Boundaries of Ambiguity

A subtle transformation took place in the season premiere of The Sopranos last week.

A subtle transformation took place in the season premiere of The Sopranos last week. As if to help us rationalize our national obsession with this dysfunctional crime family, the shows writers introduced a new kind of moral relativism.

First, the Federal Bureau of Investigation was portrayed as a very accessible, likable bunch of guys who have no compunction about breaking the law to enforce it. While bugging Tony Sopranos home, agents leaf through the familys mail on the kitchen counter after a judge has specifically ordered them to confine their reconnaissance to the basement. Then, for some philosophical underpinning to this moral ambiguity, the writers turned to Robert Frost. As the Sopranos daughter, Meadow, tries to help her younger brother explicate the poets Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening, she explains that the endless expanse of winter white comprising the "miles to go before I sleep" is a representation of death.

I thought black stood for death, her brother says.

It does, but sometimes white stands for death, says Meadow.

Sometimes the white hats are bad. And sometimes the black hats are good. Free your mind of moral stereotypes and look for a deeper ethos in everything you witness here.

In the real world, we are encountering a similar moral relativism in the case of Napster vs. the recording industry. The media — understandably fascinated with the case, since it will determine a lot about their own rights online — seem never to tire of the David vs. Goliath metaphor. But that is too simple and boring. The forces of good and evil are too clearly defined.

For a literary precedent that really fits the case, you have to tap the moral relativism of the Robin Hood legend. Here is a guy who hides in the woods with his merry band of thieves, stealing from the rich to give to the poor. Part of the appeal of this parable about tyranny is the lesson that law and justice are frequently not the same.

Where the Robin Hood metaphor breaks down is the ending. In the legend, King Richard returns from the Crusades — and lets not even touch the moral relativism of that enterprise — to proclaim that Robin is not a criminal after all, but a righteous insurgent who has saved the kingdom — not to mention Maid Marions virtue — from the tyranny of Nottingham.

Things are less tidy in the real world, where the degree of tyranny perpetrated by the recording industry is a matter of perspective and, not surprisingly, the courts are showing no inclination to play King Richard. Still, even lacking a neat, happy ending, the unfolding plot of this face-off between tiny, no-revenue Napster and a fat industry wielding the club of copyright law makes for fascinating spectacle.

But good theater aside, why should the average I-manager care about the Napster case as he or she goes about the business of leading a company through a growing investment in Internet technologies and strategies? Because in a very fundamental way, it is helping to tame the frontier, to define where the real intersects with the virtual and which of our social legacies will survive in cyberspace. My bet is that market forces, far more than high-blown social philosophy, will determine the outcome.

Some people see the Internet as just another marketplace clearly bound to traditional rules, both economic and legal. But economics is a messy science, and finding our moral equilibrium — and then expressing it in law and social compliance — is a never-settled human quest. The recording industry has suddenly realized this, and urgently dispatched lobbyists to persuade legislators not to jump into the online copyright fray until the legal battle has been played out.

What record companies are really concerned about, of course, is the market battle. And in that arena, neither Congress nor the courts may be able to protect them. No matter what the outcome of the Napster case, the rules of engagement in every industry will be profoundly changed by the interactive marketplace and an ever-growing generation of entrepreneur-insurgents.