Using Technology to Deepen Democracy, Using Democracy to Ensure Technology Benefits Us All

Sunday, July 20, 2014

The Long Tail Tall Tale

In Salon, Spotify, Pandora and how streaming... kills jazz and classical [music]:
After years in which tech-company hype has drowned out most other voices, the frustration of musicians with the digital music world has begun to get a hearing... between low royalties, opaque payout rates, declining record sales and suspicion that the major labels have cut deals with the streamers that leave musicians out of the equation, anger from the music business’s artier edges is slowing growing. It’s further proof of the lie of the “long tail.” The shift to digital is also helping to isolate... already marginalized genres... “Back in the day, Fats Waller, and tons of other artists were robbed of their publishing. This is the new version of it, but on a much... wider scale.”
Of course, "The Long Tail" was just another tall tale by the skim and scam techno-blatherers. But it is important to grasp that this isn't a next internet generation re-iteration of the phenomenon Clay Shirky (another techno-blatherer, after all) enthused about, predicting -- wrongly -- that free amateur expressivity would provide content "good enough" to crash "much better" professional distribution demanding even vanishingly small cost. To the contrary, professional distribution is using the threat of Shirky-style Coasian-floor chestnuts as a thematic smokescreen behind which to engage in anti-competitive corporate consolidation and digital sharecropping. Once again, the "tech bloom" turns out to be a stink bomb, once again "spontanious order" turns out to be the consolidation of elite-incumbency, once again we are reminded that in the real world people die from exposure.


jimf said...

From _The Dream Machine: J. C. R. Licklider and the Revolution
That Made Computing Personal_ (M. Mitchell Waldrop, 2001),
Chapter 9 "Lick's Kids", pp. 413 ff.

Let's be optimists, [Licklider] wrote in 1979, on one of those
rare occasions when he committed such a scenario to paper.*
[* The occasion was a series of essays on the future of computing,
collected by Mike Dertouzos and his deputy Joel Moses and
published as _The Computer Age: A Twenty-Year View_. Lick's
forty-page chapter, entitled "Computers and Government,"
was one of the longest in the book. In addition to his
fantasy about the Multinet/Internet, it included a very
thorough overview of the policy issues raised by information
technology -- an analysis that stands up pretty well
today (2001). . .]. Let's assume that Moore's Law will
continue to work its magic as it has in the past, and now let's
imagine ourselves in the year 2000: "Waveguides, optical fibers,
rooftop satellite antennae, and coaxial cables provide
abundant bandwidth and inexpensive digital transmission
both locally and over long distances. Computer consoles with
good graphic display and speech input and output have become
almost as common as television sets."

Great. But what would all those gadgets add up to, Lick wondered,
other than a bigger pile of gadgets? Well, he said, if we
continue to be optimists and assumed that all this technology
was connected so that the bits flowed freely, then it might
actually add up to an electronic **commons** open to all, as
"the main and essential medium of informational interaction for
governments, institutions, corporations, and individuals." Indeed,
he went on, looking back from the imagined viewpoint of the
year 2000, "[the electronic commons] has supplanted the postal
system for letters, the dial-tone phone system for conversations
and teleconferences, stand-alone batch-processing and time-sharing
systems for computation, and most filing cabinets, microfilm
repositories, document rooms and libraries for information
storage and retrieval."

This vision of the "Multinet," as Lick called it -- the term "Internet"
didn't really exist yet -- was his synthesis of all the thinking
and talking and writing that had gone on about the on-line world
within the ARPA community since his "Symbiosis" paper in 1960.
The Multinet would permeate society, Lick wrote, thus achieving
the old MIT dream of an information utility, as updated for the
decentralized network age: "Many people work at home, interacting
with coworkers and clients through the Multinet, and many
business offices (and some classrooms) are little more than
organized interconnections of such home workers and their computers.
People shop throught the Multinet, using its cable television and
electronic funds transfer functions, and a few receive delivery
of small items through adjacent pneumatic tube networks. . . .Routine
shopping and appointment scheduling are generally handled by
private-secretary-like programs called OLIVERs which know their
masters' needs. Indeed, the Multinet handles scheduling of
almost everything schedulable. For example, it eliminates waiting
to be seated at restaurants." Thanks to ironclad guarantees of
privacy and security, Lick added, the Multinet would likewise
offer on-line banking, on-line stock-market trading, on-line
tax payment -- the works. . .

jimf said...

[p. 420:]

So there it was: even Lick had to admit that the situation at
ARPA had improved significantly since his day. But for how
long? . . . [I]n the current climate of budgetary and
"relevance" constraints [i.e., relevance to military applications],
who knew what the **next** director might be like?

Nonetheless, Lick wrote in his "Multinet" article, he was still
an optimist. Even if you couldn't automatically look to the private
sector or to the government for leadership, you still had -- well,
the People. At least when it came to computing, he wrote,
"there is a feeling of renewed hope in the air that the public
interest will find a way of dominating the decision processes
that shape the future."

Just look at E-mail, the Arpanet mailing lists, and all the rest,
he said. Just look at the on-line communities that seemed to
come into being wherever there was a network. Users of a modern
computing system weren't just passive consumers; the medium
itself drew them in. It gave them a forum, it made them active
participants, it gave them a stake in deciding their own destiny.
So if you could somehow expose ordinary people to this medium --
if you could somehow get the technology out of the laboratory
and into the mass market so they could experience it firsthand --
then ordinary people might just create this embodiment of
equality, community, and freedom on their own.

It was a vision downright Jeffersonian in its idealism, and perhaps
in its naïveté as well. Nonetheless, Lick insisted, "the renewed
hope I referred to is more than just a feeling in the air. . . .It
is a feeling one experiences at the console. The information
revolution is bringing with it a key that may open the door to a
new era of involvement and participation. The key is the self-motivating
exhilaration that accompanies truly effective interaction with
information and knowledge through a good console connected through
a good network to a good computer."

OLIVERs, huh? Now I have Eva Gabor and Eddie Albert running
through my head. ;->