November 28, 2000

Beyond Information

Max Headroom A few years ago, back in ancient times when the Internet was still talked about in excited tones as "The New Media" soon to render all others obsolete, Disney CEO Michael Eisner was interviewed about Disney's prospects in a "Max Headroom" kind of future in which the technology to produce and distribute quality film and TV is both universally available and universally affordable. Eisner's confident answer, which cut to the heart of the entire entertainment industry, not just film and TV, was that Disney's business was not creating media products--films, television shows, music, magazines--but "killer copyrights."

No matter how easy it becomes to produce entertainment, no matter how inexpensive it becomes to make that entertainment product accessible world wide, audiences still have to care, still have to want to watch, listen, read, and, before that, to believe an entertainment product worth their time and imaginative investment. The Disney brand will still count. In short, Eisner expressed confidence that Disney could never be fundamentally threatened by the technological revolution, because its business, the business of the entertainment industry as a whole, turns upon people, not things. The industry's bottomline is making, sustaining, cultivating vast audiences from which enormous profits periodically may be reaped--not with every film, every broadcast, every CD release--when some among the many copyrights it acquires turn out to be or can be turned "killer."

Today, the broadband cable and DSL rollout well underway and Hollywood-style 3D special effects demonstrably possible on no more than PCs (see Bruce Branit and Jeremy Hunt's "405"), there is still a great deal of undeniable truth in Eisner's view of the business of the entertainment industry. It's still audience that matters. It is not the product, not the raw "information," but making the product, the information a part of the public's imagination, making "information" circulate in public discourse that still counts. But today, Eisner's faith in the profit basis of the "killer copyright" sounds hopelessly naive.

Technology has killed the "killer copyright."

In technologically sophisticated markets around the world, music CD sales have plummeted, as kids raised on computers turn to Napster and its more untraceable successors to stock their music libraries. At the Blockbuster Music outlet in Pacific Beach, California, sales staff report that almost no one is buying anything, "except one guy from mp3.com who came in and bought a thousand." At a recent sale of bulk blank audioCDs at the San Diego Fry's Electronics, crowds of customers created a pushing and shoving disturbance that almost broke into a fist fight when sales personnel, reduced to playing stock boy, couldn't rip boxes open fast enough to satisfy all the hands grasping in empty air. How long will it be before this scene is repeated for DVDs? Whatever can and will be done legally and technically to forestall the event, its inevitability cannot be doubted. No law can stop mass, spontaneous law-breaking, especially in a digitally interconnected world of crumbling national boundaries; and no technology cannot be broken and undone by future technology.

The "killer copyright" has lost its teeth. While a great deal of selecting, marketing and publicity expertise and expense is still required to make any entertainment product a part of the public imagination--to make and sustain the audience that alone can give it value--profits beyond initial release sales are well on their way to global extinction. No back catalogue. It's not just Napster and the Internet: the phenomenon reaches globally, beyond affordable Internet access. In the open-air markets of Moscow, anyone can buy everything ever released or bootlegged live from Led Zeppelin on one mp3CD for three dollars. The same markets, which exist throughout the world, offer the latest by the newest recording artists whose collected works are still a drop in the digital bucket, each CD filled out to full megabyte capacity with music video, selections from related bands, and playing, ripping, decoding, editing, recording and mastering software to further "the revolution." The "back" in "back catalogue" moves rapidly to embrace the present as potential customers have fewer and fewer incentives to purchase any media product in the first place.

What the entertainment industry is confronting in the death of the "killer copyright" is simply the larger fate of "information," that much used and little examined term, in this so called "Age of Information." Information is not and cannot be the key to a "new digital economy," because, as I have written in "Outlaw Programming," information has no intrinsic value and, worse, its market value rapidly and inexorably approaches zero as technology reduces the cost of finding, accessing, duplicating, and storing it. The only hope for the continuance of an entertainment industry in the "Age of Information" is to abandon it: to abandon the whole flawed, unexamined paradigm of information and sell what technology can indeed create and facilitate but not duplicate--Experience, Performance, Event--all those phenomena that flow with the passing of time and which cannot be "had" except by participating, by "being there," physically or virtually.

In practical terms, this means that the entertainment industry has a huge stake in reviving the once-upon-a-time promise of Internet as "The New Media." But this means, specifically, rescuing Internet and the very concept of a "web site" from the data-based, information-bound thing it has become under the onslaught of the last few years of hastily conceived and hastily executed mega-million, get-rich-quick, IPO Ponzi schemes, nearly all of which turn upon making mere "information" more and more available "on demand," and few of which are actually turning a profit or are ever likely to. For Internet to serve entertainment industry profits, the Internet must be made not a conduit for information but a place for entertainment: a place audiences want to be, must be, and are willing to pay to be because if they are not there, they will miss something, not information, because information can always be had "on demand," but the experience of an event like no other. The "web site" must be reconceived and re-engineered as an environment where ever-passing events transpire, where things happen, expected and unexpected, but, above all, once and for all, never to be repeated.

Such "New Media" web sites, grounded in performance and event rather than information, offer the only opportunity to stem the global tide of consumer-level piracy that will otherwise sweep away the information value of all entertainment products. Legitimate digital entertainment, whether sold online or on physical media, must be transformed into tickets to participate in the flowing world of events these new sites can and must offer. This is necessary if for no other reason than that gatekeeping technology has a chance where copy-protection technology has none. It's not that gatekeeping technology can advance faster than copy-protection technology; hacker assaults will continue apace with each. But gatekeeping technology has a chance of working because the "theft" of "crashing" must always occur where it can quickly and easily be detected, right under one's digital nose, rather than far, far away, any time, anywhere and everywhere in the world. And the consequences of gatekeeping failure are limited to few individuals' illegitimate participation now and then, not the permanent loss of a product's profitability. The door can be closed on the next thief trying to get in, but not on the horse that's out of the barn.

What myriad forms these New Media, event-based sites, or more likely whole event-based networks, can and must assume remains a creative and engineering challenge. But the predominance of Event over Information makes at least two requirements clear, at least for the entertainment industry. Traditional "insider" or "sneak preview" offerings of any kind fail to qualify as true events. They are pseudo-events, merely marking the arrival of information on the scene and the beginning of its market value decline to zero. Pseudo-events of this kind will no doubt be "in the mix," but they cannot drive an adequate "New Media" site. The driving content must be "live" and non-repeatable, or at least statistically unlikely to be repeated for any visitor if served out of an existing content stock.

The second clear requirement follows from the first. Although "artists" must be required to "perform" on the sites that are saving their sales as never before, no one or group of star performers or stand-in hosts will be able to do enough to sustain the flow of non-repeatable events necessary to make an experience that cannot be missed. The audience must be made to perform for itself. Beyond the crude "interactivity" of forum discussion threads, this means the entertainment industry has to discover ways to retain control while surrendering control of the multimedia spotlight, of its network, of the very product image, to unpredictable fans, some talented, some not, who will emerge time and again, suddenly and randomly from the ticketed audience...with the technology already at their disposal to put on quite a show of their own. This challenge of making an increasingly sophisticated audience perform for itself, without losing overall control (or profit) is not, at root, technological. The technology will take care of itself. Rather this challenge requires re-conceiving the very nature and dynamic relationship of performer and audience in mass media entertainment, and it is no doubt the greatest task that lies ahead.

The large marketing and cultural problem is that the entertainment industry, the music industry in particular, has done little to prepare for this moment, having spent the last twenty years, at least, systematically reducing any potential community of artistic or other interest between performers and audiences to a cold cash connection in which the ever-flattered, anxious whims of the "individual consumer" (read, "prepubescent" and "adolescent") are all passes for principle. Perhaps the truest sign of these times and undoubtedly one of the most uproariously funny was the spectacle of Metalica's drummer testifying before, of all people, ultra-conservative Senator Orin Hatch during the recent Napster/MP3 hearings. To hear Metalica whine about theft and disrespect of their "intellectual property" is just too much, considering the entirely derivative (read, "stolen") nature of their sound and their long lyrical career of stirring up and catering to adolescent contempt for everything and anything other than the most screamingly selfish urges. It's just shocking that their global fans are stampeding to rob them blind.

Most current industry attempts to meet the challenge head on in non-legal fashion are similarly uncomprehending. Typical is a Sonymusic funded project, Uville.com. Though rightly pursing interactivity, the site, in concept and in detail, still deliberately panders to the same adolescent self-first anxieties that have been the stock and trade of such bands as Metalica: "Uville is music your way. Designed to adapt to your unique music preferences and lifestyles." The whole industry, it seems, just can't get it. Faced with catastrophe, the sales pitch is still stuck in the same old groove, as old as the vinyl metaphor itself. So long as the industry continues to seek profits in promoting a kid culture of U-U-U, Me-Me-Me, the answer to the question "How do U want your music?" can never be other than "Napster! And FREE, FREE, FREE!"

Posted by rri

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