Free Ride: How the Internet Is Destroying the Culture Business and How the Culture Business Can Fight Back

Fuzzy logic.

Free Ride: How the Internet Is Destroying the Culture Business and How the Culture Business Can Fight Back
Robert Levine
Bodley Head, 320pp, £18.99

The subtitle of Robert Levine's Free Ride leaves little room for ambiguity. Levine - an editor and writer on technology - may or may not have provided the line about "how the internet is destroying the culture business". Its bluntness, however, is of a piece with his book, which pulls few punches.

Free Ride's bruising style seems likely to change few minds, either inside new media corporations or among their more proselytising consumers. This is a shame, not because Levine offers an entirely persuasive analysis of the digital present, but because he dares to challenge one of its most deforming orthodoxies: that the only route to a better future lies in the unqualified embrace of a service-oriented, ad-supported, metric-led digital "logic".

As he rightly points out, the evangelical embrace of this idea takes a form that is often closer to faith than reason. It is hard to argue in principle with words such as "open" and "free". What they can mean in practice, however, is that we give priority to infrastructure at the expense of allowing creators any control over what they make - let alone the possibility of profit.

Behind this lies a simple commercial truth: the flat, open structure of the internet has helped a small number of companies make vast sums of money by controlling navigation and distribution, while hollowing out the capacity of those creating original media content to make any profit at all. "Traditional media companies aren't in trouble because they're not giving consumers what they want," Levine writes. "They're in trouble because they can't collect money for it."

No one seriously disputes that huge damage has been done to old media business models, both by disruptive technology and by corporate cack-handedness. Yet the question is how much this matters. We are not, after all, in the business of mourning the monastic scriptoriums made redundant by the birth of printing - nor, for that matter, the thousands of performers whom recorded music and television put out of work less than a century ago. As even Levine points out, the monetisation of media has never stood still. Since the 1980s, home viewing has risen from virtually non-existent to become one of the most crucial avenues for a film's profits in the form of DVDs and Blu-ray. Film companies have come to rely on this money, but who is to say this situation is either inevitable or necessary?

Levine's thesis on this question is at its most persuasive when he invokes the philosopher and computer scientist Jaron Lanier. "If you want to know what's really going on in a society or ideology, follow the money," Lanier has argued. "If money is flowing to advertisers instead of musicians, journalists and artists, then a society is more concerned with manipulation than truth or beauty." Once the public has swallowed the ethos that content is worthless and quantifiable, audience attention is all that matters. Creative activity risks becoming little more than self-promotion.

Above all, though, Levine's concern is market failure - and whether old media organisations will yet build successful new models. Reform copyright, he suggests, and make infringement a minor offence, on the level of a parking fine, and as cheap. Build a "better than free" system of digital rights management and cloud-based movie viewing. And give internet service pro­viders a legal incentive to care more about piracy taking place on their platforms.

These are good points, especially the suggestion to reform copyright. Yet I find it difficult to see the power of the new giants - Amazon, Apple, Google - doing anything other than growing, and with it, the disaggregation of the old media order gathering pace. Most professional creatives, by definition, follow the money. If this money leads to the doors of new media and its models of ad-supported service and metrics-led marketing, it is likely that most will migrate, breeding the next generation of hits, bestsellers and wannabes in a brand new context. For all its author's passionate conviction, Free Ride reads more like an obituary than a plan of attack.

Tom Chatfield's "Summer of Unrest: Activism or Slacktivism?" is published by Vintage Digital (£3.74 ebook)

This article first appeared in the 12 September 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron vs the shires