The Pirate's Dilemma: How Youth Culture Is Reinventing Capitalism

The Pirate's Dilemma: How Youth Culture Is Reinventing Capitalism

by Matt Mason


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How do you start a movement with a marker pen? How did a male model spinning disco records in the 1970s influence the way Boeing designs airplanes? Can hip-hop really bring about world peace? And what's going to happen to Nike when it's possible for kids to download sneakers?

The Pirate's Dilemma tells the story of how youth culture drives innovation and is changing the way the world works. With great wit and insight Matt Mason [voted Best Pirate of 2008 by BusinessWeek] offers understanding for a time when piracy is just another business model. The remix is our most powerful marketing tool and anyone with a computer is capable of reaching more people than a multinational corporation.

With a cast of characters that includes such icons as the Ramones, Andy Warhol, Madonna, Russell Simmons, and 50 Cent, The Pirate's Dilemma uncovers the moments in pop culture that the birthed global industries and movements, changing life as we know it and unraveling some of our most basic assumptions about business, society, and our collective future.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781416532187
Publisher: Free Press
Publication date: 01/08/2008
Pages: 288
Product dimensions: 6.40(w) x 9.20(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

MATT MASON is an award-winning writer, consultant, and entrepreneur based in . He was the founding editor in chief of the underground fanzine RWD, which he helped grow into the ’s number one urban music magazine and one of the world’s leading urban music websites.

Read an Excerpt


Enter the Lollipop

Imagine you're in your car, rolling down Independence Avenue in Washington, D.C. It's a cold, crisp January morning. You flick on the radio and rotate through the FM crackle until a song you like hacks its way through the static. You twist the tuner until you're locked in and the track floats from the speakers in clear stereo, filling the vehicle.

But not for long. Moments later, at the light, an SUV lurches to a stop beside you, blasting bass-heavy hip-hop beats. Your music instantly splinters as the low-end frequencies of the superior neighboring system rattle your windows. You glare at the guy reclining in the driver's seat, but his cap is pulled too low over his face to catch his eye, and the sunlight is catching on the expensive-looking watch on his left arm, stretched across the steering wheel. As the bass reverberates through the traffic, he nods in time with a stuttering snare drum. Gravelly lyrics make their way out into the winter air.

This guy, it strikes you, could be hip-hop's modern-day poster child. He exudes swagger, confidence, and aspiration. The penchant for heavyweight cars and luxury jewelry is obvious, yet the sound track suggests a deep-seated connection to the street and the perceived realities of poverty. He looks like an extra from a P. Diddy video, but he could be a college student, crack dealer, or quantum physicist. There is no way of telling.

He could be from any number of social or ethnic backgrounds. This guy is one of a hundred million people in the United States alone under hip-hop's influence, enchanted by one of the largest cultural movements on our planet today. To many, he represents the sum total of youth culture's progress.

But you're too busy admiring his watch and glaring at his obnoxious speakers to check your mirrors. If you had, you might have noticed that the future of youth culture is actually pulling up behind you.

What you did notice is your radio, which has just cut out. You lean forward and adjust the tuner. Nothing. In the SUV next to you, the radio has gone silent, too. You look across to see hip-hop's poster child banging his dashboard; he looks as frustrated as you are. You check the sunroof — the skies are clear, no aliens jamming your signal. Nothing in your rearview mirror either, except some kid in a Prius with a blank expression.

Of course, you can't see the iPod connected to a modified iTrip on his passenger seat. It's even less likely that you'd guess he's using these devices to broadcast silence across the entire FM band, transmitting tranquillity pirate-style in the thirty-foot radius around his car.

The unassuming face in the Prius is the latest in a long line of youth culture revolutionaries, a band of radio pirates who have manipulated media for decades. They founded Hollywood, reinvented many forms of broadcasting, and helped win the Cold War. While changing the face of media around the world, the guy in the Prius, like his many predecessors, has gone almost completely unnoticed by mainstream society.

The light turns green and you pull away, still puzzled about what just happened. You head straight on. As the SUV and the Prius hang a right onto Ninth Street toward the Southwest Freeway, your radio suddenly comes back to life. A few minutes later, you've almost forgotten the incident as you park farther down the avenue. But as you fumble for change for the meter, you are about to have an even stranger encounter with youth culture.

Instead of the parking meter you use every day, a four-foot-high lemon-yellow lollipop is sticking out of the ground, basking unapologetically in the morning sunshine. Did you accidentally park on the set of Hansel & Gretel?

On closer inspection, it becomes clear you didn't. The parking meter has been remixed into a piece of countercultural candy, its sugary facade made entirely of bright yellow Scotch tape. It is the calling card of another group of society's unsung heroes — a group of pirates who manipulate public space rather than the public airwaves. The lollipop is one of the many hallmarks of an invisible army who started a revolution with pens and spray cans. They have affected advertising, fashion, film, and design, among other industries. They have established billion-dollar brands, focused the media spotlight on controversial political issues, and changed the way we think about the world around us.

On our airwaves, in our public spaces, and through the new layers of digital information that envelop us, pirates are changing the way we use information, and in fact, the very nature of our economic system. From radio pirates to graffiti artists to open-source culture to the remix, the ideas behind youth cultures have evolved into powerful forces that are changing the world.

For the last sixty years, capitalism has run a pretty tight ship in the West. But in increasing numbers, pirates are hacking into the hull and holes are starting to appear. Privately owned property, ideas, and privileges are leaking out into the public domain beyond anyone's control.

Pirates are rocking the boat. As a result people, corporations, and governments across the planet are facing a new dilemma — the Pirate's Dilemma: How should we react to the changing conditions on our ship? Are pirates here to scupper us, or save us? Are they a threat to be battled, or innovators we should compete with and learn from? To compete or not to compete — that is the question — perhaps the most important economic and cultural question of the twenty-first century.

A man at the intersection between youth culture and innovation named John Perry Barlow, the cofounder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation and former lyricist for the Grateful Dead, summarized the problem in 2003:

Throughout the time I've been groping around cyberspace, an immense, unsolved conundrum has remained at the root of nearly every legal, ethical, governmental, and social vexation to be found in the Virtual World. I refer to the problem of digitized property. The enigma is this: If our property can be infinitely reproduced and instantaneously distributed all over the planet without cost, without our knowledge, without its even leaving our possession, how can we protect it? How are we going to get paid for the work we do with our minds? And, if we can't get paid, what will assure the continued creation and distribution of such work?

Since we don't have a solution to what is a profoundly new kind of challenge, and are apparently unable to delay the galloping digitization of everything not obstinately physical, we are sailing into the future on a sinking ship.

This is the story of how pirates might save this sinking ship. Often pirates are the first to feel the winds of change blowing. The answer to the Pirate's Dilemma lies in the stories of pirates sailing into waters uncharted by society and the markets, spaces where traditional rules don't apply. The answers lie in the history of youth culture.

For more than sixty years, teenage rebels have been doing things differently and working out new ways to share information, intellectual property, and public space. Behind youth movements familiar to us are radical ideas about how we can compete, collaborate, and coexist in an environment where old assumptions about how we treat information do not hold.

The Pirate's Dilemma will chart the rise of these radical ideas — ideas that started with individual mavericks conducting crazy social experiments which eventually enter everything, influencing business, politics, and many other areas.

For the first time, the dots between our collective future and youth culture's checkered past will be connected, illustrating how a handful of seemingly random absurdities inspired some of our most important innovations. Right under our noses, the ripple effects of youth culture have been changing the way we live and work. But much of the time these effects have gone unnoticed.

Soon enough, though, everyone will notice. The Pirate's Dilemma is not just facing those who deal in digital information — it's escaping into the real world, too. As we shall see, new technologies could make it just as easy for us all to download physical products the way we download music, and we can already jam information being broadcast with a narrowcast signal of our own, signals that collectively have the power to overthrow presidents.

The Information Age has hit puberty and is experiencing growing pains. By remembering our own teenage years we can piece together the best way to ease this transition, searching out and understanding successful business models that entered society from the edges, many directly from youth cultures.

We rebel through youth movements because we recognize that things don't always work the way they should. They are a way of communicating alternatives without inciting bloody revolutions, a way to reorganize systems from the inside, which isn't easy to do. As rebel economist E. F. Schumacher observed of the damaging effects of the systems that govern us: "to deny them would be too obviously absurd, and to acknowledge them would condemn the central preoccupation of modern society as a crime against humanity." But as teenagers most of us aren't reading Schumacher. Instead we protest with youth culture, social experiments — informal studies in the art of doing things differently that have given us good music, bad haircuts, and new ways to operate.

The little-known eureka moments in youth culture documented in this book are rare and priceless. The big bang happens when a strange new idea suddenly makes sense to a handful of people, who then transmit it to others. Experiencing one is like a revelation, a glimpse into the future.

When we see superstars and brands emerge from these scenes years later, it becomes clear to us all what these radical ideas that start small can mushroom into. The story of youth culture's commercial success has been reenacted many times, performed by a variety of players against the backdrop of different genres across the globe. Rappers such as 50 Cent can make $50 million a year without even releasing a record; a graffiti artist such as Marc Ecko can develop his tag into a multinational brand worth more than $1 billion. "Today the most disruptive voices are no longer the artists' voices being piped over the corporate airwaves," Ecko told Royal magazine in 2006. "It's the voice of the pirate, the pirate has become the producer. The indy-punk 'f the man' message is no longer a hook in a song. It's scary. It's hungry. It's Godzilla. He's knocking on the door uninvited, ready for dessert."

And these new Godzillas aren't just graffiti artists or multimillion-dollar MCs. The face under Godzilla's rubbery mask could be yours. I call this problem the "Pirate's Dilemma" and not the "Pirate Dilemma," because there is no difference between us and them. Illegal pirates, legitimate companies, and law-abiding citizens are now all in the same space, working out how to share and control information in new ways. The Pirate's Dilemma is not just about how we compete against pirates, and how we treat them, it's also about how we can become better by recognizing the pirate within ourselves.

How did we get here? What do the new conditions shaping our ship mean, and what do they tell us about where we are going next? To answer these questions, I've pulled together the work of leading academics, historians, innovators, and visionaries from a wide variety of disciplines, whose ideas and insights are illustrated with a cast of characters that includes such icons as Andy Warhol, the Ramones, Madonna, Pharrell, and 50 Cent. I've drawn on my own experiences growing up as a pirate DJ in London, at the flash point of emerging scenes, and my professional life immersed in the mainstream music, media, and advertising industries.

I've met with and interviewed legendary musicians, artists, entrepreneurs, and DJs who have changed things for the rest of us, often without us knowing. From hip-hop moguls such as Russell Simmons to media mavericks such as Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales, I'll tell the story of a world ruled by the Pirate's Dilemma with the assistance of some of our best-known change agents.

But I'll also be introducing you to some extraordinary people who are telling their stories for the first time. You'll meet the nun who helped invent dance music, and learn how the ideas she promoted in a children's home in the 1940s are transforming the free market as we know it. You'll meet the three high school kids who remixed Nazis into Smurfs in the 1980s, and changed the future of the video game industry as a result.

We'll meet the professor who can tell us what will happen to Nike when it becomes possible for kids to download sneakers. We'll see how the hippie movement was responsible for the birth of the personal computer. We'll find out what graffiti artists, fashion designers, and French chefs can teach us about the future of copyright, and uncover how a male model, messing around with disco records in New York in the 1970s, changed the way Boeing designs airplanes. But before we do, we need to understand the thinking behind the business model that gave rise to the Pirate's Dilemma. This is a new version of the old system I refer to as "Punk Capitalism."

"This is Punk Capitalism," Bono proudly announced to the world, as a torrent of camera flashes ricocheted off his trademark tinted glasses at an October 2006 press conference. The rock star philanthropist was in Los Angeles to launch the Product Red campaign, backed by a phalanx of CEOs from companies such as Nike, American Express, Gap, Apple, Armani, and Motorola, all of whom had signed on to create a range of products whose profits are used to help fight AIDS in Africa.

But ten years before Bono's press conference, three Canadian punk rockers, who we'll hear from shortly, had been using the term to sum up their philosophy long before Product Red — a philosophy they used to grow a fanzine into a multimillion-dollar media empire.

I use the term Punk Capitalism to describe the new set of market conditions governing society. It's a society where piracy, as the cochair at Disney recently put it, is "just another business model." A society where the remix is changing the way production and consumption are structured, rendering the nineteenth-century copyright laws we use obsolete. A world where advertising no longer works quite the way it did. It's a place where open-source ways of working are generating a wealth of new public goods, niche markets, knowledge, and resources — free tools for the rest of us to build both commercial and noncommercial ventures. It's a place where creativity is our most valuable resource. It's a marketplace where things we used to pay for are free, and things that used to be free have to be paid for. It's a world where altruism is as powerful as competition, inhabited by a new breed of social entrepreneurs, a creative resistance who make money by putting as much emphasis on truly making a difference as they do on turning a profit.

The philosophies that underpin Punk Capitalism took shape in the roots of punk rock. But as we shall now see, the story of Punk Capitalism actually begins in the roots of a hairstyle, created in the 1960s by a runaway teenager from Kentucky — a hairstyle that would change the world. Copyright © 2008 by Matt Mason

Table of Contents

Intro: Enter the Lollipop 1

1 Punk Capitalism From D.I.Y. to Downloading Sneakers 9

2 The Tao of Pirates Sea Forts, Patent Trolls, and Why We Need Piracy 33

3 We Invented the Remix Cut-'n'-Paste Culture Creates Some New Common Ground 68

4 The Art of War Street Art, Branding, and the Battle for Public Space 103

5 Boundaries Disco Nuns, the Death of the Record Industry, and Our Open-Source Future 134

6 Real Talk How Hip-Hop Makes Billions and Could Bring About World Peace 172

7 Ethernomics Pillow Fights, Happy Slaps, and Other Memes That Leave a Mark 202

Outro: The Pirate's Dilemma: Changing the Game Theory 231

Acknowledgments 241

Notes 245

Index 269

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The Pirate's Dilemma: How Youth Culture Is Reinventing Capitalism 3.4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 5 reviews.
tiwow on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The Long Tail, Wikinomics and The Tipping Point are coming together in a great reading. One point of criticism is I think that even though the examples are lively and strong, this book won't convince the critics. Simply because they can't relate to the examples being given.Finally, suggestion to Matt Mason: Why not add a section of your blog on your book, to the examples you use. You could make a list of websites and youtube movies. Ofcourse, anyone could find them using google but it could also lead readers normally less inclined to use these media to have a go.
Jaie22 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Something I think I should read more than something I want to read ...
scroeser on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I found this book more and more obnoxious the more I read, mostly because of the writing style and continual use of 'hip lingo'. I also find the argument that 'punk capitalism' will save the world to be fairly unexciting. The case studies do make for interesting reading, however.
dougcornelius on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Matt Mason traces the current web 2.0 movement back to the 1970¿s punk rock culture. He starts with focus on a quote from punk fanzine Sniffin¿ Glue with a diagram showing three finger positions on the neck of a guitar with the caption: ¿Here¿s one chord, here¿s two more, now form your own band.¿ In a 2.0 world, doing-it-yourself does not seem that radical anymore. Anyone can be published author on the web. You can jump onto Blogger and in a few minutes have a powerful web publishing platform up and running in a few minutes.Mason looks to some early punk bands who played for themselves and your buddies. Then maybe a few friends come along. If other people come then great, but it does not matter that much because you are doing for yourself and few people close to you.Mason focuses mostly on music, but in the background I was thinking more about blogging. It does not make much sense to put together and a print a book that only a few hundred people will read. That is a big deployment of capital with an improbable return on investment. With web 2.0 the capital for distribution and publishing is minimal. A blog with only a few hundred readers is successful.Mason labels the new business as ¿punk capitalism.¿ The businesses often are not in it for the money. They would like to cover their costs and have few dollars of profit. But they are not in it for the money.Seth Godin in Unleashing the Ideavirus: ¿It took 40 years for radio to have 10 million users. . . 15 years for TV to have 10 million users, and it took Hotmail and Napster less than year. . . The time it takes for an idea to circulate is approaching zero.¿Web 2.0 movement is allowing a bigger audience of creators, a more rapid efficient distribution of information at less cost. It seems a little strange to be reading these concepts in a book.Thanks to the delightful Connie Crosby of Crosby Group Consulting for giving me the book.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Ex-pirate radio DJ Matt Mason writes in the kind of free association, pop culture-savvy lingo that will endear him to youthful 20-something readers. But The Pirate's Dilemma is an infuriating read.His premise is that piracy - not the parrots and eye patch variety but the punk rebel/hip-hop artist/information age hacker strain - is good. This is because pirates are like canaries that sniff out the pockets of exploitable spaces left for dead by evil capitalist monopolies. The soundbite is seductive. Unfortunately, Mason's argument lacks breadth and depth. It's not for want of trying. He has read voraciously. He quotes from classics such as Pekka Himanen's The Hacker Ethic And The Spirit Of The Information Age, and more focused books such as Wikinomics by Don Tapscott and Anthony D. Williams. But when he gives MTV News' breathless declarations the same amount of weight as these other books, it becomes evident that he is simply cherry picking stuff that contributes to his rose-tinted vision of how rebellious youth culture is redefining politics and economics. Ironically, his book is the embodiment of exactly what is wrong with the Wikipedia-crazy, remix-friendly culture that is now permeating the world. His argument is patched together from other sources, many not reliable, which gives his generalised conclusions the sheen of respectability as there is a proliferation of footnotes and references. He insists on the primacy of the remix but neglects to give weight to the original creations that make remixes possible. By narrow-casting, he does an injustice to an issue that deserves to be treated with care and intelligence rather than just raw passion.