Napster and the Middleman

Napster and the Middleman

It’s been an odd few months. It seems like one headline after another since the latest round of court decisions regarding Napster have all made bold statements about the end of file sharing and Napster itself, it has yet to happen.

I believe there is a reason why this is so that can be stated in just five simple straightforward words, “This is just the beginning.” So hold onto your hats kids because the ride is only going to get better and faster from here.

This whole file sharing idea with all of its copyright and ownership laden rhetoric is nothing new. If you were any kind of astute user of bulletin boards before the world wide web or have been a user of the commercial Internet since the early days then its likely you remember pirating Doom, waiting hours for an early copy of Adobe’s Photoshop and even downloading .wav files that took just as long wishing someone would make it all easier. Luckily they did.

Some people call Napster evolution while others stand by their stance that it is a revolution. I call it good fun. I have always loved entropy and the idea that all systems break down. When you get down to it, that’s really what is happening here just one system breaking down in place of a new one. Nothing different then when the printing press was invented for example.

Before Guttenberg came along, unless you lived in China (by that I mean they actually invented a different form of printing press long before), then information was controlled by middlemen who by their given class, education and sheer will to dominate were the only ones who could both afford to buy and were taught how to read books. Their main job was to act as intermediaries for the masses. They were intermediaries between the masses and law, government, production as well as man and his idea of God.

With the printing press we could produce lots of books at ever lowering costs. Mass production and mass media began! Now people had a reason to learn to read and the intermediaries, try as they might, were thrown out of a job and lost their social standing. Eventually the Protestant Reformation and long after that the American Revolution occurred all because people had access to information and realized that they had the power to make a change.

Some have made the case though that the printing press was really just evolution. A series of technologies coming together in a way that uplifts them beyond their original design and makes them more useful as a whole then as individual technologies.

As you can tell I am comparing Napster to this innovation which some would say is just another one of a long series of great technological achievements in mass communications that gave the people the power over the intermediaries while expanding on principals laid long before.

Now a lot of people spend a lot of time worrying about whether it is revolution or if it is evolution and all that. I call these people, “People with far to much time on their hands who don’t really get that revolutions and evolutions do what they do and don’t care what they are called” I have another term for them that isn’t as elitist, high brow and arrogant on my part but it is eight letters and just mean. Think about it!

Anyway, what is important to me is what we can do with these technologies. Why its important is because time and again these new technologies fall into the hands of a small percent of people and they simply use them to become new types of intermediaries. It wasn’t long before people started controlling the printing press and the same went for newspapers, radios, televisions etc. Just imagine if in five years a company like Napster becomes the dominant intermediary between the people and music and we find we are in the same situation once again.

It would definitely make for some interesting entertainment to see the demonized enemy knock out the giant old boys network that has dominated for so long. But it wouldn’t really serve the people any better. My main goal is to remove this cycle of a dominant one percent from our society no matter who is doing the dominating. (Wish me luck because even I am not sure it will ever be possible!)

You see by removing the middlemen we give not only the consumer power but also the creators of information power because they no longer need to act through an intermediary to get to us. The means of production, in this case computer hardware and software capable of doing what used to cost millions now can be used for relatively nothing and anyone can become a rock n roll star or a great writer to someone else if they distribute their creations online.

This also means that a music group is increasingly also becoming its own production company. The same goes for filmmakers and video producers. Instead of having all aspects of production controlled by a few very large and very wealthy companies who make all the profit and possibly do things like price fix, manipulate consumers through advertising, sell potentially harmful products and green light others that they know are pure crap, a larger array of companies all struggling to survive and compete are forming, that to me is capitalism!

One percent of a population controlling the other ninety nine percent sounds a lot more like communism then the egalitarian view of the Internet I proposed in my last column or what I am proposing here.

There are still intermediaries in this system, there always will be. Someone needs to maintain our Internet infrastructure so we can get online. In many countries the government pays the bill and contracts private industries to build and maintain them. We chose a long time ago the idea that “the electromagnetic spectrum belongs to the people” and so we give private industry the licenses to use them and they pay for the content they push through them. This same idea is being carried over to the Internet.

I am not saying this system is right or wrong when compared to the rest of the world. Just that these corporations are the intermediaries between information and the masses and not government that in the United States is supposed to be operated by the people.

So I am not claiming an end to all intermediaries and middlemen for the rest of time but rather an ideological shift in how we view the role of information and the intermediaries that bring it to us. Hopefully by doing so we can level that one percent into a more balanced number and open up our communications systems and information infrastructures to a more diverse population.

The decentralization of the system that has been in place now for many years and our understanding that it was a centralized and at times corrupt and anti consumer system is the first step to avoiding going right back into another similar system.

Another important change along these lines is in how we act as consumers. One belief amongst many people is that the system is how it is, always will be that way and therefore there is no hope of ever changing it.

The first step to change has already occurred. The technology is there. We have it and those of us who use it will never be able to walk into a record store without thinking “why pay twenty dollars for two good songs when I can just download them” and soon we will be doing the same thing for movies when we burn dozens of DVD’s a day and see that there really isn’t that much to it.

With this step many of us are becoming smart consumers buying only the things we really want to own, expecting more from what we buy and becoming aware of what it really costs to produce the product we are paying for and who is really the entity that is producing them.

If an informed consumer knows a shoe company uses slave labor or that a group of companies have come together and priced out competition then they are now making a choice on whether or not to support the company through buying their products or choosing to buy from a different consumer that shows an interest in their needs and desires.

This is the best first step to changing the system because an informed consumer is no longer just a mindless being but rather a responsible demanding individual.

It isn’t just music either. Software, video games, books, newscasts, television programs, radio broadcasts all the information anyone can dream of is being digitized and spread. As long as we collect it and spread it, our new system flourishes. What Napster and “Peer to Peer” networks do is allow what was once considered purely hacker fare to become mainstream.

The beautiful part of this system is that someone will come along and free any new forms of encryption and any new middlemen for us again and again breaking down the system in place in favor of a new one. Despite what you see on the news at night file sharing is done by people of all ages, races, nationalities and so on and that allows us to right now collectively ask and inspire a few generations to break down the system without fear that they are in the minority. So I say download, devalue and distribute because that is the revolutionary thing we can do to stop this system.

It’s the remarkable “Boston Tea Party” like movement that someone giving feedback to my last column had hoped to see. In my mind we have already done it. We have collected the information and given it zero value. We have then turned around and distributed it a million times over devaluing it even more.

Basically we are doing what humans do. We are revolving and changing. It’s why I don’t care what you call it, as long as we continue to do it and fight the people who want to stop us.

The one percent had its chance to utilize this technology when it first hit the scene. Instead fans of television shows and movies were sent scare tactic letters and told if they didn’t take pictures off of websites they would be sued. The same went for people spreading MP3’s and using Napster until the companies realized they were attacking consumers who were basically giving away free advertising and discovering new bands that were under their labels.

Now after a couple of years of being told we were filthy and rotten for going around these middlemen, they will want us to file share through their networks and embrace their new business models. Maybe it’s just me, but I am ready to see this generation of intermediaries disappear as we consumers continue to become informed and revolt.