“Vanishing Scarcity” at NABIG 2015

On Sunday March 1, I had the opportunity to present at the North American Basic Income Guarantee Congress (NABIG) on the issue of arts, technology, and basic income. Basic income is a form of social security in which every person, regardless of their wealth, health, or any other distinction, is given a certain amount of money regularly (once a month is the usual interval mentioned). Suffice to say this is a radical idea and currently no government or jurisdiction in the world awards a basic income to their citizens (Alaska has something similar with the Alaska Permanent Fund, and Brazil has the plans to enact a basic income). A basic income needs to meet the basic survival needs of an individual—enough to pay their food, shelter, and clothing costs—and nothing else. It is only there to ensure the survival of the individual.

My talk at NABIG was entitled: “Vanishing Scarcity: Basic Income as a Means to Preserve Value in the Arts,” and it addressed the issues of technology and how material scarcity has disappeared from arts such as music and photography, how artists have largely been subject to wealthy patrons, and how the creation of a basic income will allow both creators and consumers of art to support each other in new and dynamic ways. This new environment, supported by cheap technologies, would diminish the power of wealth in the arts, and free up artists to make art almost completely on their own terms, and allow audiences to support whatever art they like without choosing between the arts and eating.

During my presentation, there were a few people live tweeting out quotes of mine, and without the full context of the presentation or my paper, some of these quotes could be interpreted in different ways. So I’m going to address several of the points made in the tweets and explain in greater detail what I mean:

To make things clear, this does not mean that artists or content creators do not have a right to control the product of their labors. Every person has that right, and I strongly believe that estrangement from one’s work is a powerful source of malady in contemporary society. What my statement means is that once a picture or song is posted online, the current situation of technology allows any other person to create perfect copies and distribute that content in many different ways. There is no supply pressure on a product, and rarely does one ask where a particular video, image, or sound file even came from. As I said in my presentation: “it’s like finding pennies on the street; no one asks whose pennies these are.”

At some point or another we’ve all been deeply moved by commercial art. I’m incredibly moved by Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket and also by the music of Jimi Hendrix. Art born from commercial roots doesn’t mean it will be bad or less valuable than art created without the intent to sell it. However the argument that media companies are needed to find the great art and deliver it to audiences is frankly rubbish. The numerous sequels hitting the market this year shows that these companies are about making money more so than making art—they certainly weren’t being innovative when the production of Furious 7 was green-lighted. It’s not uncommon for great artists to join forces with for-profit companies, but overall the warnings that democratized technology will bring about a new era of bad and mediocre art ignores the fact that we’ve been living with bad and mediocre art for as long as we can remember.

Of course the most important thing that basic income brings to everyone is the means to survive. This has very little to do with arts and artists, and everything to do with what people deserve: a fair shot at living the life one wants to live. In the case of artists this frees up massive amounts of time for development of skill and craft. It doesn’t take an unreasonable amount of time to become an excellent artist; working about 3-4 hours a day, for 5-6 days a week, for 10 years can set the foundations for true competence and ability. That practice time needs to be focused and free from distraction. If a person is forced to work an irrelevant job, then their energy is directed away from improving themselves as artists. This ultimately leads to the creation of more mediocre works of art.

Finally, a powerful benefit of basic income is the autonomy that will be enjoyed by both creators of art, and consumers of art. The history of artworks has been largely funded by the wealth of patrons. Today these patrons are producing most of the work we see today, basically deciding what works of art get to exist and be distributed. Technology now has the power to undermine this model of production and distribution, and some people can and do take advantage of this current environment; but until we remove the need for someone to consider their survival when deciding to create or consumer a work or art, we will not enjoy any real autonomy or freedom to actually do so.

Watch my presentation from March 1 along with Valerie Carter's "Union Support for a BIG and a Revenue-Neutral Carbon Tax in the U.S"

Watch my presentation from March 1 along with Valerie Carter’s “Union Support for a BIG and a Revenue-Neutral Carbon Tax in the U.S”

Many thanks to the organizers of NABIG for their work and for allowing me to speak. I’d especially like to thank my co-panelist Valerie Carter and panel moderator Jim Mulvale, Karl Widerquist (and the USBIG Committee) for organizing the event, and Derek Jeppson for his insights and thoughts while I was preparing this topic. For more tweets from the event follow #NABIG15 and for more information about basic income, visit the United States Basic Income Guarantee Network.

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