Monthly Archives: June 2002

Blog this (experience)

Every weblog tool has a ‘blog this’ button. Clicking the button copies the URL of the site you’re looking at to your weblog so you can annotate it later. Now that mobile phones have built-in cameras, how about a ‘blog this’ button on your mobile that takes a picture and posts it, with your txt annotation, to your blog? You’re copying this experience and posting it to your blog. We’ve succeeded, finally, in making the web writable. Now the world is writable too.

“It’s just not that big”

Brewster Kahle, web archivist, asserts that the history of world cinema has produced no more than a hundred thousand feature films ? even at 5 gigabytes per movie that?s a relatively trivial 500 terabytes of digital storage ? a big investment for a single organisation but a drop in the ocean of networked storage. He also says (can this be true?) that no more than one million albums-worth of music have been recorded in history, an even more trivial storage task at about 50 megabytes per album (5 terabytes ? less than 200 modern PCs). Visualise the totality of world cinema and recorded music slipping into the net’s ocean of connected drives without a ripple. How could the legal owners of this stuff perceive file sharing as anything other than an apocalypse for their business? The net community?s indignation and impatience with the media industries must be tempered by some empathy! This must be a terrifying time…

(incidentally, Brewster Kahle’s Internet Archive is so noble a pursuit, on such a grand scale that it takes your breath away)

Analogue is not dead yet…

The digital ideologues in Government, industry and the media have got us all convinced that the switch to digital is inevitable and that ITV Digital?s failure is a potential disaster for Britain. The fact is that a policy of total switch-off makes less sense now, technologically or socially, than it ever did.

In the analogue realm, when you need to send information through the air, you pick a thin slice of radio spectrum and squirt your signal down it with as much power as your equipment (and the law) allow. This is how radio stations and analogue TV transmissions work. Each station is granted its own slice of spectrum and each transmits with all of its allowed power. The power gives you reach (40 or 50 miles for a strong FM transmission) and the strict separation of signals (with a large empty region around each to protect it from the analogue curse: interference) gives you a clear signal. Meanwhile, at the receiving end, cheap, passive receivers (your trannie or analogue TV) don’t have to work hard – you twiddle the tuning knob to exclude adjacent signals and Bob’s your uncle. This may be the old way of doing things but it looks like its simplicity and robustness may buy it decades more life. In fact, as the digital bodycount mounts and the inevitability of the analogue switch-off fades, we shouldn’t rule out a revival for this quaint, 19th Century technology.

Analogue is elegant, accessible and cheap. More specifically, it’s cheap where it needs to be – in your house and the millions of other end points in the broadcast universe. Listeners and viewers buy their own kit (no suicidal subsidies). It’s cheap because development costs are well and truly sunk and because you don’t have to custom-create content for niches and individuals. It’s easy to ‘tune’ analogue transmission for distance (and for licensing regimes): place your transmission mast at the geographic centre of your licensing region and turn the power knob until everyone can hear or get a picture. Bingo. No need to scatter base stations like confetti – spending as much on rights-of-way and health and safety studies as on transmission kit, no need to dig up every road in Britain and no Kafkaesque programme of adjustment for every aerial in the land. Incidentally, practically every house in Britain is equipped to receive analogue signals and, in the absence of a proper aerial, a bent coat hanger will probably do.

The promise of digital is great and it’s inevitable that analogue will finally be replaced but enthusiasm for all things digital has, until now, been driven by market sentiment and when sentiment goes against you, it’s always worth re-examining your initial assumptions.
All the assumptions driving analogue TV switch-off, for instance, are flawed:

Assumption 1. spectrum is valuable. Not true. With demand uncertain and the capital markets still on strike, there’s no evidence that anyone will pay for this real estate at all. Spectrum has no objective value – it’s worth exactly what you can get for it. Meanwhile, other big owners of spectrum, like stock market new-boy MMO2, have seen their assets marked down to zero or not much.

Assumption 2. the spectrum is needed. By whom? When the frequencies were being divvied up this may have been true but innovation makes them less important. The phone companies who’ve been waiting for television’s swathe of UHF spectrum could relocate elsewhere. Clever spectrum-sharing technologies, already standard in data networking, will allow them to exploit even frequencies currently occupied by other digital players.

Assumption 3. It’s socially important that we bring everyone onto digital. Who says? Half the population has not switched yet. A third probably never will. What do we gain, as a society, by chivvying this group, many of whom can’t afford the new kit and don’t see value in the new content, onto digital. Answer: nothing.

Assumption 4. The ITV companies will go bust if they’re not guaranteed large enough audiences for their digital programmes. There are over 200 TV channels available to British homes now. ITV’s inevitable fate is to shrink as a proportion of total viewing and of advertising expenditure (along with all the other terrestrial incumbents). It’s inconceivable that a slice of protected digital spectrum will do more than apply a sticking plaster.

Market turmoil has thrown all the pieces of the media puzzle in the air – all bets are off. We can make some guesses at the puzzle’s final shape: the next decade will see no final victory for digital. Much of the unreasoning digital ideology has been shaken out of the industry. Those predicting apocalyptic switches, migrations and upheavals are tempering their language to match the situation on the ground. Messy human context has once again reasserted itself. The hyper-rational logic of the digital evangelists – driven, as usual, solely by the theoretical benefits of the new technology – will arrive at a pragmatic accommodation with analogue. Sloppy, inefficient analogue and clever, parsimonious digital will co-exist, each doing what it’s good at. Interesting new hybrids will flourish. If the ideologues can contain their obsession with efficiency for a little while, the resulting broadcast ecology might be a very interesting place to do business.

(Read Professor Martin Cave’s fascinating Review of Radio Spectrum Management, a report prepared earlier this year for the DTI and the Chancellor of the Exchequor, for a glimpse of the future of the historically sleepy realm of radio spectrum).

Public domain in peril? Not again!

Net-heads and civil libertarians are worried that the public domain is being eroded and enclosed. Media owners fear a ravenous, technology-enhanced public domain will eat their businesses. Who’s right? Neither.

The public domain is a tricky concept to define. As a starting point, we can be sure that every community in history has had a public domain of some kind something defined as a shared resource: grazing land, communal housing, ideas. We also know that it’s not a stable concept, that it shrinks and expands, century by century, place by place. In some periods the public realm is rich and productive (Florence in the Renaissance), in others thin and troubled (Soviet Russia). A good public domain has a signature that we recognise. It is open, forgiving of experiment, balanced as to ownership and exploitation of ideas, innovative. We’re going through a change right now, thanks to a wave of technical and social change and to the arrival of cheap, networked computers. Some think that we’re at an ‘inflection point’, that things could go either way and we could wind up with an immeasurably richer public sphere or that it could wither and collapse. The fact that everyone is thinking about the public domain now is instructive. We only notice it when it’s changing.

The war of the file sharers and the media owners is a great drama, a conflict on an epic scale (books will be written, movies will be made) – but it’s not the first time public and private have clashed. Attacks on the public domain usually come from ruling classes and economic elites: enclosers, industrialists, colonists. Defence is organised from below: Diggers and Levellers, squatters and trespassers. For such a contested concept it’s remarkably robust, though. Centuries after capital was first employed to organise and exploit natural resources our world has demonstrably not been reduced to a homogenous field of ownership and exploitation. It remains an uneven mixture of public and private – and there’s a great deal of traffic between the two. Even that haven of the private, America, sustains a healthy public domain and a real debate about its value and its preservation. In the US alone, four campaigning groups have been set up in response to recent encroachments on the public domain by big business: Creative Commons, Public Knowledge, Digital Consumer and Chilling Effects. Lawrence Lessig’s magisterial The Future of Ideas: The Fate of the Commons in a Connected World is a New York Times bestseller and Esther Dyson devoted the whole of June’s Release 1.0 to the issue. The public domain has knocked privacy off the anxiety top spot and has the wired classes chattering.

In the world of ideas, new technology persistently upsets our understanding of what’s public and what’s private. Printing with movable type, photography, audio and video cassettes, genomics, open source software, CCTV and now file sharing – all alter the context because they permit us to move value – social, cultural, economic – from one realm to the other. Sometimes a technology can work to enclose or shrink the public domain. The patenting of organisms and genes, for instance, redefines a historically public category of knowledge as property, exploitable and tradable like other assets. To the Greens and the developing world, terminator genes and patented seed stock promise to remove vital tools and know-how from the public domain all together – condemning farmers and communities to indefinite servitude to Western Agri-Business.

But it’s not a one-way street. To the media firms, Napster and its surviving clones promise the final dissolution of their ownership rights in digital media. They see the file sharers (the industry’s own ?axis of evil’) moving their entire asset base into a hugely expanded public domain. Consider this dizzying fact: it’s certain that every track from every major label’s current catalogue is now online for free download somewhere. File sharing is the public domain’s most vigorous counter-strike yet, a snatch operation of extraordinary effectiveness. The net says: ?we, the networked people, hereby redefine your expensively-cultivated asset-base a public good and, furthermore, jointly and severally rescind any contract we might once have had with you to pay for this stuff. It’s ours now. Sorry, guys.? Should we be surprised that the record labels and their trade bodies fight back? And fight back as if this were their last fight? No, we shouldn’t.

So is this really the end for the media owners? Has their principle asset – the bank of content, talent and potential in which they have invested so much – now been effectively written down to zero? Have the file sharers done for the entire media industry? Predictably, and perhaps boringly if you were looking for the big story, the answer is ?no’. The media firms will adapt to the new distribution realities and stretch to accommodate entirely new models for rights exploitation. These new models, including legalised file sharing, will sit quite comfortably alongside classically packaged and distributed content – just as the racks of vinyl sit weirdly alongside the CDs in your local Mega Media Outlet. Remember, audio cassettes and video tapes went from an industry-threatening pirate’s charter to a profitable part of the value chain within five years of their introduction. No one should underestimate the magnitude of the challenge faced by the big media owners but they have precedent, money and influence on their side.

In fact, in the battle with the net, the media owners are definitely on the front foot. Their economic and political clout, especially in the USA, has won them some big victories. File sharing networks have been shut down or compromised. New laws extend the definition of intellectual property to shut down ?loopholes’ like fair use, home copying and copyright time-limits. Other laws propose inserting intrusive new hardware to dumb down useful PCs – the tiny media tail wagging the vast computer industry dog. In the media owners’ new climate of fear, ordinary consumers are implicitly redefined as pirates and their PCs as accessories to a crime. The public domain is not about to cave in – it has weathered worse storms – but the media industries, perceiving an existential threat of unprecedented scale, have ?gone nuclear’. In so doing they threaten to impoverish the public domain by removing copyright material from its reach indefinitely. More immediately, their over-reaction leads to the realistic risk that their practiced string pulling and favour calling might close off new areas of economic value, for the media industries themselves as well as for the manufacturers, telcos and broadband firms ready to meet the emerging needs of digital consumers. As any downloader will tell you for nothing, the best response to the file sharers’ resurgent public domain is not to shut it down but to promote legal alternatives that leverage the industry’s assets, infrastructure and legacy to enhance it.

Being wrong about technology

We always get the final effects of new technology wrong, usually by a mile. The big media companies are no exception.

People routinely over-estimate the effects of change – technological change especially. Where technology is involved, the machines are assumed to be in charge. This is what they call technological determinism. Bill Joy, programming guru and Sun co-founder, is a born-again determinist. He gave us a cast-iron determinist case study when he famously over-estimated the implications of artificial intelligence, nano-fabrication and biotech to conjure up a nightmare of our ultimate enslavement by robots in Wired Magazine. His analysis assumed the unimpeded victory of tech over mere flesh (John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid, authors of The Social Life of Information, a critical corrective to determinists and absolutists everywhere, disagreed with Joy). Joy’s fantasy was a dystopian inversion of the euphoric norm but, like techies everywhere, he argued exclusively from the theoretical capabilities of the technology, making no allowance at all for the countervailing force offered by a technology’s context – social, economic and political.

You might not find the analogy re-assuring, while the Indians and Pakistanis are squaring off in Kashmir, but nuclear deterrence offers a pretty good counter-example. The potential of the atom bomb is to eliminate all life on this planet in the blink of an eye.This potential, though, has been comprehensively neutralised by a complicated human-scale context for nearly 60 years. That’s not to say that we won’t all die in a nuclear conflagration but rather that, if we don’t, it will be because human beings wouldn’t let it and not because of a failure in the blueprint for the technology.

There’s plenty of evidence that the potential of a new technology is no guide to its actual effects – that the technology is not in charge at all. A new technology’s context – messy, contingent and human – always gets in the way, interferes. The irony of the media owners’ hysteria over file sharing is that the media provide some of the best case studies for the decisive role of context. Question 1: which of these technologies was widely supposed to herald the outright destruction of one or more earlier ones: printing, photography, the gramophone, the telephone, radio, television, magnetic tape, the photo-copier, audio cassette recorders, video cassette recorders, DAT recorders, MiniDisc recorders. Answer: all of them. Question 2: which of them actually destroyed anything? Answer: none of them.

Only an economic numbskull would argue that file sharing will have no effect on the people who own the shared material. It’s the scale and direction of the effect that’s in doubt. The rights owners, not for the first time, make the most literal possible reading of the technology. They can see only its destructive potential so their official estimates of economic damage are always apocalyptic, outcomes always terminal (and, like anyone defending an entrenched position, they have good reason to exaggerate the impact of change). But the rights owners’ over-estimation is becoming obvious. Five times more tracks were downloaded last year than purchased legally, more blank CDs were sold than pre-recorded ones. On the face of it, as normally pro-media owner economist Stan Liebowitz points out in an interview in Salon (may require you to subscribe), such enormous economic substitution has already occurred that the record industry should have been wiped out. Yet the fall in CD sales in the most exposed economy of all, the USA, totals no more than 5%. Where is the hidden damage? Could it be that context – the friction supplied by long-held purchase and consumption habits and by our huge investment in the way we do things now – is more influential than the unarguable technology itself?

Dot.com Entrepreneur Demands More Regulation Shock!

FT.com logo

Since the draft of the Communications Bill came out a few weeks ago, I’ve been worrying (here and elsewhere – see my letter to The Guardian) about the net’s mysterious (but total) omission: not one mention in over 300 wide-ranging pages. In 1992 I’d have expected such a gap, in 1997 I guess I might not have been surprised. In 2002 it’s a lacuna worthy of the X Files. Still I was torn. Don’t we net folk – ballsy frontier types after all – relish our ‘invisible man’ status? Shouldn’t we count ourselves lucky? The answer, at least for me, is ‘no’. The net’s absence (explicit and deliberate) from the bill’s provisions is like being air-brushed out of the Politburo May Day photo. It seems to suggest impending exile (if not actual assassination). It makes me paranoid.

Ofcom’s scope should be extended to accommodate the net. I don’t suggest this casually. Regulating a global network capable of an effectively infinite range of expression from a single, National perspective is probably impossible. In looking for an appropriate regulatory ‘footprint’ I settle on a much-needed redefinition of public service provision for the networked era, the nearest to a ‘natural’ target for regulation that the net offers.

I wrote up my worries in more detail for the FT.
What do you think?