What do Riots have to do with eBooks?

The London riots were set off by the suspicious shooting of Mark Duggan, but it rapidly became clear that something deeper was amiss… Personally, I blame ebooks.

Of course, we’re moving into an information society – we’ve been doing it for at least a decade now with the digitalization of the music and film industry, but it’s really picking up steam now that books and journalism are undergoing the transformation. In a recent piece for the Guardian, the writer Ewan Morrison gives authors (and the publishing industry) 25 more years, tops.

The crux of the argument is this: The value of creative information or ‘content’ trends towards zero when it becomes digitally transferable and is no longer contained in something like a paperback book or a CD. Once it becomes free, of course, no body gets paid to produce it. So ends publishing as we know it (and full-time writers, musicians, etc…) The rebuttal to his piece missed the point; when you take the long view, the twenty-five year view, content must always adapt to medium that contains it.

Most of what a developed society produces is content. Especially youth and especially today. We create youtube. We write fanfiction. We write blogs and webcomics and wikipedia… We create the internet every day, and we do it all for free.

And we create all of this because we need it. There was a recent report on Fox News report (citing the US census) about how 99.9% of the ‘poor’ have refrigerators, 65% have cable tv, and so on… Aside from this being a striking example of right-wing callous, it speaks to a very real truth: space is finite, the planet and its resources are finite, and yet capitalism relies on infinite growth. Capitalism works when people need refrigerators… But when everyone already has one (and there’s only enough room in your apartment for one fridge anyways) what do we consume?

Free time is infinite. As societies develop and become more efficient, it’s also growing. And content fills time. Content is the only growth economy. Creativity makes content, but most creativity is not remunerated – and even many traditional forms (music, indy films, books) are trending towards the free.  This is not a new concept — Buckminster Fuller called it ephemeralization and saw it happening with the factory assembly line.

It used to be that to fill time, you’d have to buy a CD or a paperback book. Now you download or stream it of find it on facebook – usually for free. Except that we have to pay the service providers for our internet hookup, cell phones, Netflix and such – when all they do is ship our content around. We have created a new system of slavery – expect that instead of free work, we have become creative slaves in the service of ISPs and search engines. The information economy is based on slave labor.

We know how to create an economy based on stuff – do we know how to build one based on time?

Right now, strictly as a business proposition, no one makes a living wage by writing poetry. And yet who could argue that society doesn’t benefit more from poets than it does from the angrily unemployed?

The trick is: creating a set of economic rules that reward creativity. Should it be up to individuals to do this? Corporations? Governments? How do you measure how creative someone is? Should people be paid to write code / music / literature? Should new collectives be formed based on the labor unions that revolutionized the industrial workplace around the turn of the century? I think we’ve got the makings of a few solutions out there – but we also need to define a cohesive ideology to help galvanize the political movements of the early 21st century the way that socialism galvanized those of the 20th: For capitalism be allowed to continue it’s course of infinite growth, human creativity must be financially compensated.

Its not like the rioters were out chanting ‘pay for poetry’ – and I don’t want to trivialize the very real and very moving calls for freedom that have resounded throughout the Middle East and North Africa, but the interesting question is: What do the London riots have to do with the Arab spring? Could the underpinnings of both be an expression of the spiritus mundi that something is not quite right with the global economic infrastructure? Could the Tea Party, the most organized American political movement in decades, have similar roots? Egyptian protesters had a despotic government to blame; the Tea Party, with calls to abolish the Fed (an organization that creates money from thin air), default on our debt and return to the Gold Standard, seeks to make capitalism ‘real’ again – despite the fact that the vast majority of economists believe this to be impossible; while the rioters just have their own rage. To oversimplify: In Europe, people feel they should be doing better; in the Arab world, that they can be better; in America, that they deserve better.

So are the three major political movements of the early 21st Century reactions to capitalism’s failure to create growth in these three regions (Europe, America, the Arab Middle East) or are they results of the transition from coin-based (real) to credit-based (virtual) currency, as suggested by Anthropologist David Graeber’s Debt: The first 5000 Years? It almost doesn’t matter – the result is the same – a crisis of faith with the stakes so high is a scary scenario indeed.

Governments are easy targets – but economic systems, like all ideologies, draw strength from collective belief (and its ability to reward that belief). To paraphrase Philip K. Dick: when stop believing in something that isn’t real, it ceases to exist. So if capitalism is to persist, we must devise reasons to keep believing in it, and allow it to reward our creativity. ‘Content’ is the ‘goods and services’ of the information age – and the same way that the post-slavery world financially rewarded work must be done for creativity.

There is growth. Tons of it… Just look at wikipedia. And wealth is being derived from this productivity. Tons of it… Just look at Mark Zukerberg. It’s all make believe, of course, but so is a currency created from thin air. But how do you hold Google hostage? How do you riot against Facebook?

Over the last two-hundred years we have created copyrights and patents to ensure that intellectual work was fairly compensated; worker’s compensation, child labor and the five-day work week to ensure that physical labor was fairly compensated. Casual creativity and virtual work are next on the list.

Of course, that would make life seem even more like we’re living inside a video game. And a lot of people won’t like that, either. But the alternatives look grim: the last time a global economic system unraveled left humanity with a four-hundred year-old dark age. And they hadn’t even wrecked the planet back then…