Came a moment the other day when a friend of mine and I were gabbing about the Culture of Free Problem — with the mantra now being give it away, give it away, give it away, give it away now, never mind that Kiedis & Cie. were talking about doing that as an act of free will, not as a matter of culturally demanded compunction. It's hard to sell anyone anything unless you already have a massive capital base already in place and can therefore lose a little money upfront taking the risks and getting the word out.
The friend in question wondered if this amounted to a temporary state of affairs. His logic went thusly: For everyone who wasn't either dead or vacationing on the Little Prince's Asteroid, the last few years have been an absolute economic pesthole. Maybe that had something to do with the rush for free? And maybe after that's abated a bit, people will once again regain their senses and realize you get what you pay for and begin shelling out the shekels once more for the goods?
I didn't agree, and the litany of reasons why could be summed up like so:
1. The very nature of how capital and labor both work in this world has been changed, possibly for keeps. I can't remember where I read this particular citation, but one of the grimmer discoveries made about money as of late is that after a certain point, you can't work any harder to make more of it. The only way to make more than a certain amount of money — I think the figure somewhere around $200,000 a year, but don't take that as gold-plated gospel — was to use money to make other money. In other words, you have to become an investor, a fund manager, or someone who otherwise deals with money in such colossal, abstracted amounts that you'd shrivel up of old age before you could ever finish counting it all.
1a. One natural consequence of this is the devaluation of work above a certain point, unless you are talking about PowerBall Lottery levels of rareness. I'm sure your average (ha!) Hollywood luminary finds his creative work fulfilling, or at the very least lucrative enough that it scarcely matters. But Tom and Brad and Angelina and all the rest are not examples we can live up to individually; they're examples of the system at its most aberrative.
2. Because the nature of capital and labor have both changed, so has the nature of property. Many things just aren't worth what they used to be. And consequently, neither is human productivity what it used to be. Even things that we think of as having immutable, realistic values — a house, for instance — are suffering from Distorted Pricetag Syndrome. I didn't do badly when I sold my home, and I will probably stack up a decent amount of equity with my new one, but I know too well I'm on the "exception" side of the curve. I got lucky, and there are a hell of a lot of people who didn't.
3. Creative products are becoming especially devalued, and not just because many of them can be reproduced endlessly with minimal effort. That is certainly part of it, but I think the real killer-diller is how that has in turn bred an attitude about creative products being inherently disposable. You've seen them before and you'll see them again, and they're not really much to get excited about, in big part because there are now so damn many of them, and everyone wants to make one. It becomes easier to treat them with contempt when they are as profane as water. The idea that they are the product of someone's toil is also ignorable — because hey, there're a lot of other people out there, so what? What makes you so special, you who are now sitting on the curb rattling your cup for loose change? Do you have any idea how many other people have warmed that exact spot before you?
4. Nobody sees this state of affairs as being perverse. At worst, they see it as inevitable. At best, they see it as "creative disruption." More about that canard some other time, but I'm betting most of you reading this are cringing as much at those words as I was when I typed them.
So, I'd like to believe he's right, but so far the evidence on the "against" side of the balance sheet is overwhelming.