During a recent conversation, I found a directly relevant analogy that might make sense to non-creative people, just as it’s already a self-evident fact of life for you and me.

Why can artists rightfully expect to be paid for their work?

Often, the damage done by piracy is brushed aside with glib arguments like, “well, if your work is good enough, people will pay for it.” The conclusion that “if you’re not getting rich from your work, maybe your work just is just no good.” The insinuation is that anyone who isn’t making massive money from their art is some kind of “dilettante” who needs to admit their lack of skill and quit whining about their inability to get paid like the superstars do.

One part of that argument is true. The vast majority of artists aren’t at the top of their field. By definition, most people won’t be the best in any field, because the realm of the best is reserved for a small number of individuals who are better than most of the others.

The problem with that perspective is twofold:

1. In reality, most people aren’t the best at anything.

Telling artists that they need to be the “best” before they can expect to be paid is shown as false when applied to the rest of the workforce. If you work a nine-to-five, are you one of the top performers in your field? Is there even any way to quantify that distinction reliably? If not, why do you expect to be paid for your work?

If you’re not a CEO of a Fortune 50 corporation [or for that matter, if your employer doesn’t perform at that level], you should expect to give your work away for free and go compete for a “day job” in some other market sector.

Right, that sounds pretty ridiculous — and that’s exactly the logic used against artists when people want to justify stealing their work.

There’s a further technology-based implication that you’ll see further down.

2. Practically no one who is a novice in any field will be the “best” right from the start.

If you look at any high-achiever, you’ll see that they probably weren’t amazing for the first five to ten years of their time in the field. Everyone from Bob Dylan to Albert Einstein has to sink time and effort into learning, studying — and crucially, making mistakes — for years before they attained sufficient ability to be considered great.

The ‘Genius’ Fallacy

Geniuses aren’t born; they’re made. A prodigy may have higher innate aptitude than the average person, but if they don’t spend years honing that capability, they’ll get nowhere — just like the average person who gives up before manifesting any ability at all.

Roughly, ability consists of strategy and experience.

If your strategy points you in the wrong direction, no amount of experience will overcome that fundamental error — Da Vinci could build flying contraptions for decades, but without the idea of some sort of engine to power them, his ideas never left the ground to become the empirically-based science of aeronautics.

Experience is necessary to take part in the domain such that your skills improve over time. Even more important, experience enables the creation of better strategies. An expert knows how to detect patterns more quickly than a novice, and the ability to detect patterns is a process that is impossible to shortcut beyond a relatively low level.

Regardless of aptitude, everyone has to put their time in before becoming proficient at any complex skill.

What this means, then, is that if you only pay someone when you think they’re the “best”, you’re actually stifling everyone else’s ability to reach and overcome the plateaus along the path to skill. Simply put, if an artist (or scientist, or engineer) has to spend large amounts of time trying to merely survive, the amount of time and focus they can use to improve their skills will necessarily be foreshortened. This results in a general drain of ability in the domain itself. Skill-building falls prey to time-shortage, and with it comes the inability to amass the experience required to reach high levels of proficiency. If no one can make a decent living creating art, the emergence of new great artists erodes as well. And then we’re left with pop-culture icons whose music consists of over-autotuned voices and shallowly looped samples; adults who unabashedly prefer fiction written for teenagers (the young adult genre); and derivative visual media that is too inept and afraid to do anything new. Eventually, advertising is the only “artform” left standing, mainly because it sells.

Information Wants To Be Free? Your Boss Just Said The Same Thing About Your Job

The mercenary approach taken by music/movie/book pirates in regard to the arts is a mirror image of the corporate disdain for human labor. Many people are justifiably afraid of the fact that mechanization and artificial intelligence are starting to outpace the human ability to re-train and compete. At some point, machines will almost certainly be able to perform the vast majority of jobs that require repetitive cognitive or physical labor.

What we’re seeing now is that corporations are replacing people with robots or intelligent software systems. In the remaining workforce, employers are increasingly hiring only the most overqualified applicants and forcing them to work harder for stagnant wages. This is exactly the same mentality that the average piracy-loving consumer takes when using technology [i.e. the Internet] to steal works from artists with the justification that, “if your work was as good as the best artist out there, I’d gladly pay for it. You’re only ‘good’, though, so I’ll encourage you to become ‘great’ by only paying those who’ve earned that ‘best-in-class’ status.”

The corporate earnings machine now uses the power of technology in order to force the average person to either be the “best” or face inevitable obsoletion (or in the interim, minimization of their prospects for earning a sustainable wage). From unpaid internships to forced overtime, we all have to contend with the idea that either you’re an elite member of your profession, or you don’t deserve to make a living. And it’s all packaged with the bright branding of “positive thinking” in which we’re tantalized by fantasies of a wonderland where we’re all winners, only we’d work just a little faster while smiling harder and desperately denying that ninety-nine percent of us are actually falling farther and farther behind.

Exceptionalism Has A Name, And Its Name Is “Machine”

It’s a sort of cold consolation, then, that when a generation of artists finds themselves unable to make a living wage, it’s only a decade or two before the same ideological axe falls on the hand of the average man and woman. The fallacy of exceptionalism doesn’t incentivize better work. It incentivizes a mercenary mentality that uses technology to increase “productivity” while enslaving and eventually discarding the humans whom that technology was originally designed to serve.

This isn’t an engineering problem of computing power, or false Social Darwinist arguments about “the natural evolution” of progress, or some alarmist propagandizing about the decline of man and the rise of machines. This is a human problem of how we decide to deal with questions about the nature of value, and how we decide to approach those questions as a society. From artist to salaryman to CEO, the “superstar mentality” that only rewards those at the top will eventually create a world where the majority are trapped at the bottom. Every time you pirate a song from an independent musician, steal a book from an self-published author, or pilfer a film produced by a small studio, take note of the fact that your mercenary mentality toward art will one day come back to haunt you — and unless we collectively change our actions, that day of reckoning may come sooner than you might think.

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