[iDC] Are We Google's Paint?

Michael Bauwens michelsub2003 at yahoo.com
Tue Jan 20 09:00:22 UTC 2009

Thanks Frank,

I think Lessig's metaphor is dangerous, because it implies that the Google docs, written by all of us, since most of the invisible (i.e. officially produced) web is not accessible via Google, are in fact just as worthless as paint ... This is not the case, but Google and other platforms do add a network effect to their original value.

So, certainly, all of us who produce documents for google, photo's for flickr, and videos for youtube are creating direct use value of our own, but Google creates on top of that, value out of aggegration and by building a platform which both enables it, extracts added layers of intelligence from it, and funds it plus makes a profit out of selling scarcity-driven extra value to the marketplace of 'attention'.

What is significant, is that people do create their own use value directly, without passing through the marketplace, but that new players find ways to monetize it, so we have a reconfiguration of 'workers' into peer producers, and capital owners into 'netarchical capitalists', who only marginally rely on intellectual property (but they do protect some data and added layers to keep them scarce, though they do this through secrecy and non-access rather than through IP) in their strategies.

This creates new fields of tension, which I have attempted to describe here:

The social web and its social contracts. Re-public, . Retrieved from http://www.re-public.gr/en/?p=261

From: Frank Pasquale <frank.pasquale at gmail.com>
To: iDC at mailman.thing.net
Sent: Monday, January 19, 2009 11:44:10 AM
Subject: [iDC] Are We Google's Paint?

Hi list,
Over the past few days I've been dipping into Cory Doctorow's Content, David Weinberger's Everything is Miscellaneous, and Larry Lessig's Remix. I like them all for different reasons; Doctorow is an irrepressible enthusiast for online openness, Weinberger connects that openness to older patterns of information storage and retrieval, and Lessig sings of the creativity it can unleash.
Anyone thinking deeply about the new relationships between art and commerce created by the internet should consult Lessig's book; it's beautifully written and animated by a strong moral vision of what the net can be.  However, this quote from Lessig provoked me: 
"Some draw a downright foolish conclusion from the fact that Google's value gets built upon other people's content. Andrew Keen, for example . . . writes 'Google is a parasite: it creates no content of its own.' But in the same sense you could say that all of the value in the Mona Lisa comes from the paint, that Leonardo da Vinci was just a 'parasite' upon the hard work of the paint makers. That statement is true in the sense that but for the paint, there would be no Mona Lisa. But it is false if it suggests that da Vinci wasn't responsible for the great value the Mona Lisa is. . . "
"The complete range of Google products is vast. But . . . practically everything Google offers helps Google build an extraordinary database of knowledge about what people want, and how those wants relate to the web. Every click you make in the Google universe adds to that database. With each click, Google gets smarter." (127-128)
The picture/paint metaphor is a provocative one. Is Lessig vividly illustrating the new economy mantra that information is rapidly being commoditized? I've always thought of Google as an aid to helping me find things--a utility that mixes elements of a telecom carrier and a card catalog index. Does Google's supervenient value of organizing the web by query really make it as much more meaningful, more expressive, than the content it indexes, as the Mona Lisa is more meaningful than paint? I know few people searching for search results, so I'll conclude that's not a good interpretation.
Another way of glossing the metaphor is to deem Google the "Lord of the Memes," because, as David Brooks wryly observes, "prestige has shifted from the producer of art to the aggregator and the appraiser." I like this interpretation because it complements Lessig's characterization of Google as "getting smarter" with every click.
Indeed it is--but it's also getting more powerful, more capable of framing your window on the world. We may celebrate a world where we can all personalize our search results, and where each of us has a chance to fight for salience in Google results on a topic (rather than pray for a New York Times editor to pull our editorial out of the slushpile). But do we really understand how that salience is determined? Is there any objective answer to how it should be done? And as in so much of our weightless economy online, isn't the perception of relevance really the reality? 
To his credit, Lessig has been more frank than most fans of Silicon Valley about the dangers this power poses (as this Jeffrey Rosen article notes): 
"During the heyday of Microsoft, people feared that the owners of the operating systems could leverage their monopolies to protect their own products against competitors," says the Internet scholar Lawrence Lessig of Stanford Law School. "That dynamic is tiny compared to what people fear about Google. They have enormous control over a platform of all the world's data, and everything they do is designed to improve their control of the underlying data. If your whole game is to increase market share, it's hard to do good, and to gather data in ways that don't raise privacy concerns or that might help repressive governments to block controversial content."
So perhaps we are left with the idea that Google does some good things, and some bad things--and that Lessig's new cause of anti-corruption activism is designed to produce a government capable of promoting the former and curbing the latter.
Anyway, I'm just wondering what types more creative than myself think of this implicit ordering of creative work and the technology that makes it accessible.
Frank Pasquale
Visiting Professor of Law, Yale Law School
PS: I have links and a bit more analysis of the issue here: 
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