Shirky: Napster tapped into our primate instincts

We don't want to share goods, but we want to share information, the NYU professor says at a SXSWi talk, and Napster transformed music into information.

Caroline McCarthy Former Staff writer, CNET News
Caroline McCarthy, a CNET News staff writer, is a downtown Manhattanite happily addicted to social-media tools and restaurant blogs. Her pre-CNET resume includes interning at an IT security firm and brewing cappuccinos.
Caroline McCarthy
2 min read

AUSTIN, Texas--Author and New York University professor Clay Shirky thinks he's getting old, or in other words, "my average age has been going up at the alarming rate of about one year per year." Recently, he said, he had to explain Napster to a class of his students because they were too young to have known much about the groundbreaking music-sharing service in its heyday.

But that wasn't the point. Shirky's talk on Sunday morning at the South by Southwest Interactive Festival was called "Monkeys with Internet Access: Sharing, Human Nature, and Digital Data," and it covered a rambling range of topics from the Gutenberg printing press to the rise of sites like Patients Like Me that aim to transform shared information into a civic good.

But it was his point about Napster that was particularly interesting: Napster was what turned the sharing of music from sharing a physical good into sharing information, he said, and that's what was revolutionary about it.

"Back in the old days we used to have something called a CD collection," Shirky said facetiously. "It was something like keeping the box that the Amazon books came in, but you kept the container the music was in all the time...If somebody else came over to my house and said, 'That Vanilla Ice track is slammin'! Can I have that?' No! This is my copy of 'To The Extreme.' If I give it to you, I will no longer be ale to enjoy Vanilla Ice's music. That's sharing of goods."

In other words, sharing something physical makes us possessive. Sharing information is easier, and Shirky argued, biologically programmed dating back to our primate origins.

In the Napster era, some attributed the ascent of pirated digital music to a supposedly criminal-minded nature among American youth. The argument didn't work. "It coincided with the largest fall in the rate of crime in recorded history," Shirky said, "with one exception, which was theft of digital property."

He didn't offer a solution for the music industry, or for the regulatory bodies that he says are trying to put legislation in place that would make us "spiteful" about sharing digital goods (which are information, he'd argue) the same way that we'd share physical ones.

"Sharing information is something that we're not only biased to do, but it's something we're biased to like," he said. "This freaked the music industry out, and the thing that freaked them out is we didn't voluntarily withhold the ability to share things with other people that would make their lives better at no cost to themselves."

The music industry obviously has its own side of the argument. But some people in that camp might agree with the human origins connection: tackling the issue of digital music probably has been, indeed, like dealing with a room full of unruly monkeys.