Digital Sculptures

Brave New World at Odds with Craven Old World


Last updated: 2020.01.11

The more I think about this, the more I'm convinced that something is dreadfully wrong with the way the National Information Infrastructure (the Information Superhighway's official name) is being designed. I'm not just talking about the NII's saturation with home shopping, video games, and Pay-Per-View (recently renamed to "Video on Demand"). I'm talking about a much deeper aspect.

Most people salivating after the business opportunities the NII will offer seem to be making a fundamental assumption which, no matter how I look at it, is false. Completely, utterly, and incontrovertibly false.

The assumption, stated briefly, is this:

The digital medium is and should be treated like every other currently existing medium.

Yes, there are obvious superficial differences between the digital medium and other existing media, just as there are obvious differences between still photography, motion pictures, and television. The digital medium -- by which I mean anything composed of ones and zeros, be it software, imagery, audio, etc. -- carries with it a new aspect the like of which is deeply profound and which must be faced honestly, lest we get into serious trouble down the road.

The digital medium is the first medium developed on this planet where things can be duplicated perfectly at insignificant cost (and in most cases, immeasurably small cost). In the real world, if you want to make a copy of something (like a sculpture, for instance), you either have to learn a boatload of sculpting skills, or find someone who already has such skills and convince them to do the work for you (usually by paying them). The copy resulting from such work can vary anywhere from laughable to indistinguishable. In no case, however, will such a copy be absolutely perfect.

In the digital medium, however, this is far from the case. One need only press a button (or, in the case of MS-DOS, a whole bunch of buttons in exactly the right order) to create a copy of an original so utterly precise, it is completely indistinguishable from the original. The duplication process itself takes very little time and costs virtually nothing.

This ease of duplication worries a lot of copyright holders -- mostly the music and movie industries -- who seek to make their works available on the NII. Their response to this has been to petition Washington to strengthen the rights and actions of recourse available to intellectual property holders. Unfortunately, this is completely the wrong solution, because it presupposes that the digital medium is like the rest of the world. It's not.

What the intellectual property purveryors don't appear to recognize is that, by making available a digital "object" (an image, a movie, a program, etc.), they are not offering you any raw material. They are restructuring raw material you already own. In the real world, if you buy a sculpture, you have actually obtained raw material (the baked clay). In the digital medium, however, when you buy a program, you haven't got any new raw material (ignoring the floppy). However, when you load the program into your computer, the bits already existing inside your computer's memory are restructured to match those on the disk. Once run, the program continues to restructure the computer's memory bits.

Understand clearly that you already own the bits, because you bought them when you bought the computer, and the memory inside it. All software is is a particular arrangement of those bits. The same is true of digital imagery, digital audio, digital movies, etc. The bits themselves may be stored on a variety of carrier media: memory, floppy disks, CD's, telephone lines, network cables, PCMCIA cards, etc. Ultimately, however, the bits are the medium in which is embodied the creative work of programmers, musicians, graphic artists, and others. The computer is the tool used to sculpt the bits, and the bits are infinitely malleable.

This is an important concept. Imagine for a moment that you found a sculpture made of a clay that could be infinitely reworked. You originally bought it in the form of Michelangelo's David. Once you got it home, however, you apply your sculpting skills and reshape the clay into a respectable rendition of The Thinker.

Question: What have you bought? Have you bought David? Have you bought The Thinker? Or have you simply bought a lump of clay?

This seemingly ludicrous intellectual abstraction is actually a fundamental reality in the digital domain, because everything there is made of the same stuff: infinitely malleable bits. It's as if all sculpture were made of the above-mentioned clay.

This points up the question of how to set the value of a particular configuration of clay. The original sculptor of David may have their own ideas about what the sculpture is worth, based on their skill level, time spent, investment in tools, and other factors. The purchaser, however, obviously didn't value it highly, because they went and reshaped the clay into The Thinker. A third party may value the David sculpture even more highly than its creator. A fourth party may value The Thinker more highly than David, but less highly than a rendition of Venus de Milo made of the same stuff. None of these views is necessarily incorrect. Thus, the value of a particular configuration of clay is an entirely subjective judgement which varies on an individual basis. In this light, all you can legitimately charge for is the value of the clay, since its value doesn't vary from sculpture to sculpture.

In the digital domain, bits are even more malleable than clay, and we have computers to make the digital replicas automatically and perfectly. And since you aren't actually obtaining new bits, but restructuring the bits you already have, all you can legitimately charge for is the value of the bits on the floppy. After all, who's to say that one particular arrangement of bits is more or less valuable than any other arrangement of bits?

Proof by Induction

By now you're probably thinking, "Oh, great. Yet another 'Information is free' rant," and wondering how information could possibly be free when it costs so much to arrange the bits in the first place.

Permit me to cast your imagination, say, 400 years into the future. With the help of high-speed computers and hyper-dense memory cores, Mankind has finally perfected a matter replicator. You place an object inside the device and punch 'Scan'. The atomic structure of the object is scanned and recorded in memory. You then remove the original, shovel dirt inside it, load up the atomic structure, turn on the juice, and in moments, you have a perfect copy of the original object, right down to the individual dispositions of the quarks. It even carbon-dates the same as the original.

So you call up your friend Brad and ask, "Say, Brad, can I borrow your BMW for five minutes?" He agrees. You back the Beamer into the scanner, snapshot its atomic matrix, pump in some more dirt and energy, and moments later, a perfect copy of Brad's BMW emerges. "Thanks, Brad," you say, and Brad leaves with his original car.

Question: Have you stolen anything? You've paid for the dirt, you've paid for the energy, you've paid for the machine, and Brad still has his own BMW. So has there been a theft?

According to today's software lawyers, yes you have. You have made an unauthorized copy of BMW's intellectual property. BMW's engineers would probably want to have a word with you, too. After all, if you just go off and make copies of their cars without paying them, what incentive do they have to bother inventing them in the first place?

Surprise in The Wings

The issue of how to compensate the creators of original works is an important one. We'd like to encourage creative people to continue to come up with wonderful things we can all enjoy. But how are such people motivated to go to the trouble if their work can be copied infinitely and perfectly, as it can be today in the digital medium?

Consider again the matter replicator. In a world where such a device exists, the need for money -- or indeed trade of any kind -- disappears completely. In such a world, all your basic needs could be met with a replicator: food, clothing, shelter, medicines, coffee, ad inifitum. Just shove in dirt, your old clothes, your old car, what you flushed down the toilet yesterday, anything; and turn it into whatever you need. Since the replicator meets all your needs and desires, there is no longer a need for anyone to hold a job so they can survive.

"Ah!" you think, "but where does the energy come from?" From high-capacity cells, or from the local generation plant. "And how do you pay for that?" The answer is, you don't. "So how do you encourage people to work at the generation plant and maintain it?" Again, you don't. They encourage themselves. They will work at the plant because they want to. They don't have to take the job for survival reasons because they have a replicator at home; they take the job because they think power generation is cool and they want to help out, and besides they think they can eek out another 7% of efficiency by refocusing the magnetic containment field around the antimatter injector.

Utopia? Not quite. There would still be a need for doctors and police and firemen and so forth. Designing Utopia is also not the point of this article. The point of introducing a matter replicator into my argument about the digital medium is to draw a parallel: All matter becomes raw material for the replicator. Purest gold, particle board, car exhaust, navel lint... All of it can be restructured into whatever is desired. The specific structure of the matter therefore becomes irrelevant, since it all can be restructured. Suddenly, all physical objects have the same basic value, which is their mass: A kilogram of gold has the same intrinsic worth as a kilogram of feathers, since they can be converted to each other. Even "unique" objects lose their perceived value, since they can be exactly duplicated in any quantity.

In a future world with perfect replicators, specific form has no value. All that is of value is raw material, which is abundant and cheap.

So it is today with computers and bits.

Back to Reality

The bits in today's computers are just as malleable as ordinary matter in my futuristic vision. Though I'll never find out if I'm right, I predict matter replicators are certain to be invented, because they're just too cool not to be. Thus, in our computers, we have created a small piece of our future, a future that is fundamentally incompatible with today's reality.

Today, specific form has value, usually set by the form's creator. In a future of replicators, specific form has zero value, since form is infinitely mutable. But guess what? Form inside a computer's memory is infinitely mutable. So guess what its value must be?

In today's real world, we still have to do work to survive and obtain the necessities of life. Yet the digital medium heralds an age where this will no longer be true. This puts us in an enormous quandry, as we try to reconcile our need to provide for ourselves with the unavoidable reality that the forms we create in the digital domain are intrinsically valueless.

I don't profess to have a solution to this problem. However, the solutions put forth by lobbyists in Washington are most certainly not the answer. In a universe where specific form is worthless, attempting to forbid the medium from behaving according to its nature -- be it the matter of the future or today's bits -- is simply foolish. The BMW company of the future could hardly expect the entire world to pony up for its designs when there's no demonstrable need.

Today, there is a demonstrable need for specific forms to be valuable, but this does nothing to diminish the nature of the digital medium. With the very first program Bill Gates ever shipped, the reality of the worthlessness of specific digital forms was already perceived by most computer hobbyists (which is why BASIC got copied six ways till Sunday). Software piracy continues to this day, to which the industry claims to lose billions of dollars a year (and, somehow, still manages to grow). More and more people are starting to see how specific form means nothing in the digital realm. Don't like the shareware app you just downloaded? Erase it and download another one. You're just reshaping bits on the disk.

Hollywood and the music industry are going to have to come to grips with this reality sooner or later. This is not to say in any way that the creators of movies and music have no right to expect to be compensated for their work; they most certainly do. I write software for a living, and I expect to get paid handsomely for it. But as I create my digital sculptures, I also understand that the medium in which I'm working isn't like the world we've been living in for the last few dozen millenia. How we manage this change in our world is going to be one of the most wrenching social issues our culture faces for many generations to come.

Postscript 1998.10.27

The growth of Linux and the Open Source movement -- and the good to high quality of the work being done by the people involved -- I believe serves to validate my argument that a future with replicators will be run and maintained by enthusiasts who are working and competing for reputation, not money.

And if you thought that introducing a matter replicator into my argument was disingenuous (or even preposterous), kindly consider that researchers at Caltech have achieved quantum teleportation of a light beam. Currently, because of the nature of quantum entanglement (the physical property employed in achieving teleportation), researchers can't say with certainty whether they've achieved "teleportation" (actual migration of the light beam), or whether they've created a perfect copy of the light beam.

Yes, a perfect copy of a physical phenomonon. The arrival of the replicator is now simply a matter of time.

Buckle up; it's gonna be one heck of a ride...