Sunday, August 2, 2009

War and Revolution

Viva La Revolution! The Information Age is upon us. Yet, the battles still rage, on and on.

The Old Guard fights to keep things in the past, they fight to stem the tide that is sweeping past them. It is hopeless. They martial their armies of lawyers to wage war in the courtrooms, their armies of political lobbyists to make new laws, new weapons, to continue the fight. It is all in vain. Yes, they win battles, here and there, but the war was lost long ago.

How could it be otherwise? Technology has yet again radically changed the business environment. It's not the first time and it won't be the last. In any revolution, there are those that cling to the old and established ways and there are others that catch the new wave. Revolutions are when the Old Guard, the established businesses, get rattled out of their dominant positions; revolutions are when the new Henry Fords and Bill Gates rise to fame. They are often messy affairs, these revolutions, with people from top to bottom displaced from their comfortable positions. When the tide comes in, everyone in the way will have to move, eventually, it's only a matter of time. Those that wait too long, that cling to the past, suffer the most.

Some will try to profit from the new while holding onto the past, like a stable boy offering to wash and bed your car for the night. These people don't seem to understand that you don't need what they offer, you can drive right past their roadhouse, like the last five down the road. You don't need to stop every twenty miles, you don't need a stable boy to care for your car as if it were a horse. The smart people, riding the new wave, understand that what they need to do is sell fuel for the car, and maybe a car wash. Like it or not, the horses are going away. These forward-thinkers are the winners in a revolution. These winners realise that a revolution has happened and that they need to abandon the old ways that no longer make sense, that they need to embrace the new and find ways to profit from it.

The Information Revolution has fundamentally changed the business environment. Most notably, it has destroyed the Industrial Age notion that information can be packaged, distributed, and sold like physical stuff. The story in the book, the music in the album, the photo in the poster, all information packaged for sale. The Industrial Age process of packaging copies of information into physical media and then selling that media the same way pots and pans are sold no longer makes any sense. The whole point of the Information Revolution is to take this physical media, this stuff, and virtualise it. We don't need the media anymore, just the information. What's more, making copies of this information, distributing this information, and consuming this information costs almost nothing. This is the Information Age; this is what it's all about.

We live in the Information Age, where information can flow between everyone, effortlessly, and yet the Old Guard fights to keep alive Industrial Age business practices. These business practices can't work. To illustrate this, imagine a hypothetical world where we managed to get into the Information Age without any publishing industry (yes, this would be unlikely, but it's just a thought experiment). Imagine two entrepreneurs brainstorming new ways to make money:
"I know, how about we pay authors for stories and then sell copies of that story on the Web?"
"Well, that's stupid, as soon as we sell the first copy, it will be shared by everyone. Why would anyone buy a second copy?"
"Oh yeah, I guess that won't work... how about we try ..."
The very notion of selling copies of something that can be copied for free makes no sense; anyone considering it would immediately discard the idea as silly. The only reason people are trying to do it now is because it used to make sense in the past, during the Industrial Age. We're in the Information Age now. It doesn't make sense anymore.

The Old Guard, in waging their hopeless war, has tried everything to turn the tide. They've campaigned to link copying with stealing, a notion as absurd as it is wrong. You can't take information from someone, only copy it; physical notions of stealing make no sense when applied to information. They've wage courtroom battles to protect their Intellectual Property rights, which do at least make some legal sense unlike the notion of stealing. They've tried to lock up their information with Digital Rights Management technology, only to have it removed faster than they can add it, leaving their sold copies harder to use than the freely copied ones. Their war is hopeless, lost before it even began.

The Old Guard touts their successes, their winning battles, while the tide has left them stranded. They trumpet the convictions of individuals while the masses have created, despite them, the greatest repository of culture that humanity has ever seen. The Peer-to-Peer distributed datastore now has just about every piece of cultural information that anyone has ever found interesting, freely available with a click of a mouse. This datastore, built by millions of people, is both a triumph of the Information Age and its logical outcome. How could it be any other way? Selling copies of something that can be freely copied is an absurd thing to attempt; the old Industrial Age business models are now anachronistic and useless. Proclaiming that this datastore is theft is about as useless as standing in front of your roadhouse shaking your fist at the passing cars. This is the Information Age, try to keep up. Viva la Revolution!

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