From the “Hacker Ethic” to the “Antifree Movement”: On paying writers and journalists for their work

How have we reached the point where so many writers, journalists, and other creative folks are struggling to find gigs that pay them for their labor?

I submit that some of the core roots of our current situation can be traced to the early, idealistic days of computer hacking.

An early chapter in Steven Levy’s brilliant Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution (1984) includes the story of MIT students who, during the late 50s and early 60s, devoted enormous amounts of time to tinkering with early computers on their campus. They honed a sort of attitudinal manifesto on the emerging power of computing that Levy would tag the “Hacker Ethic” (pp. 39-49):

  • “Access to computers…should be unlimited and total”
  • “All information should be free”
  • “Mistrust Authority — Promote Decentralization”
  • “Hackers should be judged by their hacking, not bogus criteria such as degrees, age, race, or position”
  • “You can create art and beauty on a computer”
  • “Computers can change your life for the better”

There’s a ton of idealism in these precepts. It imagines a world transformed by emerging computer technologies, and it reflects the early fascination with, and anticipation of, what digital power could do for society.

But there’s one point that, with the gift of hindsight, raises special concern: All information should be free. The Hacker Ethic didn’t get around to asking the logical question, If all information is free, then who will pay the producers and creators of this information?

Read it for free

The excellence of Levy’s book notwithstanding, “Hacker Ethic” never caught on as a branding term to help characterize the early age of computing. However, as the Internet became part of our everyday lives in the mid-to-late 1990s, we quickly assumed that the Information Highway was a freeway for us to read, print, and download without charge.

Sure, we expected to pay for products marketed via e-commerce, but when it came to information online such as articles in newspapers and magazines, the opposite was the case. Concededly, publishers of periodicals could not have anticipated how sharing articles from their print editions eventually would morph into people trading in their hard-copy subscriptions for free online access. But in lightning fast time, it was so.

As this trend became a stampede, conventional newspapers and magazines that had long been sustained by advertising found those dollars drying up. As subscribers dwindled and e-commerce proliferated, once-loyal advertisers took flight.

An emerging antifree movement?

This expectation of free online information has massive labor implications. If people aren’t paying for the articles they read online, then how are those who produce the content being paid for their work?

In an extended editorial essay titled “The Free and the Antifree: On payment for writers,” the editors of N+1 magazine examine the challenges of economic and technological systems conspiring to make it difficult for capable writers, journalists, editors, and other wordsmiths to get paid for their work and to earn a living:

If this was not yet a movement, it was definitely a mood—antifree—and it was fighting a more difficult battle than the proponents of free had. The Free movement had a few professorial spokespeople and millions of adherents; antifree was a small group of interested artisans speaking up for the dignity of being gainfully employed. As antifree grew beyond the small world of left-wing blogs, it attracted 25-year-olds who objected to being paid $50 by a corporate website that presumed them lucky to get the experience. It attracted veteran journalists who balked at being asked to write for a large, profitable magazine’s website for chump change. And it attracted unpaid interns, who at profitable media corporations (ranging from Condé Nast to Gawker), actually filed suit for violations of labor laws. These were individual stories, but they added up. The entities that had once supported journalists and writers were now doing their best not to pay them for the simplest of reasons: they could get away with it.

The N+1 piece favorably cites Ross Perlin’s Intern Nation (2011) — touted on several occasions in this blog — as one of the first books to come out of the antifree movement.

Back to basics

At times, advocates for intern rights have been greeted with derision, as if calls for the minimum wage in return for work rendered were somehow the yammerings of entitled young people. In reality, here in the early 21st century, the emerging antifree movement is about returning to a familiar, simple labor theme: People should be paid for their work. It may be laboring with mouse and keyboard rather than with pick and shovel, but it is work nonetheless.

One response

  1. I feel compelled that in context, tying Steven Levy’s book to issues of unpaid journalists and interns needs some clarification.
    The word ‘free’ can be defined in very different ways relative to that, “Hacker Ethic.” In our very consumer-centric culture, conventional thinking implies ‘free’ to simply be a cost issue, while free software advocates and the Open Source movement equate the word ‘free’ with ‘freedom’, fundamentally a matter of being free from locked-down, proprietary solutions that often hinder creativity and collaboration. Also, in Steven Levy’s excellent book, along with all that idealism there were any number of references to how monetary gain was often a significant motivator, in essence presenting the nuances of ‘free’ and its impact on software development.
    This ‘What is Free Software’ article is a better read than my wandering comments:

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