Can you steal fire?

I can’t seem to remember this analogy ever been used: digital information as fire.

Imagine our ancestors: before flint was discovered, humans were dependent on lightning, lava and spontaneous ignition to initiate fire. Then when flint was discovered, it wasn’t discovered by everyone: some groups of humans had it and could use it, while others were still dependent on random events of their environment. Then when fire was there, maintaining it what just a matter of regularly adding charcoal, wood or otherwise combustible materials.

The analogy with digital content creation here is striking: the creation is reserved to some, the preservation dependent on regular supply of energy.

The cost of “having” fire is the cost of a continuous supply of combustible. Nowadays, like then, this cost is negligible compared to the immediate practical benefits of a fire source.

More to the point, back then a mighty power play was at hand between tribes, especially between those who could create fire (or had it already) and those who didn’t. Fire was valuable. It was thus in the order of things to go and take the fire where it was, including possibly from the hands of a fellow human. This is more or less the scenario of Quest for Fire. As in the movie, imagine the occasional wanderer, sneaking at night and using a stick to “steal” the fire from the foreign tribe.

Was the fire stolen?

Arguably, when the fire extends from the heart to the stick, wealth has been transferred partially from the original tribe to the wanderer. Yet none of the practical benefits of the original fire source disappear; they have been merely extended to the owner of the pirate stick.

Meanwhile, the human back then, like today, cannot but feel that a loss occurred; that the act of extending the fire without the willing assent of the original “owner” incurs a feeling of dispossession. To me, the analogy with fire reveals clearly what this loss is about: the loss of exclusivity, which amounts to leverage, which amounts to economic power over those who don’t have fire, which today, like with our primitive selves from thousands years past, amounts to more food and opportunities to reproduce.

Then, after a while, everyone could make their own fire; “stealing” was not necessary any more. At that point, there was no opportunity left to anyone to use fire as leverage, and the act of sharing, whenever desired, was liberated from this feeling of loss.

Which brings me to the current day: when anyone has the tools and the skills to create new digital content, there will be no perceived loss in copying digital content without fees. This is, I believe, a reason why software editors have first feared and now mourn the advent of free and open source software, and why media producers are becoming increasingly irrelevant with Youtube, Instagram, Flickr and other online platforms for content creation and sharing.