imomus (imomus) wrote,

Microproperty in Flow World

Hello. Today I want to push some ideas past your eyeballs. I've numbered them, and I welcome your comments. They're about the erosion of the idea of property in "Flow World". I want to start with a little quote I lifted -- shoplifted, in fact -- from Streetwear Today magazine yesterday. I think this quote illustrates something we could call "ownership's infinite regress".

Streetwear Today interviewer: You also invented something that everyone uses right now, maybe not knowing who was the first one to do it. I'm referring to the small label on the shirt sleeve. People should pay royalties to you. How did you come up with that idea?

Hiroshi Fujiwara: It came from the original Vivienne Westwood shirts. They had a small tag on the shoulder. I really liked the idea... so I came up with the special tag on the sleeve. For shirt royalties I'm a medium (laughs). It somehow became a commodity that is for free, common sense and now it's everywhere.

Okay, the rest of this is numbered. The numbers are tags which will set off the alarm system if you try to leave the store without paying for an idea. No, not really, the numbers are to help you take the ideas away with you more easily, and refer to them in the comments section without quoting tons of text.

1. I ended yesterday's piece on recycling fashion crew Andrea Crews with a parallel. "Andrea Crews shares something with Palais de Tokyo architects Lacaton and Vassal. For Lacaton, 90% of what you need to make a building is already present on the site. In Africa they learned from people’s resourcefulness and how existing materials are endlessly used, reused and hybridised with very little waste."

2. This isn't just crafty, thrifty architecture, it strikes me as a realistic description of what artists or journalists do too. We use the material to hand, give it a twist of our own. That twist might just be 10%, but it's enough for us to call it our own. This is why I'm big on the folk tradition but not big on copyright law. The person who "owns" something is usually just the thief with the best lawyers.

3. This "10% twist on existing material" thing applies particularly to digital culture on the internet, where curation becomes more important than origination. A whole new concept of "micro-property" emerges. For instance, someone will post a link on their blog, and put a little "link via Jean Snow" acknowledgment. That doesn't mean Jean Snow originated or owns the material, though. It goes back to someone else he got it from, and back from that person to another, and so on endlessly. These circles of reference make the internet the ultimate "flow world", a world where content is the reference to other content, in endless huge circles.

4. In Flow World, transformation is more important than origination. Recontextualization is more important than production. The basic conditions are plethora, love-sifting, and the instant, free worldwide circulation of totally weightless cultural goods whose production either cost next to nothing or was long ago amortized.

5. In Flow World, the most important thing is circulation itself. Things must keep circulating. Assigning and asserting ownership is a kind of circuit breaker. It disrupts the free flow of information. It's like a grouchy old man shouting "Kids, you can't make sculpture with that trash, that's someone's private property!"

6. Obviously, something like Viacom's court case against YouTube is a huge drag. Most of the copyright material on YouTube is "garbage", stuff which had its production costs amortized long ago and was, itself, just a 10% twist on something already existing.

7. Okay, this is where we bring in Karl Marx's distinction between Use Value and Exchange Value. Use Value is the value of things to their users, whether they own them or not. Exchange Value is the price of something agreed between a buyer and a seller, whether either of them uses it or not. Exchange value is the domain of traditional economics, because price is something you can easily quantify, attach a number to. Use is subjective, so economics tends to have little to say about it. And yet it's absolutely the whole point of our relationship with commodities. We buy them to use them.

8. Unless, that is, we buy them to speculate. Evan Davis concluded his fascinating four-part BBC Radio 4 documentary The Price of Property with a programme that examined, amongst other things, a phenomenon called "Buy to Sit". In the UK property market, because property is scarce, prices are expected to keep rising. Buy to Sit is Buy to Let -- without letting. You have a guaranteed profit at the end of, say, a two-year wait between purchasing the property and re-selling it. There's no reason to let it out. In fact, let (in other words, used) property is considered "shopsoiled".

9. There's no such thing, though, as a website that's been "shopsoiled" by its users. Websites gain value if they're used. The typical model of a successful website is one that gives away free material from a previous medium (music, television), establishes itself as a brand thanks to millions of users, then either sells itself to a media magnate (MySpace to Rupert Murdoch) or makes money from advertising, or starts charging for the content that once was free (Napster). But the Napster solution is the least satisfactory because, as every husband knows, if you bring your spouse breakfast in bed one day, you have to do it every day, forever. You can't start charging her a fee for it. So, rather than go back to regarding cultural goods on the internet as something that can be charged for, successful companies have made their money using them as eyeball lures, ways to make people look at advertising, which they then get paid for. An "attention economy" is replacing a property economy.

10. Even in a property economy, the profits you make are only meaningful when you convert them into things you can use. For instance, many home owners are under the impression that they're rich because the house they live in has doubled its price. But if every other house in any neighbourhood you might want to live in has also doubled its price, you won't be able to buy a better house when you sell yours. Use value hasn't doubled, only exchange value. And you need somewhere to live.

11. The internet might be making us think in a different way about things in the real world. If we're moving away from an ownership and exchange model and towards a flow and use model, perhaps we'll look at all property and think, "Hey, that's a bit fishy. That thing was free, and it passed around, and at some point someone said it was their property, and put a price on it. And then every time it changed hands, there was a price, and markup to cover costs and give someone a profit motive for passing it on to the next owner."

12. Things cost so little to pass on in a digital environment that we no longer need to give them a price, or a markup. Online -- except on auction sites like eBay which mimic markets in the atomic world -- we've all become dealers without deals, sellers without prices, resellers who don't mark up. We curate, and the internet is very like an art gallery. It changes all the time, for a start, with new "exhibitions" changing its look, its decoration, its layout. And if I think of my experience in art galleries or museums, what mattered to me was Use Value. That I could see works of art, use them. What didn't matter to me was who owned them. That would only matter if the owner withdrew the works from public view, putting them in a vault to accumulate value before being sold. As long as they were circulating in public exhibitions, ownership was pretty irrelevant. Just like it is online.

13. In the 80s and 90s record labels discovered they could make a killing by re-releasing back catalogue (amortized old material with all its production costs already recouped) in the new CD format, for ten times its old price. The public bought the CDs, but were aware they were way too expensive, and took their revenge when music became free on the internet. Now we all re-release amortized old material -- on the internet. We've all become record labels. But when we do it on our blogs, we don't charge anything. It's beautiful -- we have the re-release schedule, but not the prices. Instead of money profit (property, exchange) we do it for "attention profit". And for love.

14. But really, really, the whole concept of property was flawed from the start. Take a pop song. Take its most important constitutive elements. A 4/4 beat, for instance. Who really owns that 4/4 beat? Nobody. Everybody. It's the common property of humanity. A public asset. Nobody would have the nerve to say they invented it, or needed royalties every time someone else used it. That person would be the biggest bugbear of Flow World. And, you know, go through the whole song and it's all made up of stuff like that. Who invented harmony? Who needs to get paid for the minor third? An E chord? The word "love"?

15. Some people say we're living in a time of unprecedented greed, a time when even plant genes are said to belong to somebody. But we're also living in a time when some kinds of property are -- refreshingly -- in huge crisis, eroding and becoming rapidly irrelevant. In the wallet-free Flow World of the internet, new forms of "payment" (a tip of the hat, an acknowledgment of the source of a link, a useful comment) are emerging, new ideas about contingent or temporary or contextual or micro-property. Something's only mine for a while, or mine in the context of my blog, or mine to use (and that's all that matters). But the best form of payment is no payment, and the best form of property -- the emerging form of digital property -- is no property.

16. The images on this page were all shot the same day in Berlin, a city that really likes the idea of recycling, the idea of squatting, the idea of not-for-profit, the idea of repurposing and recontextualizing trash, the idea of thrift, and the idea of flow for its own sake. The city loves this free flow thing so much, it's almost digital.
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