Price of rare goods skyrockets while infinite digital goods crash

James Gleick has a fantastic, thought-provoking editorial in the New York Times about the skyrocketing value of rare physical goods -- like a centuries-old Magna Carta -- coming on as part of the same phenomena leading to crash in the value of information goods:
Just when digital reproduction makes it possible to create a “Rembrandt” good enough to fool the eye, the “real” Rembrandt becomes more expensive than ever. Why? Because the same free flow that makes information cheap and reproducible helps us treasure the sight of information that is not. A story gains power from its attachment, however tenuous, to a physical object. The object gains power from the story. The abstract version may flash by on a screen, but the worn parchment and the fading ink make us pause. The extreme of scarcity is intensified by the extreme of ubiquity.
Link (via Kottke)


  1. I think that the real difference is the increasing concentration of wealth in the hands of a very small number of people. Bill Gates’ children won’t go hungry, no matter how many scraps of Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks he snaps up; Paul Allen can snap up every last headscarf and guitar pick that belonged to the late Jimi Hendrix, if he has a mind to. And there’s nothing magic about digital reproductions; I had a good copy of the Magna Carta hanging on my wall back in the late seventies, ditto for various Picasso and Dali reproductions. It has less to do with the magic of digital copies than with all of these people who literally have more money than they know what to do with.

  2. “Worn parchment and fading ink” may make James Gleick pause, but that doesn’t do it for me.

    Different strokes.

  3. this makes sense if you look at how the music industry is reshaping. the cost of digital downloads is dropping rapidly and more bands are giving the music away for free. what isnt going down are the price of tickets for a real physical performance by these artists. LiveNation is going to reap massive profits from understanding this trend early on.

  4. It’s a good thing diamonds are rare, or they’d be really cheap. Then we’d all have to pony up for Magna Cartas, or, at least, Butcher Block covers.

  5. You can’t (yet) digitally reproduce paintings, because paintings are three-dimensional objects, not two as commonly stated. In addition to brush strokes and so on, there is the reflectivity of glass to consider. Anyone who thinks they’re getting the full experience of a Rembrandt or a Pollock from a JPG is participating in a process of cultural loss.

  6. I’m one of those weird people who disagrees.

    The real “Rembrandt” doesn’t have any more value to me than a copy good enough that I can’t tell them apart.

    Of course, for somebody interested in analyzing the process of the picture’s creation by trying to find what’s under the visible layer of paint, and doing a chemical analysis of what Rembrandt sneezed into the canvas while painting, the actual original is needed, but this is something 99.9% of the people are never going to do.

    I don’t even think there’s a really an original, since it’s never been painted. The actual original is what Rembrandt intended to paint, and what came out is a lossy copy of that.

  7. Reminds me of one of R. Crumb’s “Waiting For Food” art books, printed collections of his doodles he makes while at restaurants, mostly. In the prologue, he gives the advice to aspiring artists to make real, physical art, THEN make digital copies or versions of it (mostly because if you are concerned about selling it some day, you know…way valuable useful if it only or mostly exists in real life…)

    This was published between 5 and 10 years ago.

  8. Would you say the same holds true for classic games in the arcades? Is Galaga worth more or less because you can play it on your PC with an emulator?

    What if you collected arcade games? Would that make Galaga more valuable to collectors, or less?

  9. So, if I understand this correctly: the extreme scarcity of sense in the New York Times is intensified by the extreme ubiquity of the New York Times? (how is that not a surprise?)

    And yes, #11, to some people a real honest-to-goodness coin-up version of Galaga is far more satisfying than any MAME version, no matter how good your emulation and homemade cabinet is. (however the homemade cabinet downstairs in my current residence is, admittedly, a work of art.)

    #9, the reason the real Rembrandt is worth so much money to people is because they can re-sell it years later for even more money. Classic original painted art is a great investment.. and that’s about it.

  10. I remember Philip K Dick covered this in “Man in the High Castle” (and probably elsewhere) – do you want to own the gun that shot Lincoln? They’re making them in China!

  11. #12 – it’s not just that it has a high resale value, one reason that the originals hold so much fascination and therefore value is the inherent level of skill involved in it’s creation and all the associated history. If I look at a reproduction I am merely looking at a 2D image and can evaluate the picture on those merits (which is fine) but if I’m infront of the original there is a much more to evaluate, less tangible admittedly, but still very valuable. I think that is the point of the article, in our new digitised domain reproductions and counterfeits are par for the course so hold less value, a ‘hard copy’ or original will therefore be worth much more (to the right person obv.)

  12. @Jphilby: Diamonds are artificially rare; if it weren’t for the cartels’ strict regulation of their industry, we’d all be swimming in diamonds.

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