Saturday, November 17, 2012

Amnesty for file sharers

Again, my favorite thought leader on the foibles of human decision making strikes again in his blog.  This post focuses on downloading media, in this case a book.  Or even more importantly, his book.

He was always in the camp that "information wants to be free."  You know, the justification people have been using for years to download music without paying for it.  But now that he is a world renowned author, there are people downloading his book for free.  Suddenly, he is not so sure.  He can laugh it off because he is so successful that it probably doesn't matter too much to his bottom line.  It also allows his to evaluate his own feelings a little more objectively.  The ability of people to rationalize their judgments according to their own self-interest is not surprising and fits into the models of information processing he has been advocating for years.

He goes on to talk about the long term impacts, specifically on the ideas of social proof and moving baselines.  Mom was right - just because "everyone is doing it" doesn't make it right.  But the social proof of a common behavior makes it easier to rationalize and so you can convince yourself that it is right for totally different and more supportable reasons.  This is a slippery slope of moral deterioration.

Another problem is that when we start down the slope, everything is relative.  Are you more ethical if you download only 5% of your music for free compared to someone else who is at 10%?  Probably not.  So once you start rationalizing it for one or two songs, it becomes easier to rationalize the rest.  5% become 10%.  10% becomes 50%.

How do we get this to stop?  Just like alcoholics can't just drink a little, to stop this kind of slippery slope requires abstinence.  We need to convince people to stop downloading media illegally cold turkey.  But how?  If you stop today, you still have your past behavior hanging over your head and filling up your self-image schema.  Once our self-image considers ourselves "polluted" by this past behavior, or we rationalize the past behavior as OK to make ourselves feel better, there is little incentive to change.

This is where Dan comes in.  He suggests that the content owners should declare an official amnesty.  Every past illegal download is hereby forgiven if you commit to quit.  We all get a fresh start.  It would have to be framed to make people feel good and/or proud of their commitment.  Branded properly, this could make a big difference in the prevalence of many unethical behaviors - including downloading Dan's book without paying.