Saturday, 31 March 2012

What Technology Giveth, Technology Taketh Away

It’s not about piracy, it’s about a failure to adapt

Godin to authors: You have no right to make money any more

When we decried machines (through robotic controls) taking over the auto industry, we forgot that a machine was responsible for the rapid growth of the auto industry. No, not the car. Henry Ford's famous assembly line.

According to Henry Ford:

”The principles of assembly are these:

(1) Place the tools and the men in the sequence of the operation so that each component part shall travel the least possible distance while in the process of finishing.

(2) Use work slides or some other form of carrier so that when a workman completes his operation, he drops the part always in the same place--which place must always be the most convenient place to his hand--and if possible have gravity carry the part to the next workman for his operation.

(3) Use sliding assembling lines by which the parts to be assembled are delivered at convenient distances.”

The assembly line worked because a machine moved the automobile (in its various stages of assembly) and parts to the worker on the line so that the worker could be as efficient as possible. Throughout the years manual tools (wrenches) gave way to powered tools (air powered wrenches) and eventually various jobs on the assembly line could be entirely automated by machine. A basic level of technology gave rise to a sudden burst of well paying jobs, and then as technology became more advanced, the number of employees per assembly line decreased. Technology created a wealth of employment were none was before, and then technology took those jobs away again.

What technology did to the factory, we are now seeing happening to the artistic, or creative world. It took the creation of the printing press for there to be a demand for authors. Similarly it took the creation of the phonograph to create a demand for recording artists. As digital storage and networks displace the need for the printing and recording of information on physical media, those demands are changing. The difference between the factory worker and the content creator is that the factory worker lost their job completely. The content creator is now finding they are still creating, but are not necessarily being paid for their creations. This has caused the odd reaction where governments and industry are trying to protect a particular payment model derived from a particular technology model.

The reason recording artists and authors were able to earn a living (to various degrees) was due to an industry having sole access to the technology required to reproduce the content. Technology allowed for books to be mass-produced, records to be stamped, CDs to be imprinted, etc. These technologies were expensive enough that they were out of reach of the average consumer. It was the cost of the technology that allowed book publishers and recording companies to enjoy their monopoly. Now that consumers can copy and redistribute in a very cheap, and often in a more effective manner, this model is being disrupted. Such that there is complete panic from publishers and recording companies as they refuse to adapt to changing technologies. They are fighting back by pushing for legislation to protect legacy models. But what is so special about recording and publishing that a certain technological model needs protection? Where was the government legislation to force factories to use manual labour instead of robots? Where was the government legislation to protect camera film to avoid the loss of jobs in film development and production? Why are technological advances in these and other areas (grudgingly or enthusiastically) accepted but technological advances in content distribution are not?

Most of the fight has been framed within the argument that content creators deserve to be paid for their content. But what is left out is the loss of other jobs that were also reliant on this model. Recording companies and content creators are not fighting to save the record store, the video rental shop or the recording studio. Why not? These were essential components of the old content distribution model. Why are those job losses acceptable? Also media distribution is in the midst of a massive transformation. Media broadcast companies are losing their exclusive access to consumers through licensed radio and television signals to unlicensed internet content. In this area we see more attempts at adaptation. Media companies are trying to find other revenue models. Sometimes successfully, sometimes not, and yes legacy legislation is proving to be a hindrance, but change is happening. Not as easily or as quickly as we would like, but it is happening.

So everything around content distribution is changing, but what what the publishers are trying to hold onto is their monopoly on creation. Through legislation and digital locks, they are trying to make digital copies of content work and have the same value as the old fashioned physical copies (books, CDs, DVDs, etc.)

Content creators (especially the ones that make the most money) do not want to lose this model. But what they fail to realize is that their income source is contingent on media publishers maintaining a monopoly on recording. As long as the publisher can dictate the the value of a recording by controlling the availability of that recording, they can keep prices artificially high and pay a percentage to the creator. The income artists received was due to the scarcity of their product. The content publishing industry's entire revenue model is dependent on a monopoly position that allows them to control the scarcity of a product. By keeping availability low in times of high demand, they can charge higher prices.

The problem is, even before the Internet, consumers knew they were getting screwed. A CD of a popular recording artist priced at $20-25 was several times the cost of production and distribution. Consumers knew they were being hosed to enrich the pockets of a select few. But if you loved to listen to music, you had no choice. A media company had monopoly control of an artist you liked. In essence, there was little to no competition in the content publishing industry. They set the price, like or lump it.

Lo and behold, technology continued to evolve and price as an entry to content publishing and distribution was no longer a factor for the common consumer. The monopoly disintegrated because technology evolved. It started with cassette and VHS tapes, but the advent of cheap portable digital storage and a world wide network to share content torpedoed the old way of doing things.

Media publishing companies are dinosaurs in a world that has been hit with an asteroid. They are dead, they just don't know it yet. Technology has rendered them redundant and unnecessary. Just as the invention of the robot did to the factory worker, and countless of other careers destroyed by technological progress.

So where does that leave the content creators? Well the ones that remain dependent on dinosaurs for their nourishment are doomed to extinction as well. But what did artists do in the past before recording was available? They created and performed their own works. Now they also have the means to distribute and advertise their own products. Maybe we won't have as many artists as we did in the heyday of publishing, but that heyday was due to technological progress. Technology created that short-lived moment of prosperity, and just as it did the same for the factory worker, technology is taking away that means of earning prosperity.

If you still believe "art" or "artists" are special; please explain why that is more important than the factory worker, the milk man, the farrier, the blacksmith, the scrivener, and soon the radio disc jockey, the music/movie store employee and countless others whose jobs have disappeared.

Technological progress is remorseless and unfeeling, it creates and destroys livelihoods often with unpredictable results. But if we were able to stop technological progress, even roll it back, at what point was it perfect? When did every successful well-paying career all exist at the same time?

It has never happened. For every successful field created, one or more was destroyed to make room. It is content publishing's turn now. The careers of the future will be the ones that evolve or are created from the technologies we have now and the technologies we will yet invent. Artists and other content creators have to realize that CD/DVD/book/magazine and other publishers will cease to exist or will only service niche markets. If it doesn't evaporate completely, the 3rd publishing industry will be a lot smaller than it is now. Universal Music, Sony, Penguin, HarperCollins are all hold overs from another age. Their world is ending, they will be crushed under the remorseless wheel of technological progress.

Don't be crushed with them.

Updater: Long-time readers may have detected an evolution in my thinking. I admit that, like many, I often conflated content creators with content publishers when discussing copyright, piracy and other related topics. It wasn't until I forcibly separated the two concepts that my thinking changed.


Ken Breadner said...

Once again I am put in mind of this, first published in 1939:
"There has grown in the minds of certain groups in this country the idea that just because a man or corporation has made a profit out of the public for a number of years, the government and the courts are charged with guaranteeing such a profit in the future, even in the face of changing circumstances and contrary to public interest. This strange doctrine is supported by neither statute or common law. Neither corporations or individuals have the right to come into court and ask that the clock of history be stopped, or turned back." --Robert Heinlein

You can still make money creating content. Scads of money, even. What's happening here is the destruction of the middlemen, and that should be seen as a Good Thing.

Catelli said...

A more apt quote, I don't think anyone could find. Thanks for that!