When ‘free’ becomes really expensive

In the age of digital culture, it is not just access to art that has been democratized, but its production as well.

My iPod is packed with thousands of songs I’ve never listened to, by bands whose names I don’t recognize. The hard drive of my laptop contains dozens of movies I’ve downloaded and never watched, and if all goes according to the pattern, I will soon have a Kindle full of books I’ll never read by authors I don’t appreciate. I’m far from alone in this: in the age of digital reproduction, we treat art as a commodity—cheap, ubiquitous, and disrespected.

There’s been a lot of talk recently about economics in the digital age, thanks to a new book by Wired magazine editor Chris Anderson called Free: The Future of a Radical Price. As Malcolm Gladwell pointed out in his challenging review in The New Yorker, Anderson’s book is little more than an extended riff on the old cyberlibertarian slogan, “information wants to be free.” Gladwell’s review sparked a bit of a free-for-all amongst bloggers, with everyone from branding guru Seth Godin to Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban chiming in with their own opinions on the matter.  

Of course, information doesn’t want to be anything. It is just a good like any other, subject to the usual laws of supply and demand. For centuries information was scarce, and the heavy demand for news, culture, and other idea-laden goods made them expensive. We now live in a topsy-turvy world of information abundance, with a glut of ideas chasing an increasingly limited supply of demand, in the form of time or attention.

The focus of Anderson’s book, along with most of the commentary, is the effect of the “freeconomy” on the business models of newspapers, magazines and other enterprises that make a living by selling stuff made of ideas, when those ideas can be copied at a marginal cost only a shade above zero. But one issue that has been neglected in the discussion is the effect of “free” on art itself, on the nature of aesthetic experience when the only expense is the time it takes to consume it.

Decades ago, the cultural theorist Walter Benjamin wrote a famous (well, famous among cultural studies majors) essay called “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Benjamin explored what he called the “aura”—the sense of awe and veneration we have in the presence of an original, authentic work of art that has been created at a certain time for a specific ritual, exhibition, or performance.

The age of mechanical reproduction shattered art’s aura. With the rise of art forms like film and photography, the question of which is the “original” ceases to make any sense, and artistic experience was cut loose from the requirement to be in a specific place and time. When a movie opens “in cinemas everywhere,” everyone who sees it has the identical experience.

Benjamin saw this as a mixed blessing. He was wary of how the mechanical reproduction of art pushed it into the service of mass—and frequently totalitarian—politics. But at the same time, he conceded that widespread access to art had a democratizing influence, taking its consumption and appreciation out of the hands of the power-brokers and the elites.

In the age of digital culture, it is not just access to art that has been democratized, but its production as well. What we are seeing now is the fulfillment of the old Romantic ideal of every individual as a creative spirit, as millions of amateurs flood the Internet with their own songs, videos, photographs and stories. As a result, real artists have to go to increasingly strenuous lengths to capture a share of the public’s attention—a couple of months ago, for example, the musician Moby booked an entire spa so that journalists could listen to his new album while getting a massage.

A more delightful example of the attention economy at work comes courtesy of a fan of indie folk hero Sufjan Stevens. In 2007, Stevens held a contest, in which he awarded the rights to a new song, The Lonely Man of Winter, to a New York theatre director named Alec Duffy. While Stevens gave him the unconditional right to do whatever he wanted with the song (destroy it, use it to sell snowmobiles, etc.), most fans expected that Duffy would just put it online for all to hear. Instead, he decided that the only place to hear the song would be in his living room. Sufjan Stevens fans now make pilgrimages to Duffy’s Brooklyn apartment, where he serves tea, plays the song a few times, and then sends them on their way with a bag of cookies, a tune they’ll never hear again already fading in their minds.

So we are starting to see a turn toward forms of artistic experiences that by their nature can’t be digitized. In many ways, it marks a deliberate return to folk art traditions, based around works that are transient, ephemeral, and site specific. What this involves is the rehabilitation of the old idea of the unique, authentic work having an aura that makes it worthy of our profound respect. But in a reversal of Walter Benjamin’s analysis, the gain in deep artistic appreciation is balanced by a loss in egalitarian principle.

It also involves the return of power-brokers and elites who ration access to art and parcel it out at whim. After all, not every Sufjan Stevens fan can afford to fly to New York City just to hear a song, and not every musician can afford to rent out a massage parlour to curry favour with reviewers. It turns out that in the attention economy, a profound aesthetic experience becomes something that is free to those who can afford it, and very expensive to those who cannot.