scarcity. If you have 5 apples and 6 buyers, you'll make more money than if you had 6 apples and 5 buyers.

Digital information is non-rivalrous. If I buy your apple, I could grow a whole orchard from it. But it would cost me dearly. If I get a digital file from you, it costs me nothing to reproduce.

This upsets a lot of people. The only thing they like about the digital world is the hope that it could prevent you reselling something you've purchased.

They want to return to a world where scarcity is value.

Blockchain as a way to enclose the commons

If you want to understand why Blockchain and cryptocurrencies are in vogue, it's because they promise a return to the traditional ideas of scarcity. It's nothing to do with fantasies of untraceable currencies, or decentralising control, or get-rich-quick schemes - although that's how they're sold - but about scarcity.

"We are the only ones who can grant access to this resource! We are the one true chain! You have to join our network to succeed."

Except, of course, it's bollocks.

I don't just mean that anyone with sufficient computing power can mine a coin. What I mean is that anyone can create a new cryptocurrency. There are over 3,000 different cryptocoin schemes in existence. Anyone can boot-up a database. It takes virtually no cost, and even less skill, to do so.

Of course, in much the same way as anyone can start up a new social network.

Network effects

There are, of course, a few flies in the ointment. The power of network effects, and the cost of switching. If the majority of people are using one system, there's a cost to switching to a rival.

Most of us use the same DNS standard to translate IP addresses into human-readable domain names. The history of DNS is complex but, briefly, it started out as a common good which was then privatised.

Recently, plans were announced to sell the registry of .org domain names to a private equity company who hoped to make billions of dollars.

If the cost to renew your domain name suddenly doubled, tripled, or centupled - would you switch to a different top level domain? Well, you're in luck! There are now over 1,500 top-level domains. One's bound to be cheaper.

Or, are you trapped, because the your users won't visit a different URl?

When the feeling's gone and you can't go on

Which brings us back to the tragedy of the commons. Unless we have private ownership and financial incentives, so we are told, the whole environment goes to shit.

It seems to be true - up to a point. And then monopolies come along, and it goes to shit anyway.

Fight back against false scarcity

For the entirety of human history, our understanding of the world is based on scarcity. With the possible exception of the air we breathe, everything we need or want is scarce. It isn't just our economic system, our whole psychology has evolved to fear the loss of precious resources and to jealously guard our stockpiles.

Solar power promises more energy than we know what to do with.

We produce more food, with greater nutrition, at a lower cost, than we need.

And the public domain means more entertainment and educational opportunities than were available to the richest king a hundred years ago.

This is the new promise to humanity. We may be stuck on this rock together, but we can have everything we need to fulfil us. We don't need to create more scarcity.

A poem for your song

The law locks up the man or woman
Who steals the goose from off the common
But leaves the greater villain loose
Who steals the common from off the goose

The law locks up the man or woman
Who steals the goose from off the common
And geese will still a common lack
Till they go and steal it back

Anonymous poem from around 1764 - as per James Boyle, The Second Enclosure Movement and the Construction of the Public Domain

5 thoughts on “Digital Scarcity is a Con

  1. rob al says:

    the problem isnt specifically about "digital" technologies, but intangible good in general (e.g. IP) i.e. if anyone can replicate my hard work without effort, why should i put in the effort in the first place? The way we've historically balanced this is through patents and copyright - they give you a legally enforceable way to get a return on your investment despite the fact that someone else can copy your idea. NPR has a good blog post about it - and in particular the problem of copyright duration creeping up over time:

  2. Rainey says:

    For your article @edent I was thinking so true, damn right, then some random song lyrics. I definitely knew this was a special and I couldn’t have written it myself. Write a book. I’ll buy it.

  3. I like that anonymous poem you quoted! Goes hand in hand with:

    Boss makes a dollar
    I make a dime
    That was a poem
    From a simpler time
    Now the boss makes a hundred
    And I don't make jack
    That's why we riot
    To seize the means back

  4. Neil Brown says:

    I was delighted to see the quote citing @thepublicdomain here. Boyle’s book is a superb piece of writing. I also highly recommend the various works of @davidbollier on “the commons”.

  5. James Burke covered some of this in his radio programme 'The End of Scarcity' - at the time of writing, it's still available to hear, online:

    He thinks it will occur "in about 50 years or so". So we just have to keep the environment safe for that long...

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