As I’ve said before, I believe there is a fundamental similarity between the following two scenarios:
- A business fires workers and replaces them with robots or software.
- A consumer pirates content instead of paying for it.
Both situations involve using technology to get something for free or significantly cheaper.
Both involve an act of “copying.” A robot copies a worker’s skills. An illegal download copies data from an original file.
Both have uncertain economic effects. Opponents of piracy claim it destroys industries. Others claim that times have never been better. Some economists are concerned about the job-destroying effects of automation. Others think this a tired fallacy that’s been proven wrong time and again.
The evidence suggests that automation and piracy have been mostly harmless up until now. However given the speed of technological change, the future is very uncertain. Perhaps automation and piracy will follow the trajectory of previous technology trends, as described by the Gartner Hype Cycle and Amara’s Law. Meaning that our initial fears are overhyped and exaggerated, but that over time, the true impacts are going to be even greater than we could have imagined.
In any event, it is useful to line these two cases—automation and piracy—up against each other because the juxtaposition reveals potential biases. If we are going to demonize the downloader in his bedroom, perhaps we should also consider demonizing the owners of this automated Walgreens. Alternately we might consider celebrating both of them as triumphs of technology and accept that economic disruption is a fact of life.
Personally, I tend to be way less sympathetic to the content industry’s complaints about piracy than to the plight of workers facing automation. Most likely this comes down to me intrinsically caring more about what I conceive of as “the average joe worker” than a faceless movie or music corporation. Similarly, I have often voiced skepticism about the negative effects of piracy, while at the same time projecting relative certainty about the dangers of automation. Comparing automation and piracy has proven to be a useful thought experiment that has caused me to pause and reconsider my stance on both.