Wednesday, January 18, 2012

All the World's Knowledge, and It's Theirs

On this morning when the always unimpeachable Wikipedia decided to show us that it is not simply a group of public-spirited citizens trying to bring the benefits of the link economy to everyone, but, in the end, just another business engaged in protecting its own interests at the expense of its customers -- even though, like any business, it would say that its long-term interests are of course in its customers' benefit, what's good for General Motors is... -- it brings to mind a recent Harper's article on Amazon's control of the book business.

 The story isn't available free online, but it basically concentrates on the Amazon-Macmillan feud over pricing. (Here's a look at publishers' options in the wake of that.) The piece is a jeremiad and not utterly convincing in broadening from its example to a universal argument that the gospel of "efficiency" is a corrupting influence on America. But its main argument is that companies like Amazon, Google, Microsoft, Apple -- and, yes, Wikipedia, even though it is organized very differently -- are just as much monopolists as Andrew Carnegie or John D. Rockefeller. Rockefeller presented what he was doing as ultimately in the public good by rationalizing the oil business to prevent price wars that drove producers out of business and to share the cost of capital investment so that the benefits of oil could be made available to the world. Doubtless it did that. It also did many other things not quite as beneficial to all.

Does that mean that Larry Page is a latter-day Henry Clay Frick? No, and it doesn't have to, although Jeff Bezos seems much more the Rockefeller of our day. We're not seeing goons going after Wobblies; those battles have been outsourced, if they are to happen at all. And instead of the railroads setting ludicrously high prices for Midwestern farmers, we see Amazon selling online books at a loss. So perhaps it is different and the innovative giants of our age are merely enabling a flowering of human culture unlike what has ever been seen. Perhaps legislation such as that Wikipedia and others are fighting are continuing attempts by the Old Economy to strangle innovation and restore monopolistic controls.

On the other hand, Wikipedia told all of its users and contributors today: You may think this is yours. We've told you this is yours. But we own it. And we can do with it what we want. That's the way of monopolies and oligopolies. In the end, they get arrogant. Can't be helped, probably. That's not the point. The point is that millions of people around the world still believe, "This time, it'll be different." That coolness and connectivity are worth any price that those who offer them exact. That the people who offer them are the good side of Steve Jobs without the bad. Maybe they are. Or maybe Google is today's Standard Oil.

The public needs to debate and decide, but somehow the flow of information seems to have made it harder to hear anything except talk about issues where the lines were drawn in the pre-Internet era -- so many of which still seem to be men talking about whether women were created by God as vessels for babymaking and little else.


David Dean said...

Wikipedia don't control the content, just the servers, as is their right: they pay to run the servers. The content is dumped regularly and mirrored in many locations. See

Davisull said...

Twitter, though, in its response about local censorship, has answered this question in a manner more in line with the point I raised.