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 broken.
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.
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.