The Pirate’s Dilemma?

The Pirate’s Dilemma – How Youth Culture Is Reinventing Capitalism – Matt Mason, Free Press 2008

The subject of politics, as they say in college, is history with the work taken out, and history is politics with the brains taken out. While I wanted this book to be an analysis of the political, if not economic strata of Internet-age capitalism, it is in fact little more than a pleasant wind through the recent history of “underground” music, with some loose observations about how people make money along the way.

Mason’s thesis is that art, and in particular the art of making money, progresses by internalising marginal forms. Despite the fact that this should come as a surprise to nobody, we spend most of the book being persuaded. The potted histories he provides are on the whole well summarised: how Richard Hell founded the punk styles that came to be sold into the mainstream via VICE Magazine; how a teenager from London became a millionaire without having a record deal or any commercial airplay; how hip-hop came to be the ultimate commercialised youth culture by maintaining a lucrative stasis of “being real” while managing to funnel large amounts of money to a small amount of people, and so on. Nor does Mason seem to mind losing his way in this. At one point, an entire chapter (“Real Talk”) takes a detour into the biographies of assorted hip-hop artists, lapsing at times into simple hagiography. He treats us to various titbits along the way: step-by-step instructions on how to create a remix is doubtless informative, but leaves one wondering exactly how this helps us to understand the “reinvention of capitalism.”

While much of what Mason has to say about music is often interesting for its factual content, he is at his worst when dealing with the free and open-source software movements. Any hope that he might do the topic some justice is rapidly dashed when he describes Linus Torvalds as “founder of open-source software company Linux.” This is a pity because much of what has happened in software has been the seedbed for the wider free culture movement. The rise of “copyleft” and open licensing models may well in time cement much of what he is trying to illustrate in music and popular culture – at least I for one sincerely hope so. For that reason alone I would have expected a much more robust analysis, if only to have some supporting or refuting evidence for that idea.

And what of the “dilemma” of the book’s title? Indeed, as Mason wanders through his examples of various things, I began to wonder whether this would ever be explained. Eventually, over a few pages in the “Outro” (the reader has to put up with frequent dips into street slang, but I’m down with that), Mason begins to propose an economic model which he explains through an analogy with game theory. The fact that this is in the form of an analogy is worrying enough, but for anyone with a background in economics, I would think it makes for painful reading. I was therefore prepared to witness an enormous train wreak on the subject. Luckily, however, Mason soon wisely applies the breaks, leaving him in the safety of vague generalisations. All this reminds me of how similar The Pirate’s Dilemma is to that of Macolm Gladwell’s work. Just as with “Blink”, the reader is left none the wiser as to what exactly might be happening – only that something rather complicated (in a groovy, pseudo-scientific sort of way) just did. However, not wishing to dismiss the eponymous dilemma out of hand, it would be at least polite to discuss it.

Mason borrows the word, if not the concept, from the prisoner’s dilemma: the classic RAND Corporation illustration of game theory. The analogy, only partially summarised, is as follows. Established players in a given market are the “prisoners.” These  have a dilemma: should they compete with the pirates operating in their market or fight them? If they compete, they gain an advantage over their rivals, and society benefits. If they fight them… they cannot win and society loses out. This then becomes the new capitalism and at some point (I’m amazed Mason didn’t refer to the The Tipping Point here) the pirates become equal players in the market and thereby the dilemma is solved by being made irrelevant.

That, I am afraid, is that. If you think the above paragraph makes little sense, I cannot blame you. The first problem I had in trying to understand Mason’s idea is that he never explains exactly what a “pirate” is. The game theory illustration with which he makes his analogy hinges on the apparent clarity of the motivations of the actors involved. But a reluctance properly to define key terms effectively disables any real analysis of what Mason is proposing. A reluctance to define terms is also a weakness of both Gladwell and Leadbeater. Uncharitably, one can see why: it is easier to mould the evidence to suite your purpose. So here, Mason seems to count almost anyone as a pirate: file sharing kids, hardware hackers, pirate radio operators, 1960s dancehall reggae pioneers, rags-to-riches hip-hop MCs, punks, artists, nurses, counterfeiters, software developers and Richard Branson. The only discernible pattern appears to be that they are, or have been seen to be, either outside of an established market, or the eventual makers of one.

Even if we define a pirate as being simply a black market trader, Mason’s idea that partial competition with pirates benefits society less than full competition seems at best speculative from his evidence. At least, he certainly doesn’t define what a social benefit might be in this context. Also notable is the fact that he never once mentions black markets. On the whole, the argument appears to me to simply to melt away as you approach it. Finally, and with my infoviz hat on, the Venn diagrams he offers along the way contribute nothing to the elucidation.

The best that can be said is that Mason’s analysis, along with the evidence he provides, is that it shows youth culture is sticking it to the man and that it seems it is sticking it to him faster than ever before. To say this leaves us with some loose ends is, however, putting it mildly. What, exactly, has changed in the last 50 years? Where will this lead us?

I was therefore left wondering what to make of all this. I am sure that the most disappointing aspect of the book is its perpetuation of the cult of journalism. That modern genre of timid, anti-intellectualism is far too prevalent, and seems to me to be utterly inappropriate to the subject it is trying to address. Toe-curling street slang, name dropping and vapid meteorological scene-setting I can just about tolerate if the payload is effective, but it’s not. We are living in a golden age of experimentation in a wide variety of historic opportunities: copyright, community, the nature of government, economics and politics are being re-evaluated as never before. I do not deny the hard work that has gone in to researching the facts presented in The Pirate’s Dilemma. However, we need useful perspectives from which to view what is happening. This book only really provides a  narration of past and current events.