Not If But When


The fallout from my last admittedly knee-jerk Serial made me sit up and look around a little closer, mostly because what I kept reading in some responses to my own decision not to use Napster is that Napster and its ilk are an inevitability. I already knew that the digitalization of all media would lead to something or other different from what we have now. We can see it happening every day, in little ways. And there will be stumbling around and bumping into things while the world at large tries to figure out how the new world will work.

I am reminded of Star Trek. In the Star Trek world, we’re the poor savages in darkness trying to cope with an impossibly violent and backwards place, living under rules set in place to insure the on-going wealth of the wealthy. Because that’s what it’s all about, no matter the humanistic leanings we may fervently believe we hold dear. If that were the case, would we be purposely starving the Iraqis because they hold different ideologies? And would I be so complacent about all the other solvable problems that remain unsolved simply because they aren’t lucrative enough to solve? Do you think the drug companies are creating drugs to cure things, or creating drugs that you have to keep taking that cost more and more money because it’s better for drug companies to do so?

But enough paranoid sermonizing. That’s not my place. I don’t really have any facts or figures at hand to support any wild accusations about what my government does and what big business is doing. There are plenty of things to protest, should one feel so inclined. The explosions of anger and frustration over WTO are a better reflection of that, and maybe they’re needed in order for change to happen, because judging by the imbecilic ass-lickers we’re about to choose between to lead this country, all we’re capable of producing and accepting is More Of The Same because it may be frustrating and asinine, but it’s also comfortable and predictable.

And in today’s world, those are two very precious commodities.

Getting back to where I’m comfortable and predictable, and turning back to the Star Trek analogy, in Roddenberry’s fever dream of future past, money’s gone. The crew might sit around a table in Riker’s cabin and play canasta for poker chips, but the poker chips are worthless. In a world where replicators can make anything out of anything else, what use is money, anyway? And in a world without money, what’s the goal of producing anything? How does one keep score, so to speak? How will I know that I’m better than you if I can’t flaunt my Jag and Rolex?

Digital Dust

In one of the movies or series or comic books of that series, Picard explains that the goal is now self-improvement. The concept of money has been replaced with the concept of common good. Art is made by artists because they are all so good at it—a pleasant enough fantasy, I suppose. They aren’t interested in money, just like the artists of today! It’s all about the work, the art, the music, the tractor pulls…

But we don’t live in that world, we live in this one. We live in a world where reward or punishment, either person to person or nation to nation, is monetary.

Right now we’re seeing the faint light of the train called The Future that’s roaring down the track and may crash into copyright law and the distribution system and shatter them into a million pieces. Some people are standing on the track hoping that the train will see them in time and at least slow down enough that it won’t kill all of them (but losing some of the weaker ones so the strong ones can gobble up their products, that would be okay). Most of the people are standing on the platform waiting to get on the train. They plan on riding it into a blind darkness that doesn’t even have the tracks laid down yet, hoping the conductor or the pilot or whomever is up in the engine has an inkling of where the train is going.

You are probably standing on the platform. I’m standing on the tracks, but I’m certainly ready to hop out of the way rather than get killed. Hell, I’d even volunteer to lay the tracks if I knew where the hell the train was going.

To get an idea of what lies ahead, I’m going to plagiarize myself and quote my own words written elsewhere (if you’ve red it before, feel free to skip down):

Where we are right now is witness to the end of the software distribution model. That’s the big story. It isn’t just about music, it isn’t just about encryption, it isn’t just about rights. It’s about taking the distributed, unorganized, unclassified network model that the Internet is built on to its ultimate conclusion.

Forget CDs. Forget DVDs. Forget books. Forget media. Media is worthless. The Internet is a distributed network of clients and servers. There is traffic that has been passing through servers to your client. To this point, your client was a silent, dumb, non-working member of this society. The servers were doing all the work. Right?

Enter Napster (as an example, and NOT as end product). Napster blurs the line between client and server, because it makes your client a server. It opens up your accessway to others to come in, not just for you to get out. Okay, with me so far?

Now, extend that to a digital television recorder like TiVo. TiVo is a computer running Linux using your TV as a monitor. It hooks up to a very fast network (the cable network) via coax. Cable is much, much faster than your Web connection because the amount of data it takes to create those moving pictures on your screen is immense.

Now, add Napster to TiVo. Make an interface between TiVo and your stereo system that is two way – the data and audio connections are already built in! Load your CD collection on TiVo’s hard drive¹, ripping it all to MP3 to save space and database it so you can access it through your TV, keying up any track, any album, any artist you want. Then use Napster to go out to other TiVos to see what’s on their system.

Now, give everyone who owns a TV a TiVo.

Still with me?

Next, install a networked multimedia device in your car. Use Bluetooth to download what you want from your collection to the drive in your trunk. Better yet, fuck the drive in your trunk, you’re already pulling down FM airwaves, make your car system a wireless, harddriveless client tied to the distributed network and put in a voice recognition system so you can say, “Find Donna Summer,” and it answers, “Ready,” and you say “Find Bad Girls,” and it starts playing a second later. Or, “Find Steven King.” “Ready.” “Play The Shining.” “Audio book or motion picture?” “Send movie to home system, play audio.”

This, friends, is where we’re going. This means the end of CDs and DVDs. You don’t give a crap about owning anything you hold in your hand anymore. Digital media is the breakdown of that entire process. The Internet—a global, unpoliced, unprotected, decentralized, vastly distributed network—shatters all barriers between getting access and having access. You simply have it. There’s no way to shut down the source because there is no single source to shut down. You are consumer and distributor.

Dashing All The Way

The above scenario is not wishful thinking, it’s the train. I use TiVo as an example because I own one, and maybe that hardware will be something someone else is working on in their garage like a latter day Wozniak or Hewlett-Packard. But you can see this happening right now. There’s a site online where you can get instructions on how to pry open your TiVo and ¹install a second, slave hard drive. Doing so voids your warranty, of course, but maybe you don’t care, you just want to double the amount of space you have available to record things.

TiVo’s main competitor in the personal television arena, ReplayTV, just announced that you’ll be able to program your Replay from a Web browser (a service TiVo plans to introduce next year after they iron out the privacy issues) so now that tool is really networked, because how hard could it be for the same people who figured out how to hack the TiVo kernal to allow it to accept hard drives larger than 33Gig to figure out how to take advantage of an option that allows people to talk to their TiVo using a Web browser from literally anywhere instead of the remote from the living room?

“TiVo, download the music catalog from this site, sort it by artist, build a database, locate any MP3s on the network you can find for these keywords and store the URLs for possible download tonight after I review them.”

“Okee dokee!” says TiVo.

Bim, bam, boom, welcome aboard The Future.

This all sounds peachy keen until you start to wonder about (and sorry for bringing this up again) the rights of the creator of the media you want so badly. Where, in the above scenario, is the compensation? Yes, someone somewhere had to pay for the original of anything at some point. Let’s say that’s you. You bought Britney Spears’ Greatest Hit on CD. Sure, you could have bought a downloadable version directly from the record company and saved yourself a step, but you wanted the limited edition holographic insert where her breasts seem to float in front of your eyes.

You slipped the silver disc in your MediaPlayer (CD, DVD, CDR, MP3, blah blah blah) and ripped the tunes onto your MediaServer’s (TiVo, etc.) big phat hard drive. Then again, maybe by this point, since your MS is networked, you have an iDrive on the Net and you use that for storage, since the iDrive (“i” for “infinite”) service backs up your precious media library every night. At any rate, you’ve transported the media from the physical to the virtual.

Now you have an option of making your library public when you get the service because sharing is a two-way street. If you want to look inside other people’s sock drawers, you have to leave yours open as well. So you’ve just released the Britney virus into the open, and all those MediaAgents out there searching for keywords ‘Britney’, ‘Spears’ and ‘plastic’ go “Ding!” when they find the newest addition to your library and all begin to gobble it down, placing the Spears chick in their own library, where other MediaAgents find it, and download it, and they tell two friends, and they tell two friends, and so on, and so on, and so on…

A Head In The Road

I see lots of possible scenarios popping up from this. The most obvious being that the entertainment industry will come up with some encoded media that has a license attached and since everything is now networked, the Spears tune will call back to a central server, report its license number, see if the owner trying to access it is the correct one registered to have it and play or not play based on that.

And we all know how well encryption works. Particularly the movie industry and Sega, both of whom have seen the encryption keys used to protect DVDs and Dreamcast video games broken.

Okay, so maybe not encryption. Maybe time limits. Maybe you own a copy of anything for a limited time only. You’re leasing the song for a week or two, which seems reasonable since the people using Napster now say they usually delete the songs they’re downloading anyway so let’s assume no one really wants to keep anything for very long. Disposable media you rent and discard.

I’m just not sure how that would work. A date stamp on the media file, maybe. Again, some sort of tag that checks back across the network to see if it’s still “fresh,” and then offer to allow the person attempting to play the file to pay a small fee for a one-time play, or pay more for an extended rental.

I’m just blue-skying here, lobbing softballs at the target because the target keeps moving and I’m not sure that any software solution will work because inevitably, someone will figure a way around a software solution given the time, energy and desire to do so.

In all of these cases, I am reminded that the one factor I’m building into the model is distrust. Is it fair to believe that no one will be willing to pay for something they want just because they can get it for free, and everyone else is doing it so why not do it, too?

Since that is, in essence, where we are right now. You have access to a computer. You have access to a variety of file-sharing applications that allow you, right now, to go out and search for free, illegal music (illegal music, cool name) to download with virtually no legal ramifications for you. You sign up under a pseudonym, you get an anonymous email address at Bigfoot or Yahoo or Hotmail, you start stocking up. Are you doing so because you believe it is the right thing to do, to teach a lesson to those fat cats who have been ripping us off for years, or because you can get away with it?

And as you’re ripping off the fat cats, are you also enclosing a dollar for the artist and mailing it to him or her to compensate for what they gave you through their music? Are you making an attempt to do so? Do you even care?

Silence Is Golden

There I go preaching again. Sorry about that.

This technology, if it can be called that (because it’s really just glorified file sharing, which is what networks have been doing since there have been networks, since that’s what networks or for, silly) has some people rejoicing and some people in screaming fits in front of Congressional subcommittees. Me, I just find it terribly interesting, which is why I keep going on and on about it, probably. I’m not bored with the discussion at all. I find that I can think best when I write down my circular reasoning and try to come up with something that makes ense of it all.

The world is moving faster than ever, and everyone’s waiting to see what’ll happen. Will open access via the Internet bring democratic changes to China, or will the Chinese government succeed in opening the network without opening access to “other” thoughts? Will we be surfing the Web using our TV or our palmtop? Or both? Or neither? How will digitized media change how we consume it? Will we get more than we can handle, and how will we handle it? Will we take the power of creating the media glut out of the hands of the distribution network, creating our own music free of record company shackles, creating our own movies on digital camcorders, editing them ourselves on the weekend and inserting digital special effects?

Or is all this simply noise? Does the world want that crap you’re making with your camcorder, since maybe the only attraction to any of it is that it’s an oddity and “isn’t it cool what this guy did?” even though the guy isn’t making any money from it and next week no one cares?

Dirty, dirty money. Always screwing everything up, mucking up the works of the beautiful dream machine.

As I wind down, let me throw something else at you. You can take it, I know you can: Does the end of the distribution system also mean the end of control?

In this bright, new world of open access everything, who’s making sure little 5-year-old Sally Sue isn’t watching “Nazi Nurses In Bondage?” Who’s trying to control whether it’s appropriate that little 4-year-old Billy is listening to Marilyn Manson? I’m not a tremendous fan of censorship, and especially in the country where I live I think we tend to overcompensate and try to make everything palatable to a world of 12-year-olds instead of realizing that I, as a no-12-year-old, am not offended by the word “fuck” when sprinkled liberally around a movie or song, but I’m not at all opposed to keeping the word “fuck” as well as the act out of the eyes and ears of kids.

But in a world without boundaries, we’re removing the ones we need in addition to the ones we may not need, isn’t that so? Is completely open distribution without any rules of engagement a fabulous, soul-opening, mind-blowing gas if we’re opening the door wide enough to allow anything to anyone, any time, anywhere without checking first to see if it’s okay to send that beastiality video to the iMac hooked up in the children’s library in Garden Grove, California?

I never thought I’d say this, but to quote Maude Flanders; “What about the children?”

The Beginning Of The End Of The Beginning

What a world, what a world.

Thank God I don’t have to make these decisions. It’s so hard to see the consequences of one’s act when one is caught in the middle of something cool. I’d really love to talk with Shawn Fanning and see what he was thinking about when he dropped out of college to devote time to finishing the creation of Napster. I imagine he wasn’t really thinking about ramifications at all. I mean, he and his friends and literally millions of people were already sharing MP3s with each other, so he goes and thinks, “if I automate this, it’ll make it so much easier!” As opposed to thinking, “I should check to see if the laws permit the sharing of music using computer files (which they don’t, currently) and then I should sit down and figure out if there’s a business case for making a profit off that stealing of intellectual copyright (which there isn’t, currently) and maybe I should see if the recording companies themselves have a plan regarding digital distribution (which they don’t, stupidly).”

But I figure the first is a more likely scenario. I mean, it’s a no-brainer for a dorm-bound college slave. I have a computer. All my friends have computers. I rip songs to MP3. All my friends rip songs to MP3. We’re all on a network already, and we’re all on the Web. What if I combine those things and make it simple to share music with my friends?


And, one must admit, inevitable. Who couldn’t make the connection? And this won’t be the first or the last time this sort of thing happens. The Internet brings empowerment, or hadn’t you heard. It breaks down barriers, it introduces ideas, it opens wide the floodgates of possibility and consequence.

The captain has now turned off the seatbelt sign and you are free to move about the train. Emergency exits are non-existent. We may encounter bumps in our journey as we run down corporations, ideas and assumptions so we ask that you please keep your seatbelt fastened while seated.

Welcome aboard The Future.

August 10, 2000

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