The Inevitable: Understanding the 12 Technological Forces That Will Shape Our Future (2016)
The internet is the world’s largest copy machine. At its most fundamental level this machine copies every action, every character, every thought we make while we ride upon it. In order to send a message from one corner of the internet to another, the protocols of communication demand that the whole message be copied along the way several times. Some bits of data may be copied dozens of times in an ordinary day as they cycle through memory, cache, server, routers, and back. Tech companies make a lot of money selling equipment that facilitates this ceaseless copying. If something can be copied—a song, a movie, a book—and it touches the internet, it will be copied.
The digital economy runs on this river of freely flowing copies. In fact, our digital communication network has been engineered so that copies flow with as little friction as possible. Copies flow so freely we could think of the internet as a superconductor, where once a copy is introduced it will continue to flow through the network forever, much like electricity in a superconductive wire. This is what it means when something goes viral. The copies are recopied, and those duplications ripple outward launching new copies, in an endless contagious wave. Once a copy has touched the internet, it never leaves.
This superdistribution system has become the foundation of our economy and wealth. The instant reduplication of data, ideas, and media underpins the major sectors of a 21st-century economy. Copy-prone products, such as software, music, movies, and games are among the most valuable exports of the U.S., and they issue from the industries where the U.S. has a globally competitive advantage. American wealth therefore sits upon a very large device that copies promiscuously and constantly.
We can’t stop massive indiscriminate copying. Not only would that sabotage the engine of wealth if we could, but it would halt the internet itself. Free-flowing copies are baked into the nature of this global communications system. The technology of the net needs to copy without constraint. The flow of copies is inevitable.
Our civilization’s previous economy was built upon warehouses of fixed goods and factories stockpiled with solid cargo. These physical stocks are still necessary, but they are no longer sufficient for wealth and happiness. Our attention has moved away from stocks of solid goods to flows of intangibles, like copies. We value not only the atoms in a thing, but their immaterial arrangement and design and, even more, their ability to adapt and flow in response to our needs.
Formerly solid products made of steel and leather are now sold as fluid services that keep updating. Your solid car parked in a driveway has been transformed into a personal on-demand transportation service supplied by Uber, Lyft, Zip, and Sidecar—which are improving faster than automobiles are. Grocery shopping is no longer a hit-or-miss affair; now a steady flow of household replenishables streams into our homes uninterrupted. You get a better telephone every few months because a flow of new operating systems install themselves on your smartphone, adding new features and new benefits that in the past would have required new hardware. Then, when you do get new hardware, the service maintains the familiar operating system you had, flowing your personalization onto the new device. This total sequence of perpetual upgrades is continuous. It’s a dream come true for our insatiable human appetite: rivers of uninterrupted betterment.
At the heart of this new regime of constant flux is ever tinier specks of computation. We are currently entering the third phase of computing, the Flows.
The initial age of computing borrowed from the industrial age. As Marshall McLuhan observed, the first version of a new medium imitates the medium it replaces. The first commercial computers employed the metaphor of the office. Our screens had a “desktop” and “folders” and “files.” They were hierarchically ordered, like much of the industrial age that the computer was overthrowing.
The second digital age overturned the office metaphor and brought us the organizing principle of the web. The basic unit was no longer files but “pages.” Pages were not organized into folders, but were arranged into a networked web. The web was a billion hyperlinked pages which contained everything, both stored information and active knowledge. The desktop interface was replaced by a “browser,” a uniform window that looked into any and all pages. This web of links was flat.
Now we are transitioning into the third age of computation. Pages and browsers are far less important. Today the prime units are flows and streams. We constantly monitor Twitter streams and the flows of posts on our Facebook wall. We stream photos, movies, and music. News banners stream across the bottom of TVs. We subscribe to YouTube streams, called channels. And RSS feeds from blogs. We are bathed in streams of notifications and updates. Our apps improve in a flow of upgrades. Tags have replaced links. We tag and “like” and “favorite” moments in the streams. Some streams, like Snapchat, WeChat, and WhatsApp, operate totally in the present, with no past or future. They just flow past. If you see something, fine. Then it is gone.
Flowing time has shifted as well. In the first era, tasks were accomplished in batch mode. You got your bills every month. Taxes were all paid on the same day of the year. Telephone service came only in units of 30 days. Items piled up and were dealt with in batches. Then, in the second age, along came the web, and very quickly we expected everything the same day. If we withdrew money from our bank, we expected the deduction to show up in our account that same day, not at the end of the month. If we sent an email, we expected a reply later in the day, not two weeks later, like regular mail. Our cycle time jumped from batch mode to daily mode. This was a big deal. The expectation shifted so fast, many institutions were caught off guard. People ran out of patience waiting to be sent a form they needed to fill out; if they couldn’t fill it out that day, they moved on.
Now in the third age, we’ve moved from daily mode to real time. If we message someone, we expect them to reply instantly. If we spend money, we expect the balance in our account to adjust in real time. Why should medical diagnostics take days to return results instead of immediately? If we take a quiz in class, why shouldn’t the score be instant? For news, we demand to know what is happening this very second, not an hour ago. Unless it occurs in real time, it does not exist. The corollary—and this is important—is that in order to operate in real time, everything has to flow.
For instance, watching movies on demand means movies must flow. Like most families who subscribe to Netflix, our family became real-time snobs. Unless a movie was available on streaming, we ignored it. Netflix’s DVD catalog is about 10 times larger and higher quality than its streaming catalog, but we’d rather watch a lesser show in real time than wait two days for something better on a DVD. Simultaneity trumps quality.
Real-time books, ditto. In predigital days I bought printed books long before I intended to read them. If I spied an enticing book in a bookstore, I bought it. At first, the internet deepened my hefty backlog because I encountered more and more recommendations online. When the Kindle came along, I switched to primarily purchasing only digital books, but I kept the old habit of purchasing ebooks whenever I encountered a great recommendation. It was so easy! Click, got it. Then I had an epiphany that I am sure others have had as well. If I purchase a book ahead of time, it just sits in the same place that a book I have not bought sits (in the cloud) but in the paid bucket instead of the unpaid bucket. Why not just leave it in the unpaid bucket? So now I don’t purchase a book until I am ready to read it in the next 30 seconds. This sort of just-in-time purchasing is the natural consequence of real-time streaming.
In the industrial age, companies did their utmost to save themselves time by increasing their efficiency and productivity. That is not enough today. Now organizations need to save their customers and citizens time. They need to do their utmost to interact in real time. Real time is human time. An ATM gets you cash much faster than waiting for a bank teller—and more efficiently too—but what we really want is instant cash at our fingertips, something like the real-time money offered by the streaming companies of Square, PayPal, Alipay, or Apple Pay. So in order to run in real time, our technological infrastructure needed to liquefy. Nouns needed to be verbs. Fixed solid things became services. Data couldn’t remain still. Everything had to flow into the stream of now.
The union of a zillion streams of information intermingling, flowing into each other, is what we call the cloud. Software flows from the cloud to you as a stream of upgrades. The cloud is where your stream of texts go before they arrive on your friend’s screen. The cloud is where the parade of movies under your account rests until you call for them. The cloud is the reservoir that songs escape from. The cloud is the seat where the intelligence of Siri sits, even as she speaks to you. The cloud is the new organizing metaphor for computers. The foundational units of this third digital regime, then, are flows, tags, and clouds.
• • •
The first industry to be steamrolled by the switch to real time and the cloud of copies was music. Perhaps because music itself is so flowing—a stream of notes whose beauty lasts only as long as the stream continues—it was the first to undergo liquidity. As the music industry reluctantly transformed, it revealed a pattern of change that would repeat itself again and again in other media, of books, movies, games, news. Later, the same transformation from fixities to flows began to overturn shopping, transportation, and education. This inevitable shift toward fluidity is now transforming almost every other aspect of society. The saga of music’s upgrade to the realm of fluidity will reveal where we are headed.
Music has been altered by technology for more than a century. Early gramophone equipment could make recordings that contained no more than four and a half minutes, so musicians abbreviated meandering works to fit to the phonograph, and today the standard duration of a pop song is four and a half minutes. Cheap industrial reproduction of gramophone recordings 50 years ago unleashed mind-boggling quantities of inexpensive exact copies—and a sense that music was something one consumed.
The grand upset that music is now experiencing—the transformation that pioneers such as Napster and BitTorrent signaled a decade ago—is the shift from analog copies to digital copies. The industrial age was driven by analog copies—exact and cheap. The information age is driven by digital copies—exact and free.
Free is hard to ignore. It propels duplication at a scale that would previously have been unbelievable. The top ten music videos have been watched (for free) over 10 billion times. Of course, it’s not just music that is being copied freely. It is text, pictures, video, games, entire websites, enterprise software, 3-D printer files. In this new online world, anything that can be copied will be copied for free.
A universal law of economics says the moment something becomes free and ubiquitous, its position in the economic equation suddenly inverts. When nighttime electrical lighting was new and scarce, it was the poor who burned common candles. Later, when electricity became easily accessible and practically free, our preference flipped and candles at dinner became a sign of luxury. In the industrial age, exact copies became more valuable than a handmade original. No one wants the inventor’s clunky “original” prototype refrigerator. Most people want a perfect working clone. The more common the clone, the more desirable it is, since it comes with a network of service and repair outlets.
Now the axis of value has flipped again. Rivers of free copies have undermined the established order. In this new supersaturated digital universe of infinite free digital duplication, copies are so ubiquitous, so cheap—free, in fact—that the only things truly valuable are those that cannot be copied. The technology is telling us that copies don’t count anymore. To put it simply: When copies are superabundant, they become worthless. Instead, stuff that can’t be copied becomes scarce and valuable.
When copies are free, you need to sell things that cannot be copied. Well, what can’t be copied?
Trust, for instance. Trust cannot be reproduced in bulk. You can’t purchase trust wholesale. You can’t download trust and store it in a database or warehouse it. You can’t simply duplicate someone’s else’s trust. Trust must be earned, over time. It cannot be faked. Or counterfeited (at least for long). Since we prefer to deal with someone we can trust, we will often pay a premium for that privilege. We call that branding. Brand companies can command higher prices for similar products and services from companies without brands because they are trusted for what they promise. So trust is an intangible that has increasing value in a copy-saturated world.
There are a number of other qualities similar to trust that are difficult to copy and thus become valuable in this cloud economy. The best way to see them is to start with a simple question: Why would anyone ever pay for something they could get for free? And when they pay for something they could get for free, what are they purchasing?
In a real sense, these uncopyable values are things that are “better than free.” Free is good, but these are better since you’ll pay for them. I call these qualities “generatives.” A generative value is a quality or attribute that must be generated at the time of the transaction. A generative thing cannot be copied, cloned, stored, and warehoused. A generative cannot be faked or replicated. It is generated uniquely, for that particular exchange, in real time. Generative qualities add value to free copies and therefore are something that can be sold.
Here are eight generatives that are “better than free.”
Sooner or later you can find a free copy of whatever you want, but getting a copy delivered to your inbox the moment it is released—or even better, produced—by its creators is a generative asset. Many people go to movie theaters to see films on the opening night, where they will pay a hefty price to see a film that later will be available for free, or almost free, via rental or download. In a very real sense, they are not paying for the movie (which is otherwise “free”); they are paying for the immediacy. Hardcover books command a premium for their immediacy, disguised as a harder cover. First-in-line often commands an extra price for the same good. As a sellable quality, immediacy has many levels, including access to beta versions. Beta versions of apps or software were once devalued because they are incomplete, but we’ve come to understand that beta versions also possess immediacy, which is valuable. Immediacy is a relative term (minutes to months), but it can be found in every product and service.
A generic version of a concert recording may be free, but if you want a copy that has been tweaked to sound acoustically perfect in your particular living room—as if it were being performed in your room—you may be willing to pay a lot. You are then not paying for the copy of the concert; you are paying for the generative personalization. The free copy of a book can be custom edited by the publishers to reflect your own previous reading background. A free movie you buy may be cut to reflect the rating you desire for family viewing (no sex, kid safe). In both of these examples, you get the copy free and pay for personalization. Aspirin is basically free today, but an aspirin-based drug tailored to your DNA could be very valuable, and expensive. Personalization requires an ongoing conversation between the creator and consumer, artist and fan, producer and user. It is deeply generative because it is iterative and time-consuming. Marketers call that “stickiness” because it means both sides of the relationship are stuck (invested) in this generative asset and will be reluctant to switch and start over. You can’t cut and paste this kind of depth.
As the old joke goes: “Software, free. User manual, $10,000.” But it’s no joke. A couple of high-profile companies, like Red Hat, Apache, and others make their living selling instruction and paid support for free software. The copy of code, being mere bits, is free. The lines of free code become valuable to you only through support and guidance. A lot of medical and genetic information will go this route in the coming decades. Right now getting a full copy of all your DNA is very expensive ($10,000), but soon it won’t be. The price is dropping so fast, it will be $100 soon, and then the next year insurance companies will offer to sequence you for free. When a copy of your sequence costs nothing, the interpretation of what it means, what you can do about it, and how to use it—the manual for your genes, so to speak—will be expensive. This generative can be applied to many other complex services, such as travel and health care.
You might be able to grab a popular software application for free on the dark net, but even if you don’t need a manual, you might want to be sure it comes without bugs, malware, or spam. In that case you’ll be happy to pay for an authentic copy. You get the same “free” software, but with an intangible peace of mind. You are not paying for the copy; you are paying for the authenticity. There are nearly an infinite number of variations of Grateful Dead jams around; buying an authentic version from the band itself will ensure you get the one you wanted. Or that it was indeed actually performed by the Dead. Artists have dealt with this problem for a long time. Graphic reproductions such as photographs and lithographs often come with the artist’s stamp of authenticity—a signature—to raise the price of the copy. Digital watermarks and other signature technology will not work as copy protection schemes (copies are superconducting liquids, remember?), but they can serve up the generative quality of authenticity for those who care.
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, myself included, will be happy to have others tend our “possessions” while we lazily subscribe to them on the cloud. I may own a book or have previously paid for music I treasure, but I’ll pay Acme Digital Warehouse to serve me what I want when and how I want it. Most of this material will be available free elsewhere, but it is just not as convenient. With a paid service I have access to free material anywhere, channeled to any of my many devices, with a super user interface. In part, this is what you get with iTunes on the cloud. You pay for conveniently accessible music you could download for free somewhere else. You are not paying for the material; you are paying for the convenience of easy accessibility, without the obligations of maintaining it.
At its core the digital copy is without a body. I am happy to read a digital PDF of a book, but sometimes it is luxurious to have the same words printed on bright white cottony paper bound in leather. Feels so good. Gamers enjoy fighting with their friends online but often crave playing with them in the same room. People pay thousands of dollars per ticket to attend an event in person that is also streamed live on the net. There is no end of ways to counter the intangible world with greater embodiment. There will always be insanely great new display technology that consumers won’t have in their home, so they need to move their bodies somewhere else, like to a theater or auditorium. A theater is more likely to be the first to offer laser projection, holographic display, the holodeck itself. And nothing gets embodied as much as music in a live performance, with real bodies. In this accounting, the music is free, the bodily performance expensive. Indeed, many bands today earn their living through concerts, not music sales. This formula is quickly becoming a common one for not only musicians, but even authors. The book is free; the bodily talk is expensive. Live concert tours, live TED talks, live radio shows, pop-up food tours all speak to the power and value of a paid ephemeral embodiment of something you could download for free.
Deep down, avid audiences and fans want to pay creators. Fans love to reward artists, musicians, authors, actors, and other creators with the tokens of their appreciation, because it allows them to connect with people they admire. But they will pay only under four conditions that are not often met: 1) It must be extremely easy to do; 2) The amount must be reasonable; 3) There’s clear benefit to them for paying; and 4) It’s clear the money will directly benefit the creators. Every now and then a band or artist will experiment in letting fans pay them whatever they wish for a free copy. This scheme basically works. It’s an excellent illustration of the power of patronage. The elusive connection that flows between appreciative fans and the artist is definitely worth something. One of the first bands to offer the option of pay-what-you-want was Radiohead. They discovered they made about $2.26 per download of their 2007 In Rainbows album, earning the band more money than all previous albums released on labels combined and spurring several million sales of CDs. There are many other examples of the audience paying simply because they gain an intangible pleasure from it.
The previous generatives resided within creative works. Discoverability, however, is an asset that applies to an aggregate of many works. No matter what its price, a work has no value unless it is seen. Unfound masterpieces are worthless. When there are millions of books, millions of songs, millions of films, millions of applications, millions of everything requesting our attention—and most of it free—being found is valuable. And given the exploding numbers of works created each day, being found is increasingly unlikely. Fans use many ways to discover worthy works out of the zillions produced. They use critics, reviewers, brands (of publishers, labels, and studios), and increasingly they rely on other fans and friends to recommend the good stuff. Increasingly they are willing to pay for guidance. Not too long ago TV Guide had a million subscribers who paid the magazine to point them to the best shows on TV. These shows, it is worth noting, were free to the viewers. TV Guide allegedly made more money than all three major TV networks it “guided” combined. Amazon’s greatest asset is not its Prime delivery service but the millions of reader reviews it has accumulated over decades. Readers will pay for Amazon’s all-you-can-read ebook service, Kindle Unlimited, even though they will be able to find ebooks for free elsewhere, because Amazon’s reviews will guide them to books they want to read. Ditto for Netflix. Movie fans will pay Netflix because their recommendation engine finds gems they would not otherwise discover. They may be free somewhere else, but they are essentially lost and buried. In these examples, you are not paying for the copies, you are paying for the findability.
• • •
These eight qualities require a new skill set for creators. Success no longer derives from mastering distribution. Distribution is nearly automatic; it’s all streams. The Great Copy Machine in the Sky takes care of that. The technical skills of copy protection are no longer useful because you can’t stop copying. Trying to prohibit copying, either by legal threats or technical tricks, just doesn’t work. Nor do the skills of hoarding and scarcity. Rather, these eight new generatives demand nurturing qualities that can’t be replicated with a click of the mouse. Success in this new realm requires mastering the new liquidity.
• • •
Once something, like music, is digitized, it becomes a liquid that can be flexed and linked. At first glance, when music was initially digitized, it seemed to music executives that audiences were drawn online because of their greed for the free. But in fact, free was only a part of the attraction. And maybe the least important part. Millions of people might have initially downloaded music because it was free, but they then suddenly discovered something even better. Free music was unencumbered. It could merrily migrate to new media, new roles, new corners of the listeners’ lives. Thereafter, the sustained rush to download online music came from digitized sound’s ever expanding power of flowing.
Before liquidity, music was staid. Our choice as music fans 30 years ago was limited. You could listen to the set sequence of songs the DJs chose to play on a handful of radio stations or you could buy an album and listen to the music in the order the songs were laid on the disk. Or you could purchase a musical instrument and hunt for a favorite piece’s sheet music in obscure shops. That was about it.
Liquidity offered new powers. Forget the tyranny of the radio DJ. With liquid music you had the power to reorder the sequence of tunes on an album or among albums. You could shorten a song or draw it out so that it took twice as long to play. You could extract a sample of notes from someone else’s song to use yourself. Or you could substitute lyrics in the audio. You could reengineer a piece so that it sounded better on a car woofer. You could—as someone later did—take two thousand versions of the same song and create a chorus from it. The superconductivity of digitalization had unshackled music from its narrow confines on a vinyl disk and thin oxide tape. Now you could unbundle a song from its four-minute package, filter it, bend it, archive it, rearrange it, remix it, mess with it. It wasn’t only that it was monetarily free; it was freed from constraints. Now there were a thousand new ways to conjure with those notes.
What counts are not the number of copies but the number of ways a copy can be linked, manipulated, annotated, tagged, highlighted, bookmarked, translated, and enlivened by other media. Value has shifted away from a copy toward the many ways to recall, annotate, personalize, edit, authenticate, display, mark, transfer, and engage a work. What counts is how well the work flows.
At least 30 music streaming services, far more refined than the original Napster, now provide listeners a spectrum of ways to play with the unconfined elements of music. My favorite of these is Spotify because it encapsulates many of the possibilities that a fluid service can provide. Spotify is a cloud containing 30 million tracks of music. I can search that ocean of music to locate the most specific, weirdest, most esoteric song possible. While it plays I click a button and find the song’s lyrics displayed. It will make a virtual personal radio station for me from a small selection of my favorite music. I can tweak the station’s playlist by skipping songs or downvoting ones I don’t want to hear again. This degree of interacting with music would have astounded fans a generation ago. What I’d really like to listen to is the cool music my friend Chris listens to, because he’s much more serious about his music discovery than I am. I’d like to share his playlist, which I can subscribe to—meaning that I am actually listening to the music on his playlist, or even to the songs that Chris is listening to right now, in real time. If I really enjoy a particular song I hear on his list—say, an old Bob Dylan basement tape I never heard before—I can copy it onto my own playlist, which I can then share with my friends.
Naturally, this streaming service is free. If I don’t want to see or hear the visual and audio ads Spotify displays to pay the artists, I can pay a monthly premium. In the paid version, I can download the digital files to my computer and I can start to remix tracks if I want to. Since it is the age of flowing, I can reach my playlists and personal radio stations from any device, including my phone, or direct the stream into my living room or kitchen speakers. A bunch of other streaming services, such as SoundCloud, operate more like an audio YouTube, encouraging its 250 million fans to upload their own music en masse.
Compare this splendid liquidity of options with the few fixed choices available to me just decades ago. No wonder the fans stampeded to the “free” despite the music industry’s threat to arrest them.
Where might this go? In the U.S. at this time, 27 percent of music sales are from the streaming mode, and this mode is equal to the sales of CDs. Spotify pays 70 percent of its subscriber revenue to the artists’ labels. Despite this initial success, Spotify’s music catalog could be bigger because there are still major holdouts, artists like Taylor Swift, who are fighting against streaming. But as the head of the largest music label in the world admitted, the streaming takeover “is inevitable.” With flowing streams, music goes from being a noun to a verb once again.
Liquidity brings a new ease in creation. Fungible forms of music encourage amateurs to create their own song and upload it. To invent new formats. New tools, available for free, distributed online, allow music fans to remix tracks, sample sounds, study lyrics, lay down beats with synthetic instruments. Nonprofessionals start making music the same way writers craft a book—by rearranging found elements (words for writers, chords for musicians) into their own point of view.
The superconductivity of digital bits serves as a lubricant to unleash music’s untapped options. Music is flowing at digital frequencies into vast new territories. Predigital, music occupied a few niches. Music came on vinyl; it was played on the radio, was heard at concerts, and in a couple hundred films made each year. Postdigital, music is seeping into the rest of our lives, attempting to occupy our entire waking life. Stuffed into the cloud, music rains on us through our earbuds while we exercise, while we are vacationing in Rome, while we wait in line at the DMV. The niches for music have exploded. A renaissance of thousands of documentaries per year demands a soundtrack for each one them. Feature films consume vast quantities of original scores, including thousands of pop songs. Even YouTube creators understand the emotional uplift gained by a soundtrack for their short spots; while most YouTubers recycle prior art without pay, a growing minority see the value in creating custom music. Then there’s the hundreds of hours of music required for each big video game. Tens of thousands of commercials need memorable jingles. The latest fashionable media is a podcast, a sort of audible documentary. At least 27 new podcasts launch every day. No decent podcast is without a theme song and, more often, musical scoring for its long-form content. Our entire life is getting a musical soundtrack. All these venues are growth markets, expanding as rapidly as the flows of bits.
Social media were once the domain of texts. The next generation of social media is conducting video and sound. Apps like WeChat, WhatsApp, Vine, Meerkat, Periscope, and many others enable you to share video and audio—in real time—with your network of friends and friends of friends. The tools for quickly making a tune, altering a song, or algorithmically generating music that you share in real time are not far away. Custom music—that is, music that users generate—will become the norm, and indeed it will become the bulk of all music created each year. As music streams, it expands.
As we’ve learned from the steady democratization of other arts, soon you’ll be able to make music without being a musician. One hundred years ago, the only people technically capable of taking a photograph were a few dedicated experimenters. It was an incredibly elaborate and fussy process. It took great technical skill and greater patience before you could coax a picture worth looking at. An expert photographer might take a dozen photos per year. Today anyone with a phone—which is everyone—can instantly take a photo that is a hundred times better in most dimensions than one taken by the average professional a century ago. We are all photographers. Likewise, typography was once an arcane profession. It required many years of expertise to be able to place type on a page in a pleasing and clear way, since there was no WYSIWYG. Maybe a thousand people knew what kerning was. Today they teach kerning in grammar school, and even newbies can accomplish far better typography with digital tools than the average typesetter of old. Same for cartography. The average web hipster can do more with maps today than the best cartographers could manage in the past. So too it will be for music. With new tools accelerating the fluid flow of bits and copies, we will all become musicians.
As music goes, so goes the other media, and then other industries.
Movies repeated the pattern. A movie was once a rare event, one of the most expensive products to produce. It took highly paid guilds of professionals to make even a B-rated movie. Expensive projection equipment was need to view it, so it was troublesome and rare to see a particular one. Then video cameras came along with file sharing networks, and you could watch any film anytime you wanted. Films that you might be able to see once in your life you could now study by watching hundreds of times. A hundred million people became film students, starting to make their own videos and uploading them to YouTube in the billions. Again, the audience pyramid flipped. We are all filmmakers now.
• • •
The grand move from fixity to flows can be starkly illustrated in the status of books. Books began as authoritative fixed masterpieces. Crafted with great care and reverence, they were machined to last generations. A big fat paper book is the very essence of stability. It sits on a shelf, not moving, not changing, perhaps for thousands of years. Book lover and critic Nick Carr enumerated four ways books embody fixity. Here’s my rendition of how books stay:
Fixity of the page—The page stays the same. Whenever you pick it up, it’s the same. You can count on it. That means you can reference or cite it, certain it will say the same thing.
Fixity of the edition—No matter which copy of the book you pick up, no matter where or when you purchased it, it will be the same (for that edition), so its text is shared between us. We can discuss a book sure that we are looking at the identical content.
Fixity of the object—With proper care, paper books last a very long time (centuries longer than digital formats), and their text doesn’t change as they age.
Fixity of completion—A paper book carries with it a sense of finality and closure. It is done. Complete. Part of the attraction of printed literature is that it is committed to paper, almost like a vow. The author stands upon it.
These four stabilities are very attractive qualities. They make books monumental, something to reckon with. Yet anyone who loves paper books understands that printed volumes are increasingly expensive compared to a digital copy; it’s not hard to imagine a time when very few new books will be printed. Today most books are predominantly born as ebooks. Even old books have had their texts scanned and blasted into every corner of the internet, encouraging them to flow freely on the superconducting wires of the net. The four fixities are not present in ebooks, at least not in the versions of ebooks we see today. But while book lovers will miss the fixities, we should be aware that ebooks offer four fluidities to counter them:
Fluidity of the page—The page is a flexible unit. Content will flow to fit any available space, from a tiny screen in a pair of glasses to a wall. It can adapt to your preferred reading device or reading style. The page fits you.
Fluidity of the edition—A book’s material can be personalized. Your edition might explain new words if you are a student, or it could skip a recap of the previous books in the series if you’ve already read them. Customized “my books” are for me.
Fluidity of the container—A book can be kept in the cloud at such low cost that it is “free” to store in an unlimited library and can be delivered instantly anywhere on earth at any time to anyone.
Fluidity of growth—The book’s material can be corrected or improved incrementally. The never-done-ness of an ebook (at least in the ideal) resembles an animated creature more than a dead stone, and this living fluidity animates us as creators and readers.
We currently see these two sets of traits—fixity versus fluidity—as opposites, driven by the dominant technology of the era. Paper favors fixity; electrons favor fluidity. But there is nothing to prevent us from inventing a third way—electrons embedded into paper or any other material. Imagine a book of 100 pages, each page a thin flexible digital screen, bound into a spine—that is an ebook too. Almost anything that is solid can be made a little bit fluid, and anything fluid can be embedded into solidness.
What has happened to music, books, and movies is now happening to games, newspapers, and education. The pattern will spread to transportation, agriculture, health care. Fixities such as vehicles, land, and medicines will become flows. Tractors will become fast computers outfitted with treads, land will become a substrate for a network of sensors, and medicines will become molecular information capsules flowing from patient to doctor and back.
These are the Four Stages of Flowing:
1. Fixed. Rare. The starting norm is precious products that take much expertise to create. Each is an artisan work, complete and able to stand alone, sold in high-quality reproductions to compensate the creators.
2. Free. Ubiquitous. The first disruption is promiscuous copying of the product, duplicated so relentlessly that it becomes a commodity. Cheap, perfect copies are spent freely, dispersed anywhere there is demand. This extravagant dissemination of copies shatters the established economics.
3. Flowing. Sharing. The second disruption is an unbundling of the product into parts, each element flowing to find its own new uses and to be remixed into new bundles. The product is now a stream of services issuing from the shared cloud. It becomes a platform for wealth and innovation.
4. Opening. Becoming. The third disruption is enabled by the previous two. Streams of powerful services and ready pieces, conveniently grabbed at little cost, enable amateurs with little expertise to create new products and brand-new categories of products. The status of creation is inverted, so that the audience is now the artist. Output, selection, and quality skyrocket.
These four stages of flowing apply to all media. All genres will exhibit some fluidity. Yet fixity is not over. Most of the good fixed things in our civilization (roads, skyscrapers) are not going anywhere. We will continue to manufacture analog objects (chairs, plates, shoes), but they will acquire a digital essence as well, with embedded chips. (Except for a tiny minority of high-priced handmade artifacts.) The efflorescent blossoming of liquid streams is an additive process, rather than subtractive. The old media forms endure; the new are layered on top of them. The important difference is that fixity is not the only option anymore. Good things don’t have to be static, unchanging. Or, to put it a different way, the right kind of instability can now be good. The move from stocks to flows, from fixity to fluidity, is not about leaving behind stability. It is about harnessing a wide-open frontier where so many additional options based on mutability are possible. We are exploring all the ways to make things out of ceaseless change and shape-shifting processes.
Here is what a day in the near future looks like. I tap into the cloud to enter the library containing all music, movies, books, VR worlds, and games. I choose music. In addition to songs, I can get parts of the songs as small as a chord. A song’s assets are divvied up one channel at a time, which means I can get just the bass or drum track, or just the voices. Or the song with no voices—perfect for karaoke. Tools allow me to stretch or shrink the duration of a song without changing its pitch and melody. Professional tools let me swap instruments in the song I found. One of my favorite musicians releases alternative versions of her songs (for extra cost), and even offers a historical log of every version during its creation.
Movies are similar. The myriad components of each movie are released in pieces, not just the soundtrack. I can get the sound effects, the special effects (before and after) of each scene, alternative camera views, voice-overs, all in workable shape. Some studios release a whole set of outtakes that can be reedited. Using this wealth of unbundled assets, a subculture of amateur editors reedits released movies in the hopes of bettering the original director. I’ve done a few here and there in my media classes. Of course, not every director is interested in being reedited, but the demand is so high and the sales of these insider pieces so good that the studios bank on it. Mature-rated movies are reedited for squeaky-clean family versions, or, on the black net, illicit pornographic versions are made from G movies. Many of the hundreds of thousands of documentaries already released are kept updated with material added by viewers, enthusiasts, or the director, as their stories continue.
The streams of video produced and shared by my own mobile devices are born with channels so they can easily be reworked by my friends. Selecting out the background, they insert my buddies into exotic scenes and playfully manipulate the context in a very believable way. Each video posted demands a reply with another video based upon it. The natural response to receiving a clip, a song, a text—either from a friend or from a professional—is not just to consume it, but to act upon it. To add, subtract, reply, alter, bend, merge, translate, elevate to another level. To continue its flow. To maximize the flowing. My media diet may be thought of as streams of pieces, some of which I consume as is, and most of which I engage in to some degree.
• • •
We have only started flowing. We have begun the four stages of flowing for some types of digital media, but for most we are still at the first stage. So much more of our routines and infrastructure remains to be liquefied, but liquefied and streamed they will be. The steady titanic tilt toward dematerialization and decentralization means that further flows are inevitable. It seems a stretch right now that the most solid and fixed apparatus in our manufactured environment would be transformed into ethereal forces, but the soft will trump the hard. Knowledge will rule atoms. Generative intangibles will rise above the free. Think of the world flowing.