You Shouldn’t Like Everything

I’m not here to be a curmudgeon. (Get off my lawn!) Really, I’m not. But you need to like fewer things. You need to be more selective. You need to insist on a higher standard of quality.

If this means watching fewer films, so be it. Only go to see the few that interest you. Don’t go and see everything that comes out of the off-chance some of it might be good.

No only will you save quite a bit of money, but you’ll expose yourself to a whole raft of new things you’d never have though of finding before. After all, when you turn off your shitty radio station, you have time to fill the silence with something new. And believe me, with the amount of stuff out there, you’ll find something new and interesting before you know it.

As a society we’re quite tolerant of things that don’t last. For most things, that’s fine. History will sort it out. But if everything is impermanent, if everything is disposable, if everything is crap, where’s the 10% that history can sort out?

2010 and the News

If there’s one thing I love about living in 2010, it’s the internet. Specifically, I love the number of experts that you can find on any conceivable subject. If you want to find a new site devoted to some obscure technological artefact, it’s probably out there. If it isn’t, you can start it.

Of course, when you’re on the internet, your bullshit detector is set to full. You don’t believe everything you read. It’s just a bunch of people talking. You don’t believe everything a random collection of people say, and that’s true of the web.

Plus, when someone you recognise is constantly wrong, you can correct them in the comments–the internet likes to pretend to be interactive in at least the most perfunctory manner–or just ignore them completely.

This is one area traditional media can’t compete. In fact when you’re used to the internet way, the traditional media model seems not just obsolete but downright silly. These people positioned as guards at the gateway of information: Who are they? Who appointed them? Why do they get to be there? (Sidebar: The further inside the media establishment you look, the less you’ll respect it. There are few institutions that deserve the position of gatekeeper.)

For instance, you know something about technology. Yet you read an article in the newspaper about some technological artefact and you realise neither the reporter nor the editor understands it. They don’t get the most basic stuff about it. So you dismiss the article and turn the page and read someone going on about politics and never think that if they can’t understand something as simple as technology, how in the world could they understand something so complex as politics?

We all have this sort of blindness, a kind of amnesia. When you read Wikipedia, the editors are ruthless. If a statement is unsourced, they delete it or add a [citation needed] tag. Either way you know that the phrase is suspect. There’s also a strict rule against weasel words and things like that. Yet reading a newspaper is an exercise in find a phrase with a citation, or finding an article without weasel words. Traditional journalism is pathetic. You practically have to read between the lines to get an accurate idea of what’s actually happening.

Internet news sites get down to business. Items can’t be long, for both attention deficit and bandwidth reasons. If something is complete bullshit, someone will say something. Probably lots of people. Some are saying? Well… who? Links help build context. If you really need context–if you’ve come out of a coma recently–you can follow the links or quickly google the subject at hand.

So why do we treat internet news sources as inferior to traditional new sources? Why do we assume a higher standard of truth–after all, journalistic convention is about better truth, right? I can’t see many downsides here. And I think traditional news media are scared of the internet not simply because it’s a different medium. The news media adjusted well enough to radio and television, after all. It’s because it’s a totally different way of interacting with news. I don’t need a 500 word article that contains context, quotes, and supposedly neutral blather. I need a basic summary, some links, and a well-thought-out commenting forum.

That’s going to be a shock for most short and long form journalists, and their editors. There will always be a place for investigative journalism and long human interest stories. But news? Nah.

Illegal != immoral

David Pogue writes an article in the NYTimes in which he relates an anecdote that seems to illustrate a generational difference in copyright morality. It’s an interesting article, though the comments are much more revealing than the article itself.

In that vein, let me comment.

There are several important factors to take into consideration here. First, I don’t think young people today have less of a moral bent than their parents. But let’s assume they do for a second, and ask where this dubious shift in morality comes from. Obviously, parents shoulder part of blame, as does society at large for situational morality. Yet, one can point to the big media companies who have for years put out product that glorifies every manner of immoral behaviour (showing, of course, these companies’ lack of moral fibre: they’ll do anything to make a buck, sell anything as long as it turns a profit), and I think you’ll feel a lot less sorry for them as they lie in the bed they’ve made. I think we call this, “sowing the seeds of your own destruction”.

Whether or not today’s youth have no moral compass, while an interesting question, is less pertinent to me than simple market economics.

When I buy something, it belongs to me. This is a central understanding in most of history’s transactions, except where otherwise stated, or where it’s obvious that you have to give it back.

When something belongs to me, I can do what I like with it, within reasonable limits. This is true of everything I own, from my house to my car. However, when media companies sell you something, they seem to believe it is still theirs, that they can tell you what to do with it, and even though you never have to give it back, that they can somehow control its use. This runs against human nature, though, and they should be thoroughly unsurprised when people invent tools to enable them to do what they like with what they own. This is one market, the ability to do what I like with what I own (device-shift, share, lend, et cetera).

Another market is in obtaining media. Right now the easiest way to get media is on the internet. Content owners saw this coming and did nothing to corner this market, for whatever reason. Another market a black/grey market sprung up to distribute media. When the content owners eventually came to their senses they were relegated to a ghetto of their own making, and with the lackluster efforts thus far, will continue to be. Not to mention that the media distributed by these content owners tends to be low-quality and locked into a specific device/format. Doubly ironic is that file-sharers can get a better copy (and keep in mind that this has not been historically true in many other black/grey markets) and a copy that they can do with as they see fit. Those who keep the law are penalised by the content providers and legislators who give them an inferior product, and those who break the law are rewarded by better availability and a better product.

The media companies have done their monopolies unimaginable harm in not taking the internet seriously. Much like IBM ceding control of the entire personal computing market to Microsoft, the content providers have dropped the ball so hard and so far that they seem unable to even find it to pick it up again. If anything, they seem to be hellbent on securing their place in the dustbin of history.

People take the path of least resistance. This isn’t about morality. It’s about the who will provide the best market for goods. And the content providers still don’t get that.

Add to this that (obviously) illegal and immoral are not bound at the hip. Plenty of things become illegal without being immoral. And when media companies begin to (obviously) buy the allegiances of politicians to see draconian laws made to limit how people may use what they have purchased, the immorality of file-sharing (for instance) becomes even more of a grey area.

The causes of this “moral shift” are many and varied. The internet is not an easy thing to adjust to, especially for monopolies (see Microsoft as an example). However, if the content providers made a better product, if they had more availability, and if the price was reasonable, they would be doing a roaring business on the internet. This is not a hard concept to grasp, and not a terribly difficult thing to implement in these days of almost-free bandwidth. The question become whether or not they’re not giving the market too little too late.

Human behaviour is economic behavour, and the content providers are stuck in a decade-old market with very few paying customers.