Sunday, February 03, 2008

The Liquidity of Infinite Copies

Talk about good blogread. Starting from the premises that the internet itself functions by the iterated copying of data, and that the conditions of technology have advanced to reduce the price of copying to zero, Kevin Kelly has generated a kind of manifesto on emerging value structures in a world of costless copies -- not just of digital media in the traditional sense, but of things as wide ranging as media-attendant social forms to DNA.

The key, Kelly says is to look at "generative" values -- values that, again, may be attendant to a digital copy but cannot itself be copied, but by adding value to the consumer can be willingly bought. These generatives, Kelly thinks, can be broken down into eight virtues -- immediacy, personalization, interpretation, authenticity, accessibility, embodiment, patronage, and (the exceedingly awkward noun) "findability."

What's striking to me is that these virtues might be contradictory, and how that may not be a problem. Consider accessibility:

Ownership often sucks. You have to keep your things tidy, up-to-date, and in the case of digital material, backed up. And in this mobile world, you have to carry it along with you. Many people, me included, will be happy to have others tend our 'possessions' by subscribing to them. We'll pay Acme Digital Warehouse to serve us any musical tune in the world, when and where we want it, as well as any movie, photo (ours or other photographers). Ditto for books and blogs.  Acme backs everything up, pays the creators, and delivers us our desires. We can sip it from our phones, PDAs, laptops, big screens from where-ever. The fact that most of this material will be available free, if we want to tend it, back it up, keep adding to it, and organize it, will be less and less appealing as time goes on.

So, full rejection of the flawed materiality of things, embrace of life in the cloud, right? But consider embodiment:
At its core the digital copy is without a body. You can take a free copy of a work and throw it on a screen. But perhaps you'd like to see it in hi-res on a huge screen? Maybe in 3D? PDFs are fine, but sometimes it is delicious to have the same words printed on bright white cottony paper, bound in leather. Feels so good. What about dwelling in your favorite (free) game with 35 others in the same room? There is no end to greater embodiment. Sure, the hi-res of today -- which may draw ticket holders to a big theater -- may migrate to your home theater tomorrow, but there will always be new insanely great display technology that consumers won't have. Laser projection, holographic display, the holodeck itself! And nothing gets embodied as much as music in a live performance, with real bodies. The music is free; the bodily performance expensive. This formula is quickly becoming a common one for not only musicians, but even authors. The book is free; the bodily talk is expensive.

Clearly, there's no one way to add value, which makes these emerging values confusing for developers -- do customers want a richer, larger, more embodied experience (let's call this the Apple approach, shiny object + rich clients) or is accessibility/weightlessness the order of the day (in which case Google is the company most in tune with the zeitgeist)? Can you pursue both strategies at once, like the future Frankenstein monster that is Microahoo? Or do these particular value chains have their own logics?

Kelly seems less sure about the last claim. In particular, he's skeptical about the notion that advertising, which has emerged as the key revenue stream for digital objects (especially those given as "free") is necessarily the best or only answer. Other approaches are underway (e.g. Red Hat/Apache, which gives away its software free but charges for support) and more need to be tried. I'm not sure whether Kelly's got it all down, but he's definitely off to a good start, and it's nice to have a few more ideas both made more explicit and taken in slightly unexpected directions.

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