Monthly Archives: December 2009

Streaming’s not evil

Stream, Steve Bowbrick

Cory Doctorow’s got this wrong. He’s having one of those slightly hysterical moments that only someone who really understands technology can have. The technically naive idea that streaming and downloading are different things has got him all wound up: “But they’re the same thing! They’re the same thing!” I can almost see him stamping his feet.

Of course they’re the same thing. But they’re conceptually different. And that’s enough to make the distinction descriptively useful. It may be a pretty fragile distinction but it’s not nonsense. There is a meaningful difference between enjoying content in real-time, as an experience, right now and storing it away forever – as a kind of horde of potential experiences.

And the thing is, the business of storing content away forever is in no way ideal. It’s a persistent idea but it’s obviously an anachronism – one we’ve carried over from all those millennia of atom hording. My record collection is now effectively infinite (or at least exactly identical to the entire corpus of recorded music) but that doesn’t mean I want it all on a hard drive in my house. In fact, there’s an absurdity exactly analogous to Cory’s 777 one (the crazy image of everyone on a plane streaming the same content at the same time) in the idea that we’ll all want to download and store away a slice of all the content ever made on separate hard drives in separate computers in separate houses.

Pissing away bandwidth on multiple identical streams may offend the geek sensibility but so does duplicating millions of tracks billions of times when it’s all available as an experience out there somewhere.

And Cory’s privacy and freedom arguments are flawed too. Since we’ve established that downloading and streaming are the same thing, it’s very difficult to argue that one is inherently more benign than the other. I’d go so far as to say that it’s perfectly possible to imagine a ‘good’ streaming protocol that masks identity, tracks nothing and permits proper downloading if you want it. Just as it’s possible to imagine a nasty perversion of downloading that transmits inside-leg measurements to the NSA or whatever.

Enough. I don’t usually do this. I think I reacted to Cory’s article because I recognised in it something of my own geeky absolutism. I often want to yell “but they’re the same thing” into the ether too.