Sunday, October 5, 2008
The Pirate's Dilemma
The Pirate's Dilemma: How Youth Culture is Reinventing Capitalism by Matt Mason
"DIY is changing our labor markets, and creativity is becoming our most valuable currency." (p 31)
This book is like the evil twin brother of Anne Elizabeth Moore's Unmarketable. It too is about the relationship of underground culture to marketing, only rather than a critique it is more of an inspirational/motivational/how-to-compete-in-the-new-world manual. Sometimes he seems to be addressing "the kids," other times it's closer to a corporate consulting spiel.
Mason's idea of "pirates" is broad and he brilliantly weaves together pirate radio, pirated DVDs, graffiti, open source software, illegal downloads, game modding, punk, and a game theory model called "The Pirate's Dilemma." What his pirate examples have in common is that in each one a practice threatens the players in an existing market by doing business outside the rules of the market. This puts the existing companies in a "Pirate's Dilemma." Something like this... people pirate just-released movies, press them as DVDs and sell them on the street. The movie industry is threatened. But the fact that people buy these DVDs just proves that that there is a market for low-quality DVDs of brand new movies. The non-pirates have to decide whether to fight the pirates or start to compete like a pirate. If they fight the pirates - for instance, try to shut them down legally - the best the industry can hope for is a return to the market conditions they had before the pirates. But if the existing companies put on their pirate hats and start acting like pirates then they are competing in their old market (say the movie theaters) and in the new market opened up by the pirates (DVDs sold on the street the same week that the movie is released). The pirates look like a threat but actually they do everyone a favor by opening up a bigger market.
His examples are of kids, artists, underground culture, etc but it all comes back to a marketer's view of the world.
He writes that the "The Situationist notion of making art indistinguishable from everyday life is now known as branding." (p 21) But that's only if you accept that advertising = art. Not really what the Situationists had in mind.
In the fashion industry he says that cheap knock-offs of designer wear actually do the designers a favor. Once the rich and stylish people see that other people have cheap versions of their designer clothes then the clothes are obsolete and they are ready to buy a new round of new improved designer clothes. The new outfits will be exclusive at firsts but then also be knocked off and easily available. This is how pirate's drive innovation. Which is wonderful, I guess, if you are a fashion designer or a boutique. For the rest of the world it's just cycles of consumerism, built-in obsolescence and more crap for the landfill.
He starts off with the idea of "punk capitalism." His two examples are Vice magazine (and its spin-offs) and American Apparel. The idea is that "punk capitalists" do what they want without concern for an audience. They're not afraid to be obnoxious or offensive and money is not their prime motivator. They put "purpose next to profit." Fair enough, I guess, even though I think that Vice and American Apparel are pretty horrible examples. It's great that because of American Apparel you can easily buy non-sweatshop t-shirts. The company has other progressive policies as well. But is it really so punk to build the company's image around an aura of sexual exploitation? But even going with these examples the problem is that Mason doesn't discuss the economics of autonomy. Can a business really pursue "punk capitalism" if it isn't independently owned? How long can you "do what you want" if it's not delivering the goods for a parent company?
Mason is an entertaining writer and he goes on convincingly about grime, pirate DJs in London, hip-hop clothing lines and graffiti. But he calls Linux an "open source company" though, so he may actually be bluffing through a lot of the youth culture stuff too.
One pirate reference he does not work in is Hakim Bey's use of the concept of "pirate utopias." Which doesn't really fit anyway; because he's interested in the efficiency of markets, not freedom, transformation or resistance.
Despite my criticisms, I think this is an amazing book. All along the way I would think, "Oh, that's cool if you are a capitalist who wants to learn from youth culture, but how can I reverse-engineer what he's saying and get something out of it?"