Free Association: The Pirate’s Dilemma Gets Dissected
Larisa Mann | Capitalism reinvented? Not yet.
Free Association: The Pirate's Dilemma Gets Dissected
September 29, 2008
UK music journalist Matt Mason's book, The Pirate's Dilemma:
How Youth Culture Is Reinventing Capitalism (2008, Free Press),
argues that a culture of rule-breakers can change the shape of our
economy. Mason describes how great developments, like Web 2.0, came from
people breaking the rules (and laws) in order to create something new.
The dilemma: Should those who wrote the rules punish rule-breakers or
learn from them and imitate them? Mason suggests learning and
imitating... most of the time.
The book overflows with fascinating and hilarious stories of exuberant
creativity, including how a nun who ran a foster care home may be the
inventor of disco and how graffiti artist Marc Ecko made himself into a
clothing mogul. The book's middle chapters outline media pirates' many
contributions, and describe how rule-breakers became rule-makers. In the
gaming industry, for example, businesses hire game hackers to add
features. This is in contrast to the tendency for music and film
industries to sue its creative consumers.
Although Mason criticizes the music and film industry's harsh and
archaic RIAA and MPAA actions he doesn't show how the much larger, older
music industry could be transformed and the imitate smaller, leaner
video game outfits.
In The Pirate's Dilemma, people who disobey rules make things
that are sometimes good and often profitable, even though rule-breaking
makes them "pirates." But there's little attention to rule-breaking's
darker side. While Mason praises the Indian government's decision to
ignore patents and make affordable pharmaceutical drugs, we don't hear
about how some of these companies also distributed diluted or contaminated medicines. Mason
doesn't explain what circumstances make it acceptable for rules to be
While he commands an impressive knowledge of youth and pop culture, his
cheerleading tone can be grating at times. Along with skimming over the
downsides of rule-breaking and overstating piracy's significance, the
repeated description of haircuts that "changed the world" rings hollow
for those of us who think about revolution in terms of overturning
hierarchies of power.
Although pirates are credited with increasing equality, democracy and
freedom of speech, Mason doesn't explain what's to stop piracy from
being co-opted into yet another marketing scheme. In another critical
oversight, his prescription for how to build a pirate-style economy
fails to explain where the money will come from in the first place.
Without a change in the current distribution of money and power, how
will the economy change and allow a new generation of creative thinkers
to get their start?
Overall, the book does not sufficiently explore how reinvented
capitalism will lead to a better society. In a paean to the "punk
capitalist" American Apparel, Mason writes that the company's higher
wages are part of the company's punk rock attitude. But what about
holding wet T-shirt contests
and the owner having sexual relations with his young female employees?
Unions have fought for higher wages for many years; I'm not sure how
that makes them "punk rock." And wet T-shirt contests or the boss
fooling around with the staff doesn't seem so punk rock to me.
Mason holds up American Apparel
and Bono's Red Campaign as
examples of a new kind of business, but are they really changing the
rules of the game?
My uneasiness with some of Mason's arguments is deepened by the book's
bizarre interpretation of a RAND Corporation study forecasting the future of
employment. Mason suggests that the future dominance of temporary or
freelance employment is a sign that people are choosing freedom and
flexibility over steady full-time work.
But where is the evidence that workers are choosing these jobs?
Aren't corporations pushing these jobs, so they don't have to provide
health care, retirement plans or steady employment? How likely is it
that most workers in this new economy would be freelance entrepreneurs
who can afford their own (or their family's) health care?
Throughout the book, Mason's definition of success keeps shifting until
it's hard to know what's really important to the argument. When P. Diddy
makes a bad video on YouTube, and someone named Lisa Nova makes an
entertaining response, her success is being "the queen of YouTube for
the next five minutes." But is Diddy sharing his profits because of
this? Can Lisa Nova now afford to go to college or start a business?
The last chapter passionately argues that the pirates who use this new
technology are a force corporations must reckon with. Part promise and
part threat, Mason believes that the pirates' challenge to business as
usual will simultaneously be both more productive and force capitalism
to become more humane.
Unfortunately, we don't see how humanity or fairness is central to these
challenges. It's long been true that a few individuals from the
oppressed side of the tracks can occasionally succeed with a combination
of luck, skill, brains and help. But if those folks just end up on top
in the same old exploitative system, how are we better off?
Although I would like to believe otherwise, Mason's profit argument is
more convincing than the equality argument. Without more of a focus on
real equality and power sharing, incorporating pirates into capitalism
just perpetuates exploitation and increases profits at the top.
It would be nice to think that Mason's popularity
in the new business lecture circuit is a sign that things are changing,
but without more serious proof that deeper social change is integral to
his arguments, it's still business as usual.
Larisa Mann writes about technology, media and law for
WireTap, studies Jurisprudence and Social Policy at U.C. Berkeley
and djs under the name Ripley. She is a resident DJ at Surya Dub, San Francisco, and
collaborates with the Riddim Method blog-DJ-academic crew, Havocsound
sound system, and various other cross-fertilizing organisms in the Bay
Area and worldwide.