The Mona Lisa, Genes, and Money

One of the questions an artist hates most is what is your artwork worth? Price is a subjective, unsatisfactory proxy for emotional angst, frustration, eyestrain, and time. Sometimes I find that NO (reasonable) value can compensate for the emotional investment I’ve made – in which case I either keep the thing myself, give it away, or throw a tantrum and rip it up. Other variables also influence price – the artist’s fame and skill, obviously, but also whether the work has been copied. People are willing to pay a premium to own original art, even if a reproduction is virtually identical in appearance. Artists who work in digital media and sell prints have an especially hard time with this issue, because there is no “original” of their work in the traditional sense. The original is digital, so each and every print is equivalent – unless something is added by hand, like a signature or number.

In his seminal essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Walter Benjamin argued that the ability to mass-produce copies of art changed the definition of art itself, fundamentally altering its role in society. I think few could disagree with his contention. Seventy years later, the burgeoning Second Life art community has a healthy market in virtual art – digital art that is never intended to take physical form at all.

What is the value of this “virtual art”? Can there be such a thing as an “original” in this context, when everything is arguably a copy? An entire publication, Richard Minsky’s SLART, is devoted to virtual art in Second Life. Like so much else in SL, the topic is controversial – will virtual artworks appreciate in value? should intellectual property rights be enforced, and how? (Bizarrely, copies of SLART are available as real, limited edition prints! Go figure.)

In “Better Than Free”, The Technium’s Kevin Kelly argues that in the internet economy, the only valuable commodities we have left are those that can’t be copied:

We can start with a simple user question: why would we ever pay for anything that we could get for free? When anyone buys a version of something they could get for free, what are they purchasing?

From my study of the network economy I see roughly eight categories of intangible value that we buy when we pay for something that could be free.

In a real sense, these are eight things that are better than free. Eight uncopyable values. I call them “generatives.” A generative value is a quality or attribute that must be generated, grown, cultivated, nurtured. A generative thing can not be copied, cloned, faked, replicated, counterfeited, or reproduced. It is generated uniquely, in place, over time. In the digital arena, generative qualities add value to free copies, and therefore are something that can be sold.

Kelly’s eight “generatives” include three that give limited editions of art value: authenticity, embodiment, and patronage. (Patronage is why most Radiohead fans chose to voluntarily pay for the band’s last album – although they had wildly varying opinions on what it was worth).

Kelly includes two more generatives, personalization and interpretation, which impart value to something even more easily copied than art or music: genetic information. The genomic example is particularly elegant because genes are self-replicating machinery themselves (in the context of a cell). In an old analogy, DNA is the software and the cellular proteins are the hardware. The human genome, the software that runs a human body, is known; unlike Microsoft Office, it’s free; and (at least in the big picture) the difference between that genome and yours is negligible. But many people are starting to see their personal genome, warts and all, as a unique dataset they might be willing to pay for – an original, if you will – while simultaneously the cost of sequencing is dwindling, nearing the $1,000-per-genome mark that Francis Collins envisioned in 2003.

Right now, for under $1,000, you can get custom art based on your genetic sequence – which I guess embraces four of Kelly’s generatives. Or, companies like 23andMe will send you a personalized analysis of DNA polymorphisms known to correlate with disease, ancestry, and other traits (this isn’t a full genome sequence – yet – but a sampler of “genomic highlights”). What makes 23andMe attractive isn’t the data itself as much as the user-friendly information accompanying it. The average person would have absolutely no clue what to do with their genome sequence if you handed it to them on a DVD. Kelly foresees a point at which companies will take advantage of this, literally giving you your genetic sequence for free, to create a demand for interpretation that they will charge you for. It seems inevitable to me that virtually all the profit from individualized genomics will come from such personalized interpretations and “instruction manuals.”

Unfortunately, not all interpretations of a dataset are equally valid, and a little knowledge – especially a little genetic knowledge without essential context – can be useless at best and dangerous at worst. What exactly do you do with the knowledge that you have a G333A polymorphism? Well, you may be able to use it to personalize treatment for some disease – but you’ll have to pay for that. And you’ll get the quality you pay for. Kelly’s essay is an thought-provoking reminder that data doesn’t stand, or sell, alone.

One last note – when I read Kelly’s essay, I had a moment of deja vu. As a child, in a dingy blue book I picked up at a yardsale (the source of most of my childhood library), I encountered Ralph Williams’ short story “Business As Usual, During Alterations.” The plot is driven by the introduction of alien replicator technology (a Star Trek-like device that can duplicate anything). Two entrepreneurs try to navigate this new reality one step ahead of their customers and competitors – first, by selling the new replicators, then by switching from (duplicable) cash to credit, and finally by changing the entire premise of their business:

“I see what you mean,” I said thoughtfully. “In the past, we’ve sold standardization because it was a scarce commodity. Now, the shoe is on the other foot, we’ll sell diversity. Instead of offering the customer as choice of GE or Westinghouse refrigerator, we’ll offer a choice of any refrigerator built, anywhere–” a sudden thought struck me. “Damn it,” I said unhappily. “We still can’t get away from suppliers.”

“Not only that,” George offered helpfully. “Those samples you’re going to offer a choice of are practically all going to be hand-made models, remember that. Also, you’re not going to get away with duplicating them for nothing. I think you already broke the law when you duplicated the trademarks on those cartons. Even if you didn’t, it’s not going to take much extension of present legislation to make it illegal to copy any manufactured article without paying royalty.”

In sum, replication transforms the economy overnight – but doesn’t capsize it. In a world of easy copies, it may not be what you expect, but something will always be valuable. The question is what, and how will it be regulated? It’s worth thinking about.

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