Consider your ethics when speaking of access

I consider myself both an ethical and moral person, and yet, thanks to the Internet, I’m a thief.

When I first heard about Napster I made a conscious decision NOT to download it and install it on my PC. However, I have teenagers in the house, and it somehow magically appeared on my desktop. The next thing I knew I was stealing the intellectual and artistic property of musicians.

Why? Because it is so incredibly easy. Just point, click and snatch. No chance of getting “caught”, no possible confrontation with the artist or the police, and all done in the privacy of my own home.

I’d never in a million years, steal something from a store. HMV doesn’t have to put up security monitors to prevent me from stealing. I know it’s wrong, and wouldn’t dream of exercising a five-fingered discount.

If I believe it’s wrong to steal, and I believe I do, then why did I use Napster? Are my ethical beliefs so shallow that the only thing stopping me from stealing a car, is learning how to hot-wire it and somehow avoiding the risk of being caught? I’d hate to believe that, but my experience with Napster would suggest it’s true.

Moving away from this painful introspection for a moment. What does it say about society? Napster was a runaway success, until it was finally shut down. Thievery pays… for a while at least.

If ease of access is the real obstacle to unethical behaviour, then the future is a rather dim one. I know I can copy DVDs, but there’s no Napster for DVD theft as yet. At least not in the sense I can snatch a DVD in less than 6 minutes. If there were? Would we use it? If we do, what’s the ultimate future of the movie industry?

This ethical flaw of ours is holding back progress in certain directions. Paperbacks would be long gone, if the publishers and authors had any belief that widespread theft of published works wouldn’t take place. Nobody is that naive. Napster was a worldwide social experiment proving conclusively that we’ll steal anything if it’s not nailed down.

There’s no technical solution to this problem. The closest music ever came to being safe from theft was before the advent of recording devices. It was extremely difficult to steal a “live” performance. Once it was easy to copy music, it became easier to steal it. The same is true for books and movies and anything else we digitize.

The solution as always, lies within ourselves. Not that I have any naive belief we can change human nature. Our technological future means ease of access will increase. Which means we will rationalize our behaviour and somehow adapt to a changed world.

How? How do musicians make a living, if copies of their music are free for all? Live performances would seem to be the natural answer, but for that to happen, live performances would have to become the “thing” to do. In other words, a shift in how we seek out entertainment must take place. Is this a reasonable shift in a culture? If you believe it is, then invest in music halls and coffee shops, because live music will make a comeback.

Not all situations will offer even possible solutions. How do authors shift their product so they can survive the unpaid mobility of their work? Would you want to sit through a live reading of A Tale of Two cities? Or what happens to the movies? If it becomes too easy to snatch a movie, where’s the incentive to make something like The Englishman or The Matrix?

The problem is rampant. Sierra Studios has worked on developing the game “Arcanum” for several years. It’s not yet released in North America and is already available for stealing on the Internet. My Napster experience aside, I know if I steal this product, then I’m part of the problem. It turns out my ethics aren’t as shallow as I feared. I’m not even tempted to steal it.

Technology always has a social consequence. If you feel these questions are inappropriate in a computer journal, then who should be considering them? Like it or not, we’re the technologists, and the changes we make, affect society. If we’re not considering the ethics of access… who is?

de Jager is a well-known, basically ethical, keynote speaker/consultant on issues relating to change and the management of future. You can contact him at