Better Than Free

'Free' has not exactly been the best model for the internet and Kevin Kelly's 'generative' was an interesting (perhaps even prescient) idea that anticipated some of the more recent developments (NFT's come to mind).

As the well-respected tech thinker and board member of the Long Now Foundation, Kevin Kelly, reminds us, “[t]he digital economy is run on a river of copies. Unlike the mass-produced reproductions of the machine age, these copies are not just cheap, they are free.” Free copies means abundant copies, business models based on scarcity are hit heavily, sometimes vaporized entirely. What to focus on then? On things that are scarce, things that can’t be copied. Kelly calls those ‘generatives’:

A generative value is a quality or attribute that must be generated, grown, cultivated, nurtured. A generative thing cannot 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.

He has come up with eight ‘generatives’ which can’t be copied:

Immediacy—Even stuff that can be copied needs to be released for it’s first time and is not everywhere, in good quality, right then. Viewing a movie on the first night, hardcover books, beta access to apps, are all examples possessing “generative qualities that can be sold. Immediacy is a relative term, which is why it is generative.” Each type of market or product is different but for each an ‘immediacy bonus’ can be defined.

Personalization—Everyone can find a copy of the same thing but many will pay for their own custom version. “You can’t copy the personalization that a relationship represents.” Connection with users or customers to provide a custom product is generative.

Interpretation—Open source is a great example of this. Complex products like the Linux operating system or Apache server can be packaged and interpreted in a specific way for a certain use. This interpretation is harder to copy, especially when it includes support in the use of that interpretation. Kelly also expects genetic information to go that way. When getting a copy of your DNA is very cheap, the interpretation of what it might mean retains value.

Authenticity—A copy of anything, from a Grateful Dead album to a master painting is easy to come by. The original, the limited run, or the copy bought straight from the artist, are more authentic and will carry more value for certain customers, for the true fans.

Accessibility—“Ownership often sucks. You have to keep your things tidy, up-to-date, and in the case of digital material, backed up. And in this mobile world, you have to carry it along with you.” In this generative, the problem is not in getting the ‘stuff’ but in the management and portability, services helping with the accessibility of said ‘stuff’ now offer the value.

Embodiment—“PDFs are fine, but sometimes it is delicious to have the same words printed on bright white cottony paper, bound in leather.” Live performances are another example. As the basic thing can be copied, an embodied version, especially by the creator, retains a generative value.

Patronage—Audiences do want to pay artists they love, but they want to pay what they see as the fair value, because it allows them to connect. “The elusive, intangible connection that flows between appreciative fans and the artist is worth something.” Artists focusing on this rather than the waning blockbuster do very well.

Findability—With so many things copied and available, how do you find what you are looking for? Search is one thing but curation or recommendations are another. Helping with findability carries value. Amazon and Netflix make money selling products and selling access but a great deal of their value rests in how they help us find what we are looking for.

Kelly concludes by arguing that in a free-copy world, success is neither in distribution, nor legal skills in intellectual property and copyright, nor in advertising models:

Rather, these new eight generatives demand an understanding of how abundance breeds a sharing mindset, how generosity is a business model, how vital it has become to cultivate and nurture qualities that can't be replicated with a click of the mouse.

In short, the money in this networked economy does not follow the path of the copies. Rather it follows the path of attention, and attention has its own circuits.

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