Future of content – Pt 2 response

Ray Corrigan has responded to my first piece on the Future of Content over on his blog. His is an excellent article, reminding us of the influence of big corporations and setting out the reasons why my view might not come to pass. I recommend reading it all.

For now, here are my responses to some of the points he makes.

"Barlow’s meme has often been taken to mean that we should rely on technology and geography and NOT laws, judges or politicians, to protect freedom of speech. Well government censorship of the Net in places like Saudi Arabia and large responsibility for fingering journalists for arrest in China have provided stark indications of totalitarian governments’ ability to incorporate the existence of such technologies into their operations.”

But equally they have really struggled to control information. Sure they’ve tried and had some success but this has had more to do with the immaturity of communication technologies, not the increasing ability of governments to censor information. The general trend is towards more freedom of information and as mobile devices and broadcasting/networking equipment become more powerful this will only increase.

"John Naughton tells a wonderful story in his book, A Brief History of the Future, about when Paul Baran wanted to build a packet switching network in the 1960s. Jack Osterman, a senior executive at AT&T, the telecommunications monopolist in the US at the time, said "First, it can’t possibly work, and if it did, damned if we are going to allow the creation of a competitor to ourselves." Look at that word "allow". If the network owners control the networks, who uses them and how they get to use them then the network owners have a veto on innovation, which is the story told by Larry Lessig in the Future of Ideas”

And just look at where AT & T are now – this example demonstrates to me about a company trying to impose old world views on a new world. They just didn’t get it, so it’s not that they could allow, but that they thought they had the right because that’s what they were used to. But users just went elsewhere. This rather backs up Gilmore’s law to me, not undermines it.

"And unfortunately for those who would like content to be free the most powerful actors in the decision making process surrounding the deployment and regulation of the networks that will distribute the content are those who want it to support their profit margins.”

Sure the respective industries want to control it, but the point is they can’t anymore. This is because technologically they’ll always be beaten, and also because the online world allows new market players who will offer an alternative, often a free one. They have to adapt or die – look at photography: Kodak might have wanted to control the print process but ultimately digital cameras and Flickr meant they couldn’t.

"As Lessig says, the content industries, wielding law and technology, have fought a bitter counterrevolution against Napster, DeCSS, CPHack, My.MP3, Grokster, Eldred et al and won, at least in the courts, every time. Though millions of copyrighted works are still circulating online it is an increasingly risky business to engage in such infringement with industrial scale operations the content companies now have in place monitoring this activity and targetting [tens of thousands] of people for legal action.”

This is key to me – you could predict that they would do this. They will always seek to preserve the status quo if that is where their current business model lies. But ultimately the ability to bypass the very need for such industries will mean that all their restrictive DRM will only make them weaker because people will have better alternatives elsewhere. Once the online MP3 and iTunes becomes the main place and format people use to obtain records, the very point of a record company becomes obsolete. So whether they have restrictive DRM and savage lawyers becomes irrelevant, they will be disintermediated. It then becomes in their interest to be open, to seek alternative revenue streams, for example giving music away free but selling merchandise and promoting concerts.

"The architecture of the Internet or cyberspace is programmed in the code, the logical layer and protocols that determine how it operates …The Net – an entirely artificially created entity”

This is true, but it doesn’t mean it’s an entirely controllable or predictable entity. I heard Robert Cailliau, a colleague of Tim Berners-Lee, once argue that we were reaching the edges of our understanding of the complexity in the net. He joked that maybe it was using us to get built. Just as artificial life simulations are artificially created they can still produce patterns and activity that are entirely unpredictable, so the net is better viewed as an ecosystem than a piece of code that can be tweaked to make it do what you want.

Which brings me to Tim O’Reilly’s Piracy is Progressive Taxation, and Other Thoughts on the Evolution of Online Distribution which offers six lessons for the media revolution which though outlined in the relative ancient history of 2002 still, I think, hold true today:

Lesson 1: Obscurity is a far greater threat to authors and creative artists than piracy.

Lesson 2: Piracy is progressive taxation

Lesson 3: Customers want to do the right thing, if they can.

Lesson 4: Shoplifting is a bigger threat than piracy.

Lesson 5: File sharing networks don’t threaten book, music, or film publishing. They threaten existing publishers.

Lesson 6: "Free" is eventually replaced by a higher-quality paid service

Lesson 7: There’s more than one way to do it.

The key ones in the current context being lesson 5, 6 and 7.”

Thanks for adding these in – I meant to in my post and forgot. For me, I’d say it was 1 and 5. 1 is similar to Shirky’s second law – it implies that creators would rather give content away than have it locked down and be obscure. Given the choice between fame and fortune, fame wins. And 5 is exactly right – they threaten existing publishers who will fight to stop them – but they’ll lose.

Tim O’Reilly: "The question then, is not the death of book publishing, music publishing, or film production, but rather one of who will be the publishers”

I’d agree with this and conclude that increasingly ‘we’ are the publishers and as such ‘we’ don’t have the vested interest in controlling rights, because of Shirky’s second law.

Though Adam Smith and Garrett Hardin [Tragedy of the Commons] might dispute the notion that individual participants in Web 2.0 activities, unlike Dawkin’s selfish gene, would behave in the best interests of the system as a whole thereby speeding the evolutionary process)”

I knew a natural selection analogy was always a bit dangerous and open to misinterpretation, but just to clarify. The reason I say it speeds the evolutionary process is that natural selection doesn’t have sight of the overall objective, it isn’t an intelligent entity making decisions. Whereas people producing content obviously are, so you don’t have to wait for random changes to make improvements. My recourse to natural selection was to demonstrate that massive distribution can produce amazing complexity, indeed is probably the best way to get complexity. The more obvious analogy is with software production, where the top-down proprietary (read Microsoft) approach is struggling now against the distributed open source approach in producing complex, robust software.


  1. Ray says:

    Your response set another load of hares running in my mind, so I’ve done a brief follow up too at http://b2fxxx.blogspot.com/2007/09/future-of-content-pt-2-follow-up.html And I still haven’t come near addressing all the issues I would have liked to. :-)

  2. @ Ray
    “(Faith in the trinity is a condition of acceptance to the community. The sayings were (and indeed are still repeated and believed today in spite of the contrary developments of the past decade):
    1/ In cyberspace the First Amendment is local ordinance (John Perry Barlow again)
    2/ The Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it (John Gilmore)
    3/ Information wants to be free (Stewart Brand)”
    They are still true today !
    Hakin Bey’s “Pirate Utopias” and “Temporary Autonomous Zones”
    are still out there on the internet.
    In many respects they are even harder for the authorities and commercial vested interests to control, simply due to the huge increase in the growth of the internet and mobile and other telecommunications technologies, and the vast increase in digital storage capacity in recent years.

  3. Oops ! – It should have been “Hakim” rather than “Hakin” in the previous posting.

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