Digital Being Free

When I was 12 years old, I was super-proud. I’d finally accomplished the one thing that my buddy John had yet to do. It took a month, a lot of diligence, and some trial and error, but I finally did it.

My Winamp playlist had reached 25 songs.

It was a big deal.

 No one else on the block had as much music as I did. John lived a few blocks away, and even him—a rich kid with a cable modem and 4 gig hard drive—had a poor working knowledge of music and lacked the patience to download a full playlist. In fact, he would download a song, listen to it a few times, and delete it because “it got old.” It wouldn’t be until years later that he would make mini-discs filled with music that would eventually scatter the backseat and trunk of his car. As a pre-teen, however, he was much too concerned with hiding porn from his mom on an ftp site than he was about building a music collection.

Back then, it was one medium at a time, a “pick your poison” style of consumption. Processors weren’t that great and a person worried about fires and literal machine meltdowns when music played in the background of games and other applications. I blew-up two computers before I was 18.

Regardless, my music collection was my claim to fame and I reveled in my collecting abilities compared to John. I prided myself on the knowledge I’d acquired about navigating share sites like Scour, AudioGalaxy, Morpheus and eventually Kazaa and Napster. I’d sit and play with MS Paint, search TuCows for wallpaper schemes, and work on developing the flashiest (and gaudiest) AngelFire site that I could. I basked in the family’s office, able to escape from the surveillance of my parents, learning the words to “Bittersweet Symphony” by The Verve, “What Would You Say” by Dave Mathews Band, “Hunger Strike” by Temple of the Dog, and anything by Primus as I flirted with classmates and stirred up gossip on AIM.

This was the digital world in which I was reared—a lifestyle enclave that I’m pretty sure any other 26-year-old, middle-class, technophile might describe. Being “on the computer” was a nightly activity that provided a sense of freedom and mobility away my parents, chores, and school work. Beyond the $10 a month “high-speed” cable plan that my parents paid every month as they gritted teeth and hung over my head, the web was free reign.

Music was free. Wallpapers were free. Access to John’s ftp site was free. Paying for anything was never even a thought. Why would this stuff on the Internet—which was pretty hard to locate and laborious to acquire—cost any money? To a 12 year old, money grows on tall trees out of reach, and the Internet was not for tall people. It was for people like me—short people; young people; free people. Like in Peter Pan, we were the lost boys—free to our own digital devices.

I learned to be a pirate at an early age, but I didn’t know that it was piracy. I thought it was surfing the web. At 12, legal realities are nothing but futurist fantasies. Semantic contagion soon took its form and I came to understand digital practice as rife with controversy.

Fast forward to college—to University networks with End User License Agreements that threatened to sue and sell your information whether you agreed or not; to stories of kids being hauled to jail for downloading music; to worries about child pornography on public networks; to suggestions from analysts on FOX news that Columbine happened because of Internet archives; to discourse about terrorists recruiting Americans for suicide bombings via Facebook; to Criagslist killers; to Megan Meyer’s cyberbullying suicide; to stolen identities; to politician and athlete Twitter scandals; to…

The list goes on and on.

In ten years, the Internet went from a free place to a dark place. I grew up. I learned about the law. I learned that artists liked to make money from their music and that, if it was good music, they were entitled to that money.

But I didn’t care. They could still play it live.

I kept on pirating. Kept on asking my cable guy how closely the company monitored downloads, slipping him a few bucks for faster service, under the table. I sought out and discovered sites like TVLinks, ISOHunt and The Pirate Bay, where I could find movies that weren’t yet released, download software that was well beyond my economic reach, and continue to build my music library until it touched the digital sky.

25 songs become 50 gigs worth of songs as bandwidth increased and download speeds soared. I thought I was doing something really rebellious, but when I asked around I found myself trailing behind the content collection leaders by far. In the world of digital pirates, I was practically the Swiss Family Robinson. Most had discovered bit-torrent long before I did and had exclusive access to sites like OiNK’s Pink Palace for every media longing their hearts desired.

I grew up at a time when cognitive surplus was welling up around personal computer consoles, where social and cultural capital was circulating at rates that were historically unmatched. I learned to be digital by being free. Much of the conceptual purchase-power of the early days of that culture—when the Internet was far from ubiquitous—stemmed from the non-monetary value of exchange. Digital practices like downloading music, scouring freeware, and surveying the depths of the “information super-highway” had value because they provided a certain freedom to the user, a way of “doing virtual” that was eventually redeveloped by venture capitalists and government officials, annexed by the corporation and the state.

What was incredibly important to an entire generation who grew up awed and emaciated with digital technologies in the house, easy enough to use, and interesting enough to be fun, became a battle ground for economic warfare and legal bargaining. Ironically, the more money I put into my digital devices now-a-days, the less I appreciate them or the experience they facilitate. Isn’t that funny?

Isn’t that sad. It’s like losing your digital innocence.

To me and my cohort, free culture had less to do with money and more to do with possibility. Music sharing and collecting used to be about possibility, and embedded in that digital practice was a not just a value, but a virtue that came to define the entire digital culture.

Music sharing was never really about not paying for music—that was just a perk realized fully once the generation came of age, got jobs, and witnessed the invention of the iPod. Music was a matter of prestige, a way to show that you had taste and knowledge bundled up in digital know-how. In the world we live in now, technology centered law creates a fertile ground for breeding guilt in youth who want to listen to music, share their wealth of artist knowledge, and learn how to express themselves through networked machines.

Music will never be their method for cultivating knowledge. Not like it was for my cohort. I was taught from the get-go that digital culture was non-commercial. Somewhere over time that changed entirely. Value was lost. But it might be coming back.

Lawrence Lessig (2004) makes a good point when he suggests that “competing with free” is a good thing because “the competition spurs the competitors to offer new and better products. This is precisely what the competitive market was to be about” (p. 302). What he could never have conceived before the advent of behemoth social network sites like Facebook, which reestablish the valance of social and cultural capital in exchange, was that free could be marketed and profited from itself in a network society.

Applications like Spotify have changed the game in ways that have only begun to be understood by most. Their business model, which exchanges free access to the world’s music (songs which are upload by individual users themselves) for subjection to advertising, shows that a free culture is still the richest culture that digital people have. It is hard to compete with free when it is done as well as Spotify has done it. In fact, you could say Spotify has changed the definition of free, so that it disbands from including monetary value in its reference at all.

Or maybe I’ve been brainwashed by all of the ads.

I guess that’s just the price you pay.

Creative Commons License
PLE's Digital Being Free by Nicholas A. Riggs is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.
Based on a work at


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