Friday, February 27, 2009

Fun with Anticorporatism

Like many people, I have a bit of an anticorporate streak. Like most of us, I feel this way largely because corporations tend towards making money by screwing people over rather than by providing valuable goods or services in the most efficient manner.

I'm not naively anticorporate, though. Instead, I like to study and think about things. And one thing that's worth looking into are the various anticorporate subcultures that have arisen.

My interest is only in the cultures that have arisen organically from technological advances. Centralized anticorporate movements based around "ideals" have no interest to me because they are inherently doomed and transient. On the other hand, the following subcultures can teach us something about the fundamental transitions we're seeing as technology advances.

Of course, my definitions and examples are going to be based on my personal experiences/research, and I'm sure many other people will have other views on the matter. Similarly, cultures are fuzzy and always changing, so in five years none of this will be relevant. But it's a fun thought experiment.


The most commonly referenced anticorporate culture in America, this term is extremely fuzzy. Whatever it may have meant in the past, it has now come to mean people who illegally duplicate data for personal enjoyment.

This cultural label grew out of the fact that we would call illegally duplicated stuff "pirate". Today we may still refer to those cheap, illegal knockoffs as pirate goods, but we understand that it isn't what the culture is really about these days: modern software pirates have no interest in physical goods when they can simply get everything off the internet digitally.

While pirates often share media, it's not usually about making money. It's more about not spending money, and pirates often have very strong views about the companies attempting to lock the data away from them. While the majority of pirates simply get songs and videos in this way, many pirates also download software or crack existing software to add illegal functionality. In nearly all cases, the pirate culture is about disabling the restrictions on data (including software).

The companies complaining most about piracy are in industries that were initially about enabling new capabilities for their customers. Initially, you bought an album because it let you listen to your favorite artist. You bought a copy of Excel because it let you do spreadsheet stuff. These were not capabilities that were otherwise easy to come by.

However, as technology advanced, these capabilities became very easy to come by, to the point where it's actually easier to get them for free instead of paying. The corporations, in an attempt to save their business model, began to prosecute anyone who distributed the capabilities they specialized in. This often required rewriting the laws of the nation to make duplicating data illegal.

Both sides have ethical arguments - one side claims it's stealing, the other side claims the first side is oppressive and driving would-be customers away. The truth is that these simplistic justifications are a product of the situation, rather than any kind of actual morality, and are all irrelevant in the long run.

As time goes on, we can probably expect to see pirates win. Data is fundamentally impossible to restrict, after all. This means that the industries that were originally about providing this data will have to change their business strategy or go out of business. The latter is dramatically more likely, as this kind of data is becoming easier and easier to produce as well as distribute.


Ah, China. Land of the cheap knock-off.

Shanzhai stands for "mountain village", and is a reference to the idea of lawless, bandit villages. It is therefore vaguely similar in tone to our term "pirate".

Classically, shanzhai knockoffs have been pretty depressingly bad, largely about tricking people into buying them. If you get a shanzhai shirt, it's going to be a lot crappier than the name-brand shirt its pretending to be. Actually, it'll often be a lot worse quality than a generic shirt, since it's relying on camouflage, not quality.

However, in modern China "shanzhai" is slowly making the transition to a different meaning. Modern technological devices such as cell phones and MP3 players can be put on the market for half to a third the cost of their name-brand equivalents. Their functionality is typically in the same ballpark if you know what non-brands to buy, and in many cases is flatly superior because the name brand items are full of corporate crippleware or are missing expensive, patented codecs or functions that shanzhai products have no problem putting in.

This is not some shiny never-never land of joy, of course: shanzhai products are still made with bottom-dollar components and are made to make money. If you know what you're looking for, you'll probably get something that works as well as the original, although with a shorter lifespan... but it's pretty easy to get scammed. Worse, the lack of restrictions and keen eye on the bottom dollar leads to many products being actually poisonous or otherwise dangerous.

You can even consider the pseudo-researched medical procedures to be shanzhai in that manner, although I'm sure city teens would dismiss them as being some other subculture.

There are ethical arguments for and against shanzhai culture, and they are fundamentally the same as the arguments for and against piracy. They have the same causes and, ultimately, the same result. However, shanzhai culture is unlikely to start appearing in western nations unless the economy gets REALLY bad.


Instead, western nations are developing a subculture of makers.

Makers focus on build-it-yourself technologies, and can get some surprisingly high-quality end products: some makers even build bipedal robots. Makers are not about making cheap knock-offs, makers are really about creating customized items, usually using high-tech tools.

Unlike piracy and shanzhai, making things in this way is usually pretty close to legal, depending on how well-paid the prosecution lawyers are. So it doesn't really have any ethical combat going on with the corporations. Yet.

But it shows signs that it will develop these conflicts for the same reason the other examples already have them. Corporations ideally exist to give out capabilities efficiently: a corporation makes cars, cars let you drive around, people buy cars because it's better than walking.

Corporations have shown that they always, without fail turn to attacking movements that grant people the same basic capabilities they grant. So, once makers become common enough that people are driving maker cars or wearing maker clothes, we'll probably see corporations suddenly coming up with ethical reasons that DYI culture is evil.

And it will go that way, because technology will continue to advance. In fact, with the economy being somewhat dented, I expect to see a rise in DYI culture in general - more people with gardens, for example. While growing a garden is probably not considered part of maker culture, the two are synergistic, and as one rises so will the other.

At least, that's my theory.

What do you think?


Ellipsis said...

One thing - if makers become much more widespread, that creates a market for tools, and once that is tapped into, you have a competing business interest that wants to promote makers, which seems like it would break the situation in favor of the makers.

That said, I'm not sure how confident I am that many people really will become makers. It seems like paying for convenience is one of the fundamental features of modern American society.

Craig Perko said...

I don't know about the market for tools: I think that makers will probably arise to make tools for makers. There will be a market, sure, but I'm not sure how big it will be.

As to convenience, you're definitely right. But not everyone has to BE a maker for everyone to BE INVOLVED with the culture. A single maker can easily provide their specialty for a number of people.

It's similar to the web: not everyone had a web page, but those that didn't still benefited. These days, of course, it's so easy to have a web page that everyone seems to have one. The convenience of not having a web page is overshadowed by the self-expression of having one.

I think that's probably the same path the maker culture will follow.

Patrick said...

Value added food products produced by local agriculture will factor into this heavily as the collapse of nitro-fueled, eroding topsoil drives the cost of industrial food up in coming years. Then you'll have the reprap users, the modders, and all the rest of it.

Craig Perko said...

Doomsayers have been predicting those kinds of things for thousands of years. I give that a less than one percent chance of happening to first world countries.

Chill said...

What about a decentralized anticorporate movement based on an "ideal" of community?

Like say... the Amish?.

Well, though I wonder if there the argument that the Amish did arise from technical advances. Just older ones....

Craig Perko said...

I believe such movements are inherently doomed, in the long run. They don't grow, and when they stagnate, they tend to skew and degrade.

Chill said...

"in the long run" How long are you talking about? They got more than a few centuries under their belt. I'm not saying it's permanent but certainly it'll at least last long enough to morph into something else.

I wouldn't say they don't grow. They just don't grow a lot. Though that's besides the point. The point i think is that they've sustained their communities since colonial times, among one of the most technology loving cultures, America.

The point of the article i linked, was that part of this accomplishment is due to them NOT being Luddites, at least in the traditional sense. They are willing to embrace advances, but they have a clear metric under which they judge incoming technology.

Craig Perko said...

I'm not trying to knock centralized cultures. But I just don't see them changing the world. They aren't able to propagate like that.