Power to the Pirates: File Sharing as a Benign Market Force

THE PIRATE’S DILEMMA: HOW YOUTH CULTURE IS REINVENTING CAPITALISM
By Matt Mason
Free Press, 276 pages, $25

It took me a long time to figure out what annoyed me about Matt Mason’s new book, The Pirate’s Dilemma: How Youth Culture Is Reinventing Capitalism. After all, the man has an attractive argument—piracy, a youth-driven idea, is good for the economy and will continue to be beneficial in our virtual future. He posits a theory that’s pro-technology, pro-money and pro-youth all at once, which is a hard thing to pull off.

Not only that, he does a good job of proving it. A pirate, which Mr. Mason defines as “anyone who broadcasts or copies someone else’s creative property without paying for it or obtaining permission,” creates a market that propels the mainstream industries forward.

Should corporations keep wasting their money on lawsuits, or should they stop complaining and compete? For Mr. Mason, a writer-entrepreneur-DJ and founder of the fanzine RWD, the question is a no-brainer. For decades, he claims, youth movements have infiltrated mainstream culture while “stealing” ideas that already exist and bending them to appeal to an audience thirsty for something new. “It’s how inefficient systems are replaced,” he asserts. Young people know what’s good. And the big corporations, rather than stressing, should follow suit and step up their game.

“[P]unks had a point,” Mr. Mason explains as he crafts the meaning of his phrase ‘punk capitalism.’” “Established ideas and outdated dogma create limitations. Limitations suck.” DIY culture, despite its antiestablishment undercurrents, seeks to “change the world for the better.” It’s created an economy that benefits from altruistic impulses, the American Apparel idea that products should have a message. He hails this business model as successful, even win-win. And in his last chapter, he brings Game Theory in to punctuate his argument.

 

SO WHY AM I pissed off? Mr. Mason never makes a clear separation between previous piracy movements and the new one spawned by technology and the instant spread of information it enables. He glosses over the fact that many people felt betrayed by pre-Google subcultures in a way that the file-sharing generation never will: It’s accepted, now, that fringe movements are on the Internet within five minutes of being invented. In earlier days, propelling the economy was the opposite of the point; now it’s a welcome side effect. There’s no “change the world” sacrifice when you make use of a file-sharing network like Napster or other open-source community. These are not the underground movements of yore.

Mr. Mason doesn’t tap into the heartbreak felt by those who experienced the fall of punk, disco and hip-hop. On the contrary, he romanticizes the way they’ve been co-opted in our current economy. I cringed at the poetic goo dribbling all over the page when Mr. Mason spent 15 pages telling me that hip-hop is the perfect blend between DIY culture and a smart business mentality, that it has “managed to blow up without going pop.”

Has he not noticed the 12-year-old girls bumping and grinding to 50 Cent on MTV? Did he block out the purists who declared hip-hop dead long ago? Hip-hop has gone pop, and a lot of people are depressed about it. Touting its authentic connection with its audience, claiming that it “makes entrepreneurship cool,” Mr. Mason presents the hip-hop industry as an emblem of piracy perfection. Others would argue that it’s a dismal example of a hopeful, revolutionary force gone sadly astray.

Lumping the iPod age with all the rest threatens to reduce Mr. Mason’s careful economic analysis to the dead-end assertion that “there’s nothing new under the sun.” Plus, trying to pack in so many different movements makes the book seem, ironically, unoriginal. Connecting the ubiquity of commercials to graffiti could be a whole other book. Charting the cultural influence of punk and the Situationists is another book—it’s called Lipstick Traces, and Greil Marcus wrote it nearly 20 years ago.

Maybe, in some meta way, Matt Mason is proving his point by writing a book that pirates the ideas of others. But it’s never good to read a book and actually feel like you’ve read it before. The social history chunks of The Pirate’s Dilemma are their very own smug remixes of other books and articles plucked from underground zines.

But Mr. Mason’s predictions for the future almost save him. For once, someone is telling young people that we have power, and that we’re not selfish and apathetic but demanding “a more democratic strain of capitalism” while still looking out for our enlightened self-interest. In here somewhere, obscured by the welter of Mr. Mason’s self-affirming pop-culture knowledge, is a real economic theory: Someday soon, in the name of efficiency, bigwigs and pirates might be counting their dollars side by side.

 

Nona Willis Aronowitz is a freelance writer from New York who has written for The Nation, The Village Voice and Salon. She can be reached at books@observer.com.

Power to the Pirates: File Sharing as a Benign Market Force