Helpless on its side, with an enormous hole torn in its hull, this disaster has already killed more than a dozen people who only wanted to have fun for a few days, ruined the career of the captain and possibly headed him for time in the slam, dented the balance sheet of some insurance companies, and dinged confidence in the whole cruise industry. The bleeding isn’t over. See the pathetic little line of boom strung out along the shore? The ship is liable at any moment to slide off its rock and go underwater, and it’s full of bunker oil ready to foul beaches for miles.
What does it stand for…better, what in today’s news doesn‘t it remind us of! The world economy, run aground by expert leadership who just wanted to show off how rich they could get? The American political process, set up for disaster by the Supreme Court and mismanaged by ideologues who think the only reality is what they can see above the surface of things (charts? we don’t need no stinkin’ charts!), with more pain and damage looming? The Perry campaign, vacuous glitter and rhinestone bling dead in the water?
This picture is a non-rival good, and serves any of those purposes, feel free. But my first association was with something that, if possible, is even more completely broken and more threatening than any of these: the economy of digital content. The wonderful structure of copyright, distribution, royalties, law, conventions, and contracts that brought us stuff to read, see and listen to for so long has sailed right into the very well-charted rock of virtual embodiment. Some pieces of it are still above the waterline, but they don’t work. And everything – everything – we are contemplating to do about it has about as much hope of success as that pathetic boom.
No, I didn’t steal the picture; it’s a public domain Italian government satellite photo. But all the other pictures floating around the web are also non-rival goods, just like the songs and video files Megaupload is being taken down for circulating, and just like this blog post. The right price to consumers for all this stuff is zero. Most of it, especially with some attention from kids in Finland and Bulgaria and who knows where else, is also non-excludible in fact (I could have posted any of hundreds of copyrighted pictures of the Costa C. here and not been punished for it, nor you for looking at them). That battle is over and the technological facts have won, though there’s plenty of pointless damage yet to be inflicted as the content industries try to make gravity point up.
The right price to creators and providers is not zero. Pretty simple design constraints, right: give content to consumers at a price of zero, and pay musicians, writers, and the like an efficient and just non-zero price to make it for us. Simple constraints don’t mean it will be simple to solve the problem, of course, but all the flailing about we’re doing with no good effect on this one is not a counsel of despair. Very similar problems have been solved quite nicely already, like the sidewalk I’m allowed to walk on for free and the park, whose gardener is not enslaved, but actually earns a nice civil service union wage. And all the clean air I can breathe at will that was quite expensive for the power plant and my car-driving neighbors to provide for me, and the complete absence of nasty foreign occupying armies provided by a military that pays its workers and ponies up for tanks and all the other gear.
One might think we would be figuring out how to sail our priceless, glorious social capital ship of art and knowledge safely past these technical rocks. But we aren’t; we spent two or three decades arguing in the wheelhouse about whether citizens who just want to get smart and hear some music are pirates, and whether the earth could be flat if we just shout “property” loud enough, and refusing to look at charts that might be useful, and now the ship is wrecked. It will probably be harder, not easier, to right and refloat the longer we wait, and while we yammer about property rights and assigning blame, a large ugly plume of yuck is going to keep spreading across our civic life, as the content that does get provided is bought for us by the people who can afford to put it out under our broken system.