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9781416532187

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

Mason, Matt Author

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It started with punk. Hip-hop, rave, graffiti, and gaming took it to another level, and now modern technology has made the ideas and innovations of youth culture increasingly intimate and increasingly global at the same time.

In "The Pirate's Dilemma," "VICE" magazine's Matt Mason -- poised to become the Malcolm Gladwell of the iPod Generation -- brings the exuberance of a passionate music fan and the technological savvy of an IT wizard to the task of sorting through the changes brought about by the interface of pop culture and innovation. He charts the rise of various youth movements -- from pirate radio to remix culture -- and tracks their ripple effect throughout larger society. Mason brings a passion and a breadth of intelligence to questions such as the following: How did a male model who messed with disco records in the 1970s influence the way Boeing designs airplanes? Who was the nun who invented dance music, and how is her influence undermining capitalism as we know it? Did three high school kids who remixed Nazis into Smurfs in the 1980s change the future of the video game industry? Can hip-hop really bring about world peace? Each chapter crystallizes the idea behind one of these fringe movements and shows how it combined with technology to subvert old hierarchies and empower the individual.

With great wit and insight -- and a cast of characters that includes such icons as the Ramones, Andy Warhol, Madonna, Russell Simmons, and 50 Cent -- Mason uncovers the trends that have transformed countercultural scenes into burgeoning global industries and movements, ultimately changing our way of life.

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About the Author:

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

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Intro

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 ba...

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