Skip to content →

From Industrial production and low prices to the digital and no price

Xerox Machine

I liked this article by Kevin Kelly so much I thought about copying the whole thing in this blog post. And I suppose I could have taken credit for it by changing the font, or maybe the color of the font, and calling it appropriation like Sherrie Levine or Richard Prince. Copying, reproduction and appropriation are tricky concepts, but Kelly makes some nice progress in thinking through value in the age of digital reproduction.

I particularly liked this quote:

When copies are super abundant, they become worthless. When copies are super abundant, stuff which can’t be copied becomes scarce and valuable.

When the product is digital, it is in its core, super abundant. Kelly’s essay looks for value in other places, in what he calls the “generative.” He defines these as kinds of things that can’t be copied, like trust, immediacy, authenticity, etc. For instance, we will pay for the container that we like. A book exists in many forms, sometimes the traditional hardcover format is just what we want. Other times a digital version is what we need when we’re searching for a particular piece of text. The actual book doesn’t exist outside of its containers.

One reason to posit this range of new manifestations of value is to stop the legal crusades against consumer in an attempt to enforce the economics of scarcity with digital products. If we allow the digital to be abundant, what can we sell? What will have value? Television is freely distributed, it aggregates audiences and sells advertising. Most of the content sites on the web work based on this age old model.

The problem with scarcity is that it’s undemocratic. A scarce resource, if there’s a market for it, sells for a high price. Few can afford it. Mass production and mass consumption of the affordable is where real money is made. It’s that jump from industrial production and low prices to digital reproduction and no price that is confounding. Mass production and digital production will need to combine into a seamless stream of the free and the cheap.

Published in art artists culture economics value