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Remix (part 2)

May 12, 2009

Thanks to everyone for all the positive feedback, especially in the comments section of the Chapters page. The traffic boost I got from the mention in the Slate article has been incredibly motivating in terms of getting me putting more words on pages. I’m even writing afternoons and evenings, very out-of-cycle for a morning person like me.  My plan is to have chapter four up by this weekend, even though I haven’t started it, since it’s essential to keep my momentum going.  Traffic spiked from my usual 0-5 hits to around 200 hits for two days, tailing off to 80 then 60ish yesterday.  I’m sure it’s very “un-Googly” of me to just toss off a random number, but if I can keep 20 regular viewers out of the 400 or so new visitors I got, I’ll be a happy man.

I have to block out what happens in the next chapter; I’m about to introduce a new character (and her dog) and I have to interleave some research on Alex (the parrot) and the Open Source movement into the doings in this chapter. Caroline has a lot of reading to do, and I have to make sure what she (and therefore the reader) learns doesn’t come out like some Michael Crichton scene – “Tell us again, professor, about how the frizzymajimjam will send the dinosaur virus back in time using the recalibrated Beeblebrox matrix, so we can start getting killed in interesting ways!”

Meanwhile, here’s my take on chapter 3 of Remix (chapter 2 being an odd, one-page duck). Affective Computing is taking a back seat for now, since it’s an old book and can wait, whereas Remix is more timely.

Digital reproduction is destroying content providers’ ultimate gold mine, reselling us the same content each time the format in which we own it is superseded (Betamax to VHS, LaserDisc to DVD, LP to 8 track to cassette to CD to iTunes). The advent of the MP3 ate away the market for CDs, and while blame was quickly assigned to Internet pirates, Lessig doesn’t mention what many people noted, that also responsible were the overall crappiness of commercial music and the tendency for labels to release 10-12 track albums with 1-3 good songs and a lot of filler – an observation confirmed by the tendency of singles to cannibalize album sales on iTunes.

In an interesting aside, Lessig says that Napster was responsible for iTunes in more than one respect:

An important legal lever was being deployed at the same time in the Napster case. Recall that the record companies had sued Napster because of the “piracy” it enabled. Napster had countersued the record labels, charging that they had an agreement among themselves not to sell content to the digital platform. The labels needed cover from this charge, and an experiment with an operating system holding no more than 5 percent of the market seemed safe enough. Thus was iTunes born.

What we want in terms of digital access to entertainment, Lessig says, is what we’ve expected for years from books. We go to a bookstore or library knowing we won’t be told to “come back after 5 p.m.” to get a novel, since only nonfiction is available during the day, yet our TVs tell us to wait and tune in at 3 a.m. to see that movie, record labels tell us to wait six months after the UK release for the US version of the same album, movie studios tell us to wait six months for the DVD, longer for pay-per-view, even longer for the “with commercials” version, to make sure they can fully monetize every stream.

In many cases, piracy is what Lessig calls “unmet demand” – he cites the example of the Academy Awards in 2007, which even then couldn’t be viewed on the Academy’s web site after the ceremony, but only on YouTube, where clips were posted by fans – clips for which the Academy promptly had takedown notices issued, even though they weren’t providing an official source.

Lessig foresees a new media device, a “universal access point, facilitating simple access to whatever we want whenever we want. Many devices will compete to become this device. And that competition is certain to produce an extraordinarily efficient tool to facilitate, and meter, and police our access to a wide range of culture.”

Not mentioned here by Lessig is the problem with getting manufacturers to agree and comply with open standards before we can have “simple docking devices that amplify or project content accessed through an iPod- like device” in a hotel room or conference room or your own home. Anyone who’s lost an hour of training time waiting for the IT guy to find the driver for your laptop to make it work with the site’s projector will hail that breakthrough with a thousand hosannas. In the meantime, we can’t use the same charger from one cell phone to the next, never mind the universal plug-and-play Lessig envisions.

(Funny: Lessig must truly be an inexhaustible fellow, as he doesn’t see the need for a nice TV in his hotel room since he’s only there to watch it “in the thirty minutes I have before I go to sleep.” Many a worn-out business traveler in a desolate town, or with limited personal funds for entertainment outside the room, could explain the need to him. Also, Lessig states that “the same competition that drives hotels to spend thousands to give me beautiful access to the shopping channel will drive them to provide a simple way to connect my access device to their projector” – not for free, I imagine, since that will mean losing you as a customer for their $30 “adult entertainments” by letting you watch your own.)

This universal device will “provide access, either by simply holding the content, or by enabling the user to tune into a particular channel…Or like a jukebox, will…meter access, deducting a fee for every download or play…or like a soldier at a military base…monitor the content being accessed, and block access without the proper credentials.” In the first instance, more content may be provided free as “content providers will increasingly recognize that free access pays. Free access is a means to gather extremely valuable data about the viewer. That data can translate into much more effective advertising techniques.” Like Amazon’s history of your purchases and ratings, you could trade some privacy for access to free content, in exchange for your preferences being uploaded and recycled into targeted advertising.

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