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The following passage is from Peter F. Hamilton‘s 2008 book Misspent Youth, a fabulous piece of speculative science fiction.  I was struck by Hamilton’s description of a world where information truly is free, where digital access to data is considered to be a right and not a hypothetical dream. While I don’t see things shaking out the way he predicted, Hamilton does a fabulous job of pointing out the benefits and the possible negative effects of a 100% free datasphere (a much better name than “internet,” incidentally).  Read on, and see what this makes you think of.  How can the publishing industry fulfill the human need for information instead of fighting against it?  How can licensing for individuals and libraries work for the betterment of the artist and the consumer?  I often find that science fiction and speculative fiction get my mind going about current issues and challenges.  I get inspired.  See if this passage does for you what it did for me.

Excerpt from Peter F. Hamilton‘s Misspent Youth:

Tim produced a mildly awkward grin. He’d grown up with every byte in the datasphere being free. That was the natural way of things; instant unlimited access to all files was a fundamental human right. Restriction was the enemy. Evil. Governments restricted information cloaking their true behavior from the media and public, although enough of it leaked out anyway. He’d never really thought of the economic fallout from the macro storage capability delivered by crystal memories. It was a simple enough maxim: Everything that can be digitized can be stored and distributed across the datasphere, every file can be copied a million, a billion, times over.  Once it has been released into the public domain, it can never be recalled, providing a universal open-source community.

After the turn of the century, as slow phone line connections were replaced by broadband cables into every home, and crystal memories took over from sorely limited hard drives and rewritable CDs, more and more information was liberated from its original and singular owners.  The music industry, always in the forefront of the battle against open access, was the first to crumble.  Albums and individual tracks were already available in a dozen different electronic formats, ready to be traded and swapped.  Building up total catalogue availability took hardly any time at all.

As ultra-high-definition screens hit the market, paper books were scanned in, or had their e-book version’s encryption hacked.  Films were downloaded as soon as they hit the cinema, and on a few celebrated occasions actually before they premiered.

All of these media were provided free through distributed source networks established by anonymous enthusiasts and fanatics–even a few dedicated anticapitalists determined to burn Big Business and stop them from making “excessive profits.”  Lawyers and service providers tried to stamp it out.  At first they tried very hard.  But there was no longer a single source site to quash, no one person to threaten with fines and prison.  Information evolution meant that the files were delivered from uncountable computers that simply shared their own specialist subject architecture software.  The Internet had long ago destroyed geography.  Now the datasphere removed individuality from the electronic universe, and with it responsibility.

Excessive profits took the nosedive every open-source, Marxist, and Green idealist wanted.  Everybody who’d ever walked into a shop and grumbled about the price of a DVD or CD finally defeated the rip-off retailer and producer, accessing whatever they wanted for free.  Record companies, film studios, and publishers saw their income crash dramatically.  By 2009 band managers could no longer afford to pay for recording time, session musicians, promotional videos, and tours.  There was no money coming in from the current blockbusters to invest in the next generation, and certainly no money for art films.  Writers could still write their books, but they’d never be paid for them; the datasphere snatched them away the instant the first review copy was sent out.  New games were hacked and sent flooding through the datasphere like electronic tsunami for everyone to ride and enjoy.  Even the BBC and other public service television companies were hit as their output was channeled directly into the datasphere; nobody bothered to pay their license fee anymore.  Why should they?

After 2010, the nature of entertainment changed irrevocably, conforming to the datasphere’s dominance.  New songs were written and performed by amateurs.  Professional writers either created scripts for commercial cable television or went back to the day job and released work for free, while nonprofessional writers finally got to expose their rejected manuscripts to the world–which seemed as unappreciative as editors always had.  Games were put together by mutual interest teams, more often than not modifying and mixing pre10 originals.  Hollywood burned.  With the big time over, studios diverted their dwindling resources into cable shows, soaps, and series; they didn’t even get syndication and Saturday morning reruns anymore, let along DVD rental fees and sales.  Everything was a one-off released globally, sponsored by commercials and product placement.

It was a heritage Tim had never considered in any detail.  Then a couple of years back he’d watched Dark Sister, the adaptation of one of Graham’s novels.  The pre10 film was spooky and surprisingly suspenseful, and he’d made the error of telling Graham he quite liked it.  The novelist’s response wasn’t what he expected.  Graham held his hand out and said: “That’ll be five euros, please.”

“What?” a perplexed Tim asked.  He wanted to laugh, but Graham looked fearsomely serious.

“Five euros.  I think that’s a reasonable fee, don’t you?”

“For what?”

“I wrote the book.  I even wrote some of the screenplay.  Don’t I deserve to be paid for my time and my craft?”

“But it’s in the datasphere.  It has been for decades.”

“I didn’t put it there.”

Tim wasn’t sure what to say; he even felt slightly guilty.  After all, he’d once complained to Dad about not raking in royalties from crystal memories.  But that was different, he told himself: crystal memories were physical, Dark Sister was data, pure binary information.

“Fear not, Tim,” Graham said.  “It’s an old war now, and we were beaten.  Lost causes are the worst kind to fight.  I just enjoy a bit of agitation now and then.  At my age there’s not much fun left in life.”

Tim didn’t believe that at all.

“What would happen if information was truly free?”

  1. Ivan Silva Says:

    Hi there,
    Totally agree with many things here starting with the unique impact of science fiction. I also think the move to a complete open access milieu is inevitable but the question remains around sustainable business models online. How can we leverage great technologies such as p2p networks? What kind of intellectual property law will balance the need to remunerate creators and the human right to be informed? Is it a human right to have entertainment free of cost as well?

  2. Reden Says:

    It seems to me that having professional musicians, actors, writers and so on, has taken away our ability to enjoy ‘amateur’ work – ie that of our friends and families and neighbours. Look at the sneering at ‘am dram’ or the contempt Hamilton has in the piece above for amatuer writing and so on. I’m not sure it would be a bad thing to return to appreciating the – perhaps more limited, but worthy nonetheless – skills of those we know and care for. We’ve been tremendously spoiled by having access to the very best of creativity that the planet can produce, but it leaves no room for ordinary mortals who are all creative but often ashamed or made to feel ashamed of performing music, or painting, or writing because it doesn’t measure up. Perhaps we should welcome a return to a world where ‘professional’ entertainers are a rare thing.

  3. Alex Says:

    I agree with you Reden. The context in which a work was created must be taken into account when judging the quality of the work. Our friends, relatives, and acquaintances may not be high brow or low brow, insider or outsider artists, but they can create works that affect a certain amount of people in an intimate way that famous artists or filmmakers cannot possible hope to achieve.

    And I believe people will always go see live music. The rise of the niche may put a dent in the big arena shows, but at least one of your local bars probably has $5-15 cover nights with some decent music weekly. I don’t see that changing – perhaps even increasing.

    What may be even more interesting is when stereolithography becomes advanced (and cheap enough) to the point that we can distribute plans for toasters or “assemble your own” cars digitally. DRM and intellectual property law may slow it down, but eventually there will probably be p2p sharing of files for physical object creation – not just music/film/etc. Crowd sourced cars have already been designed, but now they need to shirk the traditional distribution model. 3D printers making 3D printers will probably occur around that tipping point. Super exciting! And as librarians, we may shift (already are…) from storing all that information, to helping people navigate it. We have the advantage of practicing helping people find information – and there will just be more and more of it.

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  5. Carl Says:

    It’s an interesting conceptual piece and certainly one way a free information society could go. However, it ignores performance as a medium for artistic expression. Bands make money through touring, not recorded music. I’ve paid for multiple author talks and readings, not just books themselves. Live theater was around before movies and would be around after they’re gone. Even if a free datasphere wrecked Hollywood, it would do nothing to Broadway, Chris Rock, Radiohead or David Sedaris, or hundreds of thousands of their smaller, local counterparts in thousands of local theaters.

  6. Martin Edic Says:

    In this scenario there is no curation and little editing. The result would be a world of bad data and crappy content. I believe the writer understands this. However in the real world open access to data has had a different result- people are buying more music, film, books and other media because they want quality without having to wade through an indiscriminate sea of crap seeking a gem here and there. The crowd has embraced reputation management to help make choices through user-reviews, social traction and other ways to curate in a datastream without quality controls.
    Without curation there is no need for editors, librarians, writers and artists.

    And BTW Carl, very few artists make anything near a living wage from performance. That’s a myth.

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  8. Fraser Says:

    What a can of worms that would be for information to be free

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  10. Michael Says:

    There is probably a happy medium for this. Wikipedia is a wonderful example of where that concept has worked. Totally free and open, very useful, popular, but still managed. Other real world examples where information is free and shared are total crap because of the old adage “you get what you pay for”. When people know they are going to get paid for information, the quality goes up and vice-versa.

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