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Peer Pressure

By Joab Jackson | Posted 2/21/2001

A few days ago on ArtMobile, a mailing list for local art-minded folks, list honcho Richard Tryzno Ellsberry posted one of his deliberately provocative questions: "For the benefit of our naive readers (me), would anyone like to make a stab at explaining succinctly what has been revolutionary about Napster?"

One of the many things that have been said and written about Napster is that it's really just a hint of something much larger, something--here we go with that word again--revolutionary.

And I agree. Why? File-sharing services such as Napster threaten, in a major way, to shift control of entertainment and information away from centralized sources--say, your favorite multinational corporation--and back to people, who can (and always have) shared such things among themselves. That sounds vague, I know, and when I responded to Ellsberry's query I didn't explain it very succinctly. I probably won't now, either. I am only starting to see how deeply subversive something like Napster really is--as a result, I think, of getting a cable modem.

A cable modem, you see, is on all the time. And having a dedicated line has slowly shifted my perspective on what the Internet is all about. These days, I keep one computer online 24/7, not only to have round-the-clock e-mail and instant weather information when I'm home (check out WeatherBug), but to access my files when I'm out. When I'm at work, I can just download any MP3s I want, grab notes I've left behind, or fetch anything I want someone else to read/see/hear. And I have begun to realize that computers make accessibility and transferability of information easier than even I, Mr. Tech Columnist, thought possible. Much easier.

What makes this level of accessibility more than a mere convenience--what makes it outright radical--is the advent of file-indexing services like Napster. Napster is the first successful example of what the buzzworders like to call peer-to-peer networking, or P2P for short. As you may know, Napster doesn't actually have copies of the songs people download; its servers merely index the MP3s on its participants' own hard drives and allows them to search through each other's collections.

This ability to index and share, of course, isn't limited to music. Anything that can be represented in digital form, from pornography to software, can be traded or used in like fashion. P2P will allow you to have your own personal library, open for anyone to enjoy. And why not? Sharing won't cost you anything, and, unlike the real-life loan of, say, a book, it won't deprive you of the work should you want to return to it. The potential result is a collection of widely available material to dwarf that of any library or entertainment network.

The Web itself carried with it the promise of that kind of deep library, but for various reasons the originators of content haven't been vigilant about keeping it in the public sphere. As Nelson Minar and Marc Hedlund point out in an essay in the anthology Peer-to-Peer: Harnessing the Power of Disruptive Technologies, P2P allows anyone to become a publisher. A music label spending millions of dollars to set up its own site where one could download product would simply be redundant. And with the middlemen cut out of the distribution cycle, how long would it take for their influence to be eliminated from the cultural loop altogether? Indeed, underground hits are already happening without any record-company help, like that "Hat Song" video everyone has been e-mailing about lately (www.come. to/hatten).

Of course, as with any utopian fantasy, there are huge problems in applying this notion in the the real world. The chief one here is the one that the music industry is fighting Napster over: How do creators get compensated for creating stuff? With everyone out there freely swapping around bits, how will the artists and writers and programmers who originated those bits get paid for their efforts?

Honestly, I don't know. I've thought about this for more than a year, since Napster started making major inroads, and I still don't have any idea.

But I don't think any of the solutions already proposed are likely to work. I'm not hip on creating some sort of socialistic entertainment state where everyone gets paid equally out of some big pot of cash. (Can you imagine, say, Eminem applying for a government grant?) Voluntary payment systems that allow you to tip musicians, such as Fairtunes, seem to scatter people faster than a PBS pledge drive. Any sort of mandatory pay-per-use system will require tracking mechanisms that would engender all the usual privacy concerns--and, inevitably, will be cracked, requiring ever more costly and cumbersome security measures.

Still, as the cost of distributing digital content shrinks to near zero, the idea of charging for it will seem increasingly pointless, like taxing the air that we breathe. And churning out and distributing endless amounts of shiny plastic discs and bound paper volumes simply so the appropriate parties can get paid will seem not only environmentally obscene, but pointlessly backward.

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