Digital media again/still

The crisis in print journalism seems to be worsening, or at least ripening. It’s not just the incredible shrinking daily paper, but monthly magazines (including Wired, so it’s not outdated content) and it’s not just periodicals but books, and not just print media but music and video.

Us shadetree mechanics always look for one specific failure when a machine acts up: because the odds are so small that you will burn a valve at exactly the same time your timing belt slips a tooth, it’s a reasonable heuristic. Same in medicine: docs look for a particular morbidity that could cause the set of symptoms presented, not simultaneous attacks of flu, shingles, measles and hangnails. A lot of discussion of the media meltdown implicitly adopts this heuristic, asserting this or that single core problem, but here I think we have to put the single-cause assumption aside, because several things are actually going on at once, simultaneous failures in different parts of a large complicated machine.

The first one is digitization of most media, and its effect of making it cheap to replicate content (i) perfectly (ii) at very low fixed cost (iii) at very low variable cost. This is a perfect storm. Book piracy could be suppressed with no copyright when it was more profitable to grab the whole market for a new book than to set type all over again to bring out an existing book – and then only divide the market with the original publisher. It could be suppressed with copyright when physical books were printed by offset (which requires no typesetting to pirate an existing book) because pirates had high fixed cost (printing and binding equipment) and were therefore few, so enforcement was practical. (For a while, some hid from enforcement in Taiwan, but that couldn’t last.) But something a lot like a book, namely a computer file, can now be copied and shipped anywhere at trivial cost by almost anyone in the world and the same goes for an mp3 file, and even a .wav file, which is a perfect copy of all the information normally traded on CDs as music, and an .avi (video), and a .pdf, and a piece of software. Even a physical blank CD costs a dime and takes five minutes to fill up.

Separating content from a physical object that can be withheld from people who don’t pay for it has three important effects. The first is technological: it’s impossibly expensive to enforce copyright on almost any of this stuff, and digital rights management (DRM) seems to work for about two weeks until a kid in Finland or Bulgaria cracks it. RIAA lawsuits do not scare anyone (though they have made the RIAA and its members objects of rage and ridicule) and even its dinosaurs have finally figured that out. The second is economic: the efficient price for digital content in digital form is zero, because that’s the opportunity cost of having it. Listening to an mp3 file, or reading an e-book, doesn’t deprive anyone of it (contrast a seat at a live concert, denied to someone else if your bottom is in it). The third is moral: bad people understand the first effect and good people understand the second (my daughter, after a lecture from me about downloading music several years ago, said “but Dad, it just doesn’t feel like stealing!” and I believe she got point two without being able to explain it in economic language), so our usual social restraints are fatally weakened.

Just because something has an efficient price of zero doesn’t mean it has no cost. There’s no way to sell the services of the army to the citizens it protects, but the soldiers and their stuff have to be paid for. That’s why we have government and its taxes. Same with media: the first big challenge is to pay artists, journalists, editors, sound engineers, and the rest of the gang properly while still providing their product for free. This is not impossible, and Terry Fisher (Promises to Keep) has a pretty good scheme; also see Lessig Free Culture. Unfortunately, this scheme is not reachable incrementally; it requires a real revolution in the organization and practice of whole industries, and it’s in no way certain that we can ever pull that off. GM helped trash national health care and that bomb has now gone off in its arms; the media businesses have been intransigent about anything like the Fisher scheme, and they are being shredded before our eyes. It’s fair, I guess, but doesn’t do us any good. We need to fix this, not punish the stupid and the greedy.

But away from the hard drives and the inter- and sneaker-nets, something else is going on. The insides of our heads are changing, mainly toward a much shorter attention span. A lot of young people today are getting most of their daily discourse, or close to it, in nibbles small enough to text with two thumbs and read on a screen the size of a Saltine; a lot of the rest of us are reading pieces of news on newspaper web sites, and not long old-LA-Times style “print it once and print it all” articles. The average fixation time of a museum visitor on a painting is less than ten seconds. This is already one of the longer posts on this blog, and many of you are already in MEGO territory.

I love streaming web radio, in fact and in concept. The software that guesses what I might want to listen to next is very cool. I know more Brazilian music than most people, but I can start a Brazilian or MPB or even Bossa Nova (the Bossa Nova repertory has been static for fifteen years) stream on and have a new singer or musician presented to me within fifteen minutes, something I would not know to ask for; that’s real value added. But the classical streams (all I have explored) operate on the totally bizarre principle of random individual movements: if you start one up, you get the scherzo from this followed by the allegro from a completely different piece written by someone else fifty years earlier followed by the andante from a third, a completely indigestible, lunatic experience. I know this results from movements being put on CDs as separate tracks, and a misunderstanding of the law regarding how many “works” from a single CD they can stream in a day; what I can’t understand is how this ridiculous practice can survive: are there people out there now who listen to classical music a movement at a time?

Why did this happen? Should anything be done about it? What, and by whom? I’m sure it was viewed with great alarm when people could first take a book off in the woods or a quiet corner of the monastery and receive content without it being delivered viva-voce by a bard or preacher, so I resist my instinct to wail. One reason paintings get a glance rather than real engagement is that we provide so many of them, and the next and the next keep pulling at our mental sleeve, but surely it’s good to have all this art available. We have a lot to learn about this change in content transmission conventions, but whatever it means it also shakes the viability of the media foundering before our eyes.

What about advertising? Isn’t a web newspaper just like a paper paper except on a screen? Nope, if only because the screen is so easily managed by the reader and also because it’s still fairly small at least compared to a newspaper page, so the ads just can’t provide as much information as a quarter-page of furniture sale, let alone the whole facing page to the page you’re reading a story on. So the revenue isn’t there without clicks and intrusive, irritating flyovers and popups and animations, and the clicks aren’t happening. I have clicked on an ad maybe three times in the last six months. It’s not all bad, of course, and we’re in nothing like a stable state: my paper paper could never deliver Ann Telnaes, and Mac and PC are right up there with Bert and Harry Piel (TV commercial immortals of yore). But none of this consumer added value fixes the fundamentally broken business model.

Maybe a workable business/technology model can be created for digital newspapers, but the newspaper itself cannot be the same as the once-a-day package of lots of long stories and a ‘readership’ of googlers and texters may just not support the journalism on which a democracy depends. How many words in an hour of Countdown? Nothing like a day’s New York Times; imagine how far into the paper you would get having it read aloud to you.

I am quite down about all this. It drives me nuts that my students have almost never engaged with a work of art or explication for more than the length of a music video; I assign them one of Wagner’s longer operas and their mental state becomes a little labile, understandably, but even a ninety-minute class discussion often pushes the new limits of attention. I don’t know how to get our arms around the facts of declining-marginal-cost goods in three-minute blips.

It drives me to drink and despair that I’m not sure how I’m going to get news or complex, layered content in my own future, but my kids’and my students’ future is a lot longer than mine and things look worse for them. And even if we solve the problem for ourselves, what kind of life can you have if almost no-one else can, or knows why he would want to?

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.