We are living in an age where things are no longer what they once were, but I’ll forgive you for thinking I was getting all sentimental while looking back at history through rose-tinted glasses.
Our brains evolved on a natural diet of physical matter and tangible roughage, and therefore our concepts of abundance and scarcity are necessarily linked to the waxing and waning of finite resources found in the natural world.
One hiccup we now have is the context conflict between our instincts about the material world, and the parallel universe of the computer that follows a different set of rules.
Much of the computer environment borrows its vocabulary from that of the real world. We “open” and “close” “files”, “folders”, and “documents”, and talk about computer space in the same way we describe navigating our way through actual space. We “look in a folder” as if the computer somehow contained lots of folders and directories in miniature form, and as if the screen was simply a giant magnifying glass enabling us to look closer at the contents. But despite appearances and feelings, a “file” is not the same as a file.
Back when producing counterfeit banknotes was easier, paper and ink were still necessary, so free money wasn’t actually free, although it was a lot easier to obtain than trying to convince someone that they owed it to you. Nowadays, in order to increase my bank balance I just need to send my bank a series of zeros and ones, but not really, because those digits in sequence are just a code that my bank’s computer reads and translates, so as long as the computer is able to translate correctly, the message might as well be written in the dirt with a stick. The bank hasn’t actually received those zeros and ones in the same way you might receive some money and a card from your grandma on your thirteenth birthday.
The environment of the computer is a world unto itself, where nothing is as it seems.
Our opposite concepts of stealing (taking without permission) and gifting (giving without being prompted) are also rooted in the physical realm, whereby if we steal something we deprive the owner of its future use, and if we give something away, we also give up our use of it. These two basic rules no longer apply in the digital universe, because here, the correct equivalent of stealing files would involve first copying them to your own computer, and then deleting the originals, depriving the owner of access to them. However, as we know, what actually happens in cases of metaphorical theft is that files are copied, and any original, if it were possible to trace back, is left in tact.
The constraints of mechanical copying processes mean that they are unlikely to be or have been used by any individual to copy a single book for his own personal use for example. The democratisation of modern-day perfect-fidelity cloning tools means that it is just as simple to create one copy of a file as it is one thousand, and doing so requires no specialist knowledge or equipment.
It used to be a necessary evil, that if you wanted something someone else had, stealing would rob them of it. But now that “files” can be copied, with electricity being the only necessary resource involved, we are at a junction where our traditional justice system is being used to apply old thinking to a new phenomenon, and in the process creating a crime out of thin, hot air.
The side of the story often overlooked is that at the heart of the illegal file sharing scandal, is the positive instinctual tendency for humans to share in the face of abundance. And what this digital age represents is the idea of an inextinguishable supply of all forms of media and knowledge, to equal and surpass the human thirst for it.