Hollywood’s Pirate Legacy

elp-pirate-crop.jpgIt could be said that Hollywood is founded on a legacy of piracy.

About a century ago filmmakers fled the East Coast of the United States in an effort to avoid federal marshals who were actively enforcing a set of patents that Thomas Edison held on the craft of filmmaking itself.

California’s geographic distance and laxity of law enforcement enabled these individuals to flourish through the meagre 17 years of protection that those patents offered Edison. In that time, a new industry was born in Hollywood, founded by a loose band of formally criminal entrepreneurs.

Interestingly, this movement’s ringleader was the Austro-Hungarian-born Jew William Fox (née Wilhelm Fuchs) whose namesake Fox Film Corporation survives to this day.

Cable television similarly evolved from an arguably illegal foundation. For more than thirty years following 1948, cable companies were the Napster of their era.

Quite simply, they redistributed broadcaster content to their customers without any remuneration to the copyright owners.

Remarkably, their situation survived two US Supreme Court cases. An act of Congress finally settled the dispute, again in the cable companies’ favour.

As a result, one of America’s largest business empires was built on what is now viewed as content piracy.

I’m relating this history because, as the digital era begins to forcibly undermine the business models that support traditional entertainment such as film and television, it’s worth noting the value of piracy.

Had Thomas Edison and the original television broadcasters had their way, it’s questionable as to whether either Hollywood or cable television would even exist. Piracy and openly illegal use of copyright media content gave birth to both industries.

Today, file sharing and social networking are redefining both the distribution system and economic infrastructure of entertainment media.

Television and film are both being neutered by evolving generations of media consumers that demand more flexibility and cost effectiveness.

Working against the lessons of history and common sense, most film companies and broadcasters are working hard to continue to enforce their dilapidated marketing model on the public.

They’d do better to listen to the emerging demands of consumers and restructure their approach to media production and distribution.

Interestingly, one media company is doing just this, but more out of desperation than strategic endeavour.

Sony Pictures, after all, is the only international media conglomerate that does not own a major North American broadcaster. So it has to do something.

Sony is taking the emergence of a new form of entertainment media to heart and is testing out some models. One of these is called Afterworld, which is essentially a science fiction show that is published using a model popularly known as “cross platform”.

Clocking in at barely 3 minutes (the premium duration for mobile and online video content), each Afterworld “webisode” can be downloaded any time and viewed on a wide variety of devices, often at little or not cost.

Afterworld is an excellent model for a post-TV future.

While it’s clearly not piracy-driven, Afterworld does leverage the best practices and habits of media consumers who exist on the fringe.

It uses the web and file sharing for data distribution; it embraces a variety of target technologies, from televisions to iPods; it is perfectly crafted for quick consumption; and it undermines the traditional economic system that television and film are working so hard to protect.

Afterworld also highlights what most important about the contemporary media piracy movement: it’s driven by consumers, not producers.

File sharing and social media distribution channels are all about the deconstruction of the media empires that Fox and his ilk built from their ill-gotten gains.

Shows like Afterworld respond to these evolving consumption patterns and respect the interests of new consumers who, in a digital age, really have the power to do whatever they damn well please with any content they access.

The pirates of old need to come to terms with this and work with the swashbucklers of tomorrow.

Otherwise, just as Fox Film was crudely consumed by upstart Twentieth-Century Films in 1935, they may be forced to walk the plank before the emerging media market is fully realized.

Originally published in the Yukon News on Friday, January 25, 2008. Happy Birthday, Dad!

And Now a Poke from Our Sponsors…

facebooklogo5.gifWhen it comes right down to it, the popular social web site Facebook has evolved into one of the single most annoying commercial constructs ever unleashed online.

Originally designed to be a place where friends and acquaintances could gather and socialize, it is now little more than a spam machine that is validated and powered by us and our friends.

Advertisers are fully aware that, because of its social base, Facebook users trust Facebook content, and thus also trust its integrated commercial messages.

As a result, most material you find on the web site now is friend-validated marketing mana.

It’s a disappointing outcome for a place that was once just about friendship and communication.

Nowadays it’s more about the forced integration of commercialism and consumerism into personal discourse.
And that’s how Facebook likes it, because advertising butters the company’s bread.

But really, how far can Facebook push this model of socially-driven advertising?

Imagine a world where all of the neighbours on your street can effortlessly duplicate the junk mail that arrives in their mailboxes and dump it in yours.

Imagine that your friends forward on calls from telemarketers to you.

This is Facebook now.

Back in the day (like, a year ago), Facebook was an excellent platform for social discourse.

It enabled you to inventory a lifetime of friends and engage with them in a relatively qualified fashion.

It was better than email because the communications network was closed and protected from spam.

It naturally bridged the communications gap between the web and your mobile phone so that you could maintain constant contact with your social circle.

Plus, it had an element of fun. There were games and silly little messaging applications that you could use to socialize and kill time. It was a cute little site that was fun and generally useful.

That “old” Facebook, the one that was really useful and interesting, is dead.

It all started one fateful day last May, when Facebook opened the site up to let anyone develop content.

A major investment blog at the time encouraged people to throw cash at the platform as a way to monetize Facebook’s then 20 million users.

That advice was taken to heart and by month’s end there were already 85 commercial applications available. There are now almost 14,000.

These applications are generally powered by advertising dollars, and much of their content is generally made up of commercial or consumer messages.

So to engage with Facebook applications is to play a willing role in the distribution of unsolicited advertising.

Then in October, having grown to 50 million users, Facebook extended their platform to mobile devices and brought their commercial partners with them.

At the same time, Microsoft bought less than 2% of the company for $240 million. And all of a sudden Facebook was worth $15 billion.

Suddenly, the pressure was on to prove that valuation.

Clearly not satisfied with pure ad revenues, the company decided to hawk its most valuable asset, it’s user base, to the highest bidder.

Last November, the company launched Beacon, a misguided marketing effort designed to bridge individual consumer habits with a sort of product verification system.

Under Beacon, if you bought something from a Facebook partner retailer, your purchase would be advertised to your friends.

In a way, it was an imposed word-of-mouth marketing methodology.

As Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg said when he announced Beacon: “A trusted referral influences people more than the best broadcast message.
A trusted referral is the Holy Grail of advertising.”

It’s true, but only when the broadcast is voluntary, deliberate, and personal. Beacon enforces the process in a seriously systematic fashion.

Rightfully, Facebook Beacon was immediately attacked as an invasion of privacy and a misuse of personal information.

Beacon was modified somewhat as a result, but it’s still an automated, uncontrolled information bridge between Facebook and e-tailers like Sony, Blockbuster, and Crest.

Facebook has evolved into an environment that misuses the trust we share with friends to endorse commercial messages we may not even be aware that we’re involved with.

It’s no longer a place to meet up and communicate. It’s now an environment where each of us is pimped out for commercial interests in a form of unpaid sponsorship.

At least in a pyramid scheme you get a cut of the action; Facebook doesn’t even say thank-you.

It’s 2008: Let’s Bid a Fond Farewell to Information Technology

uploaded-file-15161Welcome to 2008, the year we quit “using” technology.

This year, computers and their ilk will begin instead to serve our needs and interests.

This means the beginning of a long farewell to that stalwart department of institutional geekdom, Information Technology (y’know: “IT”), as society begins a more personable engagement with the toys and tools we currently love to hate.

The evolving technology environment, which I call RT (for “Relationship Technology”), will be all about computers and their ilk constantly cultivating an understanding of their human masters.

It’s a paradigm swap, really.

Under IT, the onus is currently on us humans to rifle through masses of largely irrelevant data in a quest for something we actually care about or require.

As RT evolves, technology will become permanently responsible for delivering a constant flow of subject matter that’s relevant to our current state of being.

And that’s where the demise of the IT department begins.

The basement-dwelling, introverted egoists that currently command too much power over an organization as the keepers of the tools and data that we use will be gradually supplanted by a socially-oriented team of workers constantly on the prowl amongst the workforce, actively seeking ways to make technology better work for us.

To date under IT, it’s been our responsibility as “users” to wring meaning out of generally dormant technology systems.

Probably the best example of this is the web.

The web is not a content-delivery medium, as many people consider it to be.

It’s an information extraction system that demands a high level of engagement and interaction from us, its users.

It’s a classic model of IT in action: here’s a pile of data, come and get it, and figure out for yourself what you actually want.

Of course, that mass of information is somewhat filtered by search fields and the design of a user interface that enables us to engage with it.

Web sites, in a sense, are the best guesses of IT designers as to what users want and need. They are structured and designed based on assumptions, conjecture, and a healthy dose of luck.

But the web site’s “user interface” is just a veneer that prettifies and vaguely organizes what is, essentially, a generally static collection of bits and bytes.

The user interface is helpful, but also identifies the fact that the underlying technology infrastructure really has barely any understanding of the people it is intended to serve.

So we, as users, must actively construct a meaning from any web site’s body of data.

Even the best designed web site actually knows very little about what we want at any given moment.

Some sites make some pretty good guesses, based on “fuzzy logic” and a slapdash collection of preferences we may have set up.

But, web sites are generally very ignorant about us as individuals.

And so it is with all IT systems, including desktop computers, mobile phones, and video game consoles.

That’s because IT systems are inherently dormant. Without human interaction, they generally do nothing.

It’s up to a combination of human activity and a user interface to extract meaning from the sedentary data they contain.

That’s where RT picks up. RT is naturally biological. That is to say that RT is a living, active system of technology.

This is similar, in a sense, to how scientists build artificial ecological systems within a computer environment to simulate real life systems.

The entities within these systems, whether they’re germs or giraffes, behave and interact of their own volition.

This is how RT will operate. It will be naturally active and operate independently of input or interaction.

And, as a result, rather than requiring the engagement of “users,” RT will seek out its masters and deliver relevance.

How might this work in the real world?

Say you’re in a meeting, discussing a particular project, and you need to access a file on your computer or server.

Within the IT paradigm you have to dig through a collection of folders, interpreting meaningless files names as you go, in a generally frustrating quest.

The RT system will be completely aware of your situation, may even be listening to your meeting, and will already have displayed the file on your screen by the time you need it.

This sort of sounds like artificial intelligence, but it’s not.

RT is all about your technology constantly nurturing a deep relationship with you and maintaining an understanding of your current real-world state of being.

The information system to support RT already exists.

Google, for example, has more data about each of us than we care to realize.

Each of our computers contains massive information about our lives and our lifestyles.

Our mobile phones know where we are and who we talk to.

Put it all together in an ecological fashion, and you get RT.

Standing at a bus stop with some time to kill? Here’s the newest episode of your favourite TV show.

Is this the time you normally eat, but you’re not at home? Here are some suggestions for some local eateries that serve your favourite food.

Late for a meeting and stuck in traffic? Your RT-driven mobile device will automatically compose a message with your current ETA (based on your location, current weather, traffic conditions, whether you have enough gas in the car) and prepare it for delivery in the preferred format of your client.

Of course, RT renders all contemporary operating systems, including Windows, Mac, and Linux, completely obsolete.

This current generation of computer environments was designed for inherent stasis activated only by human interaction.

Sure, they can be programmed for activity, but that’s not their natural state.

RT requires environments built for a constant, self-driven activity.

In fact the current model of network servers and desktop clients dissolves under RT as well. Instead, there would be a largely amorphous distributed environment of data caches working in a constant state of co-operation.

Each device we use — computer, mobile phone, video game console, retail of point-of-sale system — would act as a window into that environment, rarely holding anything locally as static information.

Similar to modern peer-to-peer file sharing systems, RT data would never exist in any one place at any one time.

It will be in a constant state of distributed disassembly, ready to be compiled for your individual local need at a moment’s notice.

Clearly, RT is rife with moral and legal issues related to privacy and ownership.

But as each new generation of people engages with technology, these matters become less and less important to them.

Like it or not, RT is on the way.

The good news is, technology will become less painful.

The bad news is, everything you’ve learned to date about technology will slowly be made irrelevant.

Originally published in the Yukon News on Friday, January 4, 2008.