BrewDog’s open-source revolution is at the vanguard of postcapitalism
The Guardian, by Paul Mason
For me, the beer revolution began early. It was the late 1990s – at a beachside eaterie in Santa Cruz, a gaggle of hacks specialising in the Unix operating system were being plied with sushi and chardonnay. But my friend grabbed my elbow and steered me away from all these distractions towards the deserted bar. There, cool and glinting, was a tap marked Sierra Nevada.
Back then, craft beer was utterly and astonishingly new. It was hoppy, it was electric. Somebody had bothered to drain their bank account and tinker with actual hops and malt in their backyard to make it, setting themselves against the power of the vast industrial breweries.
Fast forward to now, and a very interesting thing just happened. BrewDog, the Scottish-based brewery whose beer outlets are spreading rapidly across the globe, just open-sourced its recipe collection. In a cheeky press release, its founders quipped: “Oh, and if you are from one of the global beer mega corporations and you are reading this, your computer will spontaneously combust, James Bond style, any second now.”
BrewDog, a privately owned company currently trying to raise £25m in equity from ordinary punters, needs publicity right now – so caveat emptor. Crowdfunding a rapidly expanding small or medium enterprise via word of mouth, among non-professional investors, is a risky business.
But the recipes are pretty exhaustive. They are significantly more detailed than, say, the information Sierra Nevada makes public about its now bestselling pale ale. All you would need to convert them from homebrew approximations to the actual stuff is a factory, a skilled workforce, some raw materials and a sheaf of legal certifications.
Which goes to the heart of the change that information technology is making to modern business models.
The economist Paul Romer, whose work in the 1990s shaped our understanding of infocapitalism, defined information as “instructions for making things”. Because these instructions are reproducible using minute amounts of labour, energy and mass, and not used up in the process of production, Romer concluded they would end up either very cheap or free.
All that could stop the value of information declining close to zero was the construction of anti-competition mechanisms: monopolies, aggressive patent and copyright laws, walled gardens of technology designed to make using free information difficult, networks designed to be used only if you forfeit control of your information to a megacorporation. We’ve seen it all in the past 20 years – but it won’t last.
So, the edges of the corporate world are increasingly populated by entrepreneurs who – sometimes unwittingly – take a postcapitalist view of information.
Consider that other burgeoning enterprise: the festival. What used to be music festivals are now really food, beer, merchandise, drama, literary and current-affairs-journalism festivals. They’re based around information products – music tracks and, increasingly, books – whose price is on a downward curve. It would take 1,500 plays a month of a track on iTunes to make the minimum wage, but 1.1m on Spotify. So, the economics of digital music are only moving in one direction.
But the economics of analogue performance remain strong. People will not only pay vast amounts for a ticket to one of the megafestivals, but those tickets will sell out the day they go on sale. Whether it’s the instant global city of the EDM festival or the trippy suburbia that is Latitude, it’s the physical experience, the uniqueness, the human-ness, that people want to pay for. Creative workers have understood this for at least 10 years.
For two decades, global business schools have yelled out the mantra “defensible intellectual property” to students like instructors at a spinning class. But it’s not really defensible. So I read BrewDog’s gambit – to make the ingredients, temperatures, timings and techniques of every beer it’s ever made – public and shareable, for free, as just another sign of how rapidly times are changing.
The company will make money from the physical experience that goes with the beer. This may amount to being in a noisy space full of men, all looking to impress women who have not actually turned up, but a lot of people seem to like it.
In a way, this is the beer world catching up with the computer operating-system world, whose tectonic plates were having a good old shudder, even as I downed my first half-litre of Sierra Nevada.
Back then, companies that made the Unix operating system could afford largesse. I remember a field full of sales reps for the Unix-maker SCO pumping their fists, proudly wearing branded windcheaters, as they prepared to make megabucks from selling it.
Today, you can download the Linux version of Unix for free, confident in the knowledge that thousands of dedicated professionals are working day and night to improve it, again for free. Almost all the world’s fastest supercomputers run it.
The idea that the basic tools of modern life should be free, shareable and collaboratively improved, with nobody allowed to make them private property, was born in the free-software movement, spread via the Creative Commons movement and is gaining traction in the world of physical products. It doesn’t destroy capitalism, but it does challenge its dynamics.
Digital information has value only as long as it can be monopolised by legal force. You can build a business out of information plus monopoly, and it can acquire a hefty market capitalisation. But there is a strong chance it won’t be around in 20 years. And I am talking not only about the “unicorn” companies created in the latest bubble, but household names.
If the financial markets worked efficiently, the basic question they would be solving, right now, is: how do we channel money into businesses making stuff that cannot be copied and pasted. Instead, they channel money into corporations whose intellectual-property lawyers look powerful now, but will some day be as powerless as those trying to make money out of keeping beer recipes secret.