James Boyle On: Strategies For The Digital Age: Beyond Mocking the Clueless

from the fun-though-it-is dept

With our CwF + RtB experiment in full swing, we've asked some of the participants involved to provide some guest posts. The post here is from James Boyle, whose book, The Public Domain is a part of our Techdirt Book Club (signed by Boyle). If you order both the Techdirt Book Club and the Techdirt Music Club before midnight PT, August 3rd, we'll throw in a free Techdirt hoodie, or a free lunch with Mike. We asked Boyle to give his thoughts on new media business models from his perspective, and he came back with this incredibly thought-provoking post that ought to create quite a bit of conversation:

The Associated Press recently released the details of their plan to develop a new metadata/Digital Rights Management format for news stories. (It wasn't described as DRM, but I agree with Techdirt that it certainly sounds that way.) Particularly ominous was this phrase "The system will register key identifying information about each piece of content that AP distributes as well as the terms of use of that content, and employ a built-in beacon to notify AP about how the content is used." (My italics) Even those without a strong dose of civil libertarian paranoia might bridle at the thought of having their practices of reading and sharing newspaper articles tracked by a central repository (other than Google, that is.) "He sure is reading a lot of articles about gay rights!" Pamela Samuelson calls DRM'd articles "texts that rat on you." Somehow it doesn't sound like a good slogan for a sales campaign. (AP says it has no interest in tracking on the individual user level.)

The response of the tech-savvy was, predictably, pretty savage. Techdirt ("it's difficult to think of anything quite this useless") at least offered some principles on which sustainable web businesses might be built. Others were not as kind. Someone even created an extremely profane and sometimes juvenile, but nevertheless quite funny anonymous graphical translation of the AP's diagram to explain the new plan. The criticisms of the plan (clueless graphics aside) centered around two tenets that are familiar to Techdirt readers.

  1. an argument that DRM is a.) doomed to fail technologically and b.) has in fact already failed in social and economic practice. The general line here is that the arc of history bends towards technologies that are copy-friendly and anything that tries to turn that feature into a bug will soon fail if it hasn't already.
  2. an assertion that "old media" (other names include "the clueless" "dinosaurs" "non digital natives" "the walking dead" etc.) are demonstrably incapable of understanding the potential upside of the sharing economy, or copy-friendly technologies, still less the business models that can be built on top of them. This tenet is so sweeping that it would be much harder to defend if history didn't give us such fabulous anecdata to back it up. My own favourite quote was about the technology that lowered the cost of copying in a prior technological era, "The VCR is to the movie industry what the Boston strangler is to the woman alone." That was Jack Valenti, the late head of the MPAA. Actually, unless the answer to that puzzle is "What is a savior?" Mr. Valenti would turn out to be wrong. Movie rentals to fill the -- cheap -- VCR's that the movie industry had failed to criminalize, tax or enjoin soon provided more that 50% of the industry's revenue.

Personally, I am at best agnostic about tenet #1. I am not a technological determinist. I think that DRM has failed spectacularly in some areas (root kits on CD's), provoked mild irritation and a pressure towards more open alternatives in others (the move towards selling open MP3's rather than protected streams or DRM'd iTunes tracks) and become standard (even if not loved) in others. Most of you are still being forced to watch the FBI warnings on your DVD's and fuss with region control. Sure you could get around it. But how many people bother to? Life is too short. I do think news is a particularly bad candidate for DRM or even "beacons," but that is a specific judgement not a general one.

On tenet #2, I think we are thinking too narrowly. Behavioral economists have identified specific deviations from economic rationality in human psychology-- we tend to value potential losses asymmetrically from potential gains, to use simple heuristics even when they are shown to be false and so on. In my new book, The Public Domain (freely available online, of course) I argue that we have a measurable cognitive bias against "openness" -- I call it cultural agoraphobia, and I argue that it impedes us in understanding the creative potential, productive processes and forms of social organization that the web makes possible. The source of that bias (by which I mean a demonstrated tendency to ignore certain kinds of possibilities in a way that the data does not support) probably lies in the fact that most of our experiences with property come from physical goods -- sandwiches that 1000 people cannot share, absent divine intervention, fields that might be overgrazed or underused if not subject to single entity control. Even digital natives still spend most of the hours of their day in a world in which goods are both "rival" and "excludable." Reflexes picked up in that world tend to lead us astray when we are dealing with the kind of property that lives on networks. "Like astronauts brought up in gravity, our reflexes are poorly suited for free fall." I would even argue that this cognitive bias, even more than industry capture of regulators, is one reason why our current intellectual property policy is so profoundly and utterly misguided. But its implications are wider still.

So far, this sounds similar to the standard technophilic critique of existing institutions -- albeit with a behavioral psychology chaser. But it isn't. Just because it's a bias doesn't mean it's always wrong. It may be that, even once one discards the bias, there may be no immediately obvious way of carrying important social functions into the world of the Net. I don't care where on the techno-optimist spectrum you are (It ranges from "get their eyeballs and their wallets will surely follow" to "the only alternative you seem to be proposing is Google ads, cover charges and lots of T-shirts.") Unless you believe that markets spontaneously self-correct for everything (hint, check your IRA balance before you answer this question) you have to acknowledge that the problem that the AP is responding to may be our problem (how to pay for the kind of expensive investigative journalism that is a real boon to democracy and liberty) as well as their problem (how not to die in the immediate future.)

Don't get me wrong. The world of the future will clearly have media that in some respects are far better than what we have today, even when measured against the most rigorous standards. I am pretty sure, in the world of 2020, pollution levels in Silicon Valley and school performance in Palo Alto will be covered with a wealth of data, expert systems, and interactive mapping in a way that would have seemed a dream in 1990. That will be true for most areas that have wealth, a wealth of data, and a highly educated citizenry with lots of personal liberty and strong personal and ethical reasons to be focused on a particular subject. It will be much less true for areas where those conditions do not hold true, particularly if you have a powerful in-group with strong reasons to want to keep the eyes of the world away. Twitter and the camera phone can do a lot. But they can provide neither the culture of professional journalism, nor the sustained effort and resources to develop a story over years. And there is an oft unnoticed corollary to the claim that the dinosaurs are clueless. It means they are unlikely to solve the problems themselves. Unless you think that markets and technologies spontaneously self-correct for everything, that leaves the rest of us.

In Robert Putnam's fascinating book Bowling Alone he describes the way in which the threads of civil society and of trust frayed during the 20th century -- and offered a convincing social science case that the implications were profoundly negative for our culture. But the book was not a depressive one. Putnam pointed back to the turn of the 20th century. Then, as now, people noticed their society changing around them -- industrialization, the acceleration of migration to cities, urban isolation. But Putnam points out that this prompted an extraordinary entrepreneurialism in civil society. Groups were founded that today seem quaint to us -- the Kiwanis. the Rotarians and so on -- all aimed specifically and solving this failure of civil society. The message was not, in other words, that these problems would self correct through markets and technology. It was that we would need an entrepreneurialism outside the market -- one that experimented with institutions and communities to solve the problems of the day. For me, a glance at AP's DRM business plan prompts the same thought. Some of the functions that newspapers now perform are going to be located elsewhere in society -- in universities, in foundations, in government, in blogs. Some of that will happen spontaneously -- but a lot of it will not unless we innovate in social organization the same way the citizens of the early 20th century did to meet the problems of urbanization.

I was lucky enough to be involved with Creative Commons from its inception and to help found Science Commons and ccLearn. Those organizations were designed to solve a particular problem for which there was a market and legal gap -- the problem of failed sharing. Jesse Dylan's brilliant video on the subject explains it better than I could. Are there equivalent institutional innovations that could help in the area of news gathering? I don't know. Journalism isn't my field. But without the kind of institutional innovation and experimentation in civil society that Creative Commons (or the Kiwani's) represented, I think that we are unlikely to solve its problems. Web 2.0 business methods alone, even with a Techdirt crystal ball, will not be enough. If I am right, mocking the clueless will be a poor consolation.

James Boyle is William Neal Reynolds Professor of Law at Duke and the author of The Public Domain: Enclosing the Commons of the Mind. He writes a regular column for the Financial Times and tweets sporadically as thepublicdomain.

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Filed Under: business models, innovation, journalism, markets, media
Companies: associated press

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  1. identicon
    autoegocrat, 30 Jul 2009 @ 1:13pm

    I just wanted to say that this is one of the most thoughtful and insightful posts I have seen on this subject in an incredibly long time. Thanks.

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