The Case for Infosocialism

When Ed Felten says you’re wrong, you are almost certainly wrong. For those of you who don’t know, Ed Felten is a computer scientist and technology policy guru who, along with my friend David Robinson, runs Princeton’s Center for Information Technology Policy. I just wrote a short piece for Slate advancing the decidedly unpopular Terry Fisher notion that the feds should compensate copyright holders directly for the use of creative works through a kind of music tax. This is an idea I first toyed with here at TAS, and it received some withering, very sound criticism from fellow _TAS_er Tim Lee during at informal chat at my first soup party.

To Felten’s concluding question,

This is the fundamental problem of copyright policy in the digital age. It’s easy for people to get copyrighted works without paying. So either you forgo payment entirely, or you give somebody the mandate to collect payment. Who would you prefer: record companies or the government?

I have a couple of first-cut responses. First, as Tim has suggested, I think forgoing payment is not the end of the world. I allude to alternative revenue streams (live performance, Kevin Kelly’s brilliant notion of the 1,000 True Fans), and this may well be the future. Second, I tend to think the government would be preferable to the record companies — at least in theory, we have some degree of democratic accountability. Perhaps that is naive of me, and I’m more liberal than that implies (classically liberal, that is). My secret agenda, an agenda that would have taken too long to situate and explain in the piece, is what the RPG Transhuman Space calls “nanosocialism.”

Only at The American Scene will you hear such insanity. Bear with me. I feel the need to stress this in part because some may have mistaken me for a Big Music of pro-copyright patsy, which couldn’t be further from the truth.

Nanosocialism, in the Transhuman Space world, is an offshoot of infosocialism.

The core of the ideology is that information is very different from material goods in that it can be given away without the former holder losing anything. And since information can be used for the good of humanity no one should be able to claim the rights to an idea. Simply put – if someone figures out a cure for cancer, every cancer patient has the right to it.

In an ideal world, every idea would belong to humanity as a whole. Since this is impossible as it is an infosocialist would argue that ideas should be owned by the government or an overreaching entity that could make sure that anyone got the info they needed. This same entity would also pay the thinkers who come up with the ideas/write the songs/write the theses.

I’d add that we’d want copyrights to lapse very quickly, as in The Economist‘s excellent proposal. The reward system would pay out for the life of the copyright. I must say, I’m also sympathetic to the David Levine view.

If I produce a cup of coffee, I have the right to choose whether or not to sell it to you or drink it myself. But my property right is not an automatic right both to sell you the cup of coffee and to tell you how to drink it.

Read the whole essay — Boldrin and Levine quote Heinlein, which is always a promising sign.

I think my core ideology is a marriage free market economics in stuff and infosocialism in ideas (using Fisher-style reward systems and other unconventional methods). To the extent we want to engage in meliorist projects, we should try to get prices right. Given that the government is bad at getting prices right, we should be very humble about the effort, and very reluctant to pursue carbon taxes, etc.

“But Reihan, these schemes are unworkable!” You could be right, for now. We need to think creatively about institutional design.