The SOPA/PIPA Outrage: We’re Missing Half The Story

I’m not surprised by the hysterical, hamfisted rhetoric surrounding the SOPA/PIPA issue. The images of people with duct tape over their mouths, websites going dark, the notion that any attempt to police the Internet will result in an Orwellian nightmare.

America is not a subtle country. We like black and white, good and bad, freedom of speech vs. evil overlords hell bent on destroying the great, egalitarian Internet.

But it’s not that simple. It never is. This isn’t just about censorship, which is obviously against everything the First Amendment stands for. It’s about what happens when the tech gurus who create the system have more power than the people who create the content. It’s what happens when those IT professionals are far better paid than the people who create the content. Look at it this way—do you expect to get the bulk of your software for free? No. Yet we’ve come to expect all of our online content to be free. We demand it, in fact. It’s a distinct value judgment.

One of the websites that went dark was Wikipedia. With their ominous imagery, they wanted to show us what the Internet might look like if this type of legislation was passed. High school students were outraged and Tweeted about how they couldn’t finish their homework.

But let me ask you this:
Shouldn’t we be demanding something better than Wikipedia? Is it really a good idea that students are using this resource for their homework? A resource so unreliable that any moron with an Internet connection can get on there and state something as fact?

It affects the quality of legitimate news organizations too, who have taken to reporting on Tweets. Tweets, for fuck’s sake. Call me an elitist, but I think this trend denigrates real newsgathering. I’m glad Walter Cronkite never had to cite Twitter as a source. The New York Times shut down their City Section a few years ago. And guess who’s taking care of most of their local interest stories now? NYU journalism students who blog about them.

I recently read an article in The Register that stated, “On the Internet, fame may arrive quickly, but financial reward doesn’t follow. It’s the only area of business where this is true.”

Herein lies the problem. America is first and foremost a capitalist country. If there is no monetary exchange, there is no tangible value. But people seeking Internet opportunity often forfeit money for exposure. The Internet has become some bizarre lottery where peons hope by some miracle that if they keep writing away on blogs that nobody reads (like this one, for example) Tweeting to a Twitterverse that doesn’t give a shit and putting up videos on YouTube that no one sees, that some how, some way, fame will find them. The success of “Shit My Dad Says” and Justin Bieber’s career are legendary Internet fairytales that perpetuate the myth.

It’s very telling that when the IT professionals of Silicon Valley became rock stars, actual rock stars lost some of their luster. The IT professionals who create the platforms have made it so that artists, writers, filmmakers and musicians are forced to take it up the ass and like it. Otherwise they risk looking like dinosaurs; trying to push back the inevitable wave of the future.

Case in point: the only way musicians can make money now is by touring. It goes back to scarcity of product. There’s only one Lady Gaga. If you want to see her in person (so that you can record part of the performance on your phone and upload it to YouTube) you are forced to plunk down your money. There’s no way around it. Albums are only released as promotional tools. Music stores are about as scarce as checkbooks.

Some say this gives musicians more freedom; that the record companies were just exploiting them and taking the profits anyway. This may very well be true. But look at the top selling albums. (Or singles, seeing as how people rarely buy full albums anymore.) How much has this newfound “freedom” actually benefitted unknown musicians? And for all the lip service we give to the rise of “self-publishing” the best-seller lists tend to be stacked with names like Stephen King, Danielle Steel, Nicholas Sparks. All published by traditional publishing houses, taking the traditional publishing route. Once in a while one person will break though in a unique way. But this just fuels the lottery analogy.

Internet sharing is an interesting issue too. I am clearly guilty of using images that I don’t own. (See above George Orwell photo.) And I have no problem with you using my personal images that I have uploaded to the Internet. If one of my images is out there, I have relinquished ownership. It has become communal. But that’s because I’m a writer, not a photographer. If you lifted some of my writing and didn’t give me credit, I’d be fucking furious. It’s hypocrisy at its finest.

Music can be shared through Spotify and Pandora, without actually owning the music. I find this particularly fascinating. While there has always been music sharing (if you’re of my generation, you probably still have a dusty mix tape in a closet somewhere, even if you no longer have the technology to play it) in the past it took one person to own that product. Back then, there was value attached to the physical item as well as the content: when you went to someone’s home, you’d peruse their book, DVD and music collections to get an idea of who that person was. (You may have decided not to have sex with them if you found too many “greatest hits” compilations.) These items were trophies, badges of honor.

Nowadays, that’s such a strange concept that when a friend of mine recently moved to New York and actually moved her CD tower with her from Chicago, I burst out laughing. As for me, I have a massive collection of books displayed in a bookshelf. But people are less impressed by the content of that bookshelf than they are by its function: it separates my bedroom from my living room.

Which brings me back to my whole point. I am anti-censorship. I am anti SOPA and PIPA. But I am also anti the worship of function over content. I am anti the new breed of journalism that places a premium on being first over being right. I am anti putting blind faith in technology giants.

But I’m just some grumpy bitch tilting at windmills. You can’t force people to pay for content that was once free, thereby increasing its cultural value and placing higher standards on that content.

Then again, if you told me when I was 10 that people would actually start paying for bottled water, I’d have said you were crazy. And people who grew up watching free TV were probably surprised at how quickly Americans agreed to pay for cable TV.

Of course, the genius behind the marketing of those products was that they offered something exceptional about something that was once free: “Our expensive bottled water is so much more pure than your free tap water!” “Our cable TV shows are so much more groundbreaking. Plus, you can see tits.”

So maybe that’s the answer. If we want to improve the quality of Internet content, to ensure journalistic integrity, if we want artists and writers and musicians to get their fair due, we need to figure out a way to make some of that content seem exceptional; separate from the shoddy videos of cute kittens and fawning celebrity blogs. In short, we need to create scarcity again.

Because despite what tech giants say, excess accessibility without accountability is a problem too. And really, how would George Orwell feel if he didn’t get the credit for dreaming up that Orwellian nightmare you keep referencing?


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