Archives for June 2010

When does it belong to me?

I’m fascinated by the way institutional America is fighting back against the culture shift underway. Its first argument is that everything about it is “bad,” and that’s followed by attempts to rewrite rules — and even history — to hang on to the money machine they used to own. I don’t deny the right to do this; I just find it intellectually stimulating and amusing at the same time.

record player from the early 60sI was just yesterday talking about the era of my life, which included the rise of rock-n-roll. Here’s how that all worked:

Band made record
Band or agent pitched record to radio stations
Good music = good ratings = advertising money
Airplay = record sales
We “bought” records and albums
The record (usually a 45) belonged to the buyer
We shared our 45s and albums at parties, etc

The Grateful DeadIt was always all about record sales back then. Performers appearing on The Ed Sullivan Show saw record sales jump the next day, and that was the objective. Then came The Grateful Dead with a business model that emphasized experiencing concerts over record sales. The Dead didn’t give a crap who did what with their music, because the experience of the event was the main thing.

Fast forward to today, and we find an industry — the recording industry — struggling to maintain its grip on music, because technology has made it easier to do what we did in the 60s — share “our” music with our friends. In between, we had the cassette generation, a big part of which was copying “our” records or tapes to share with our friends. In the digital world, however, copying has been shifted to mean stealing. In order to get to that, the whole industry has had to shift the understanding of buying any form of music. We don’t “own” it anymore; we “lease” the rights to play it in the form it was purchased. If push came to shove in this understanding, it would be illegal for me to burn a copy of a CD even for my own use.

This smacks of wool over the eyes to somebody like me, but to younger people, I suppose it’s just the way things are.

And isn’t it odd that the model of the Grateful Dead is becoming more viable for others in the music industry? Their scarcity model — that of experiencing performances — has held, while the mechanical, one-potato, two-potato, three-potato, four model of “the industry” is crumbling. In this way, the Dead will live forever.

This model of “lease” instead of “buy” is now circulating amongst the lawyers representing any arm of the copyright industry. If I buy a movie video, I can’t make a copy for my daughter across town; I must physically take her the original, which, at least for now, she can watch. I say “for now,” because if you follow the lease model out to the end, my daughter should have to pay for even watching my original on a different DVD player than my own.

Last week, a Federal judge rightly sided with YouTube in the $1 billion dollar suit filed by Viacom over copyrighted videos uploaded by YouTube users wanting to share them with friends. The judge booted the suit stating that the Digital Millennium Copyright Act provided safe harbor for YouTube. Viacom is appealing. They have to, because their belief is that if you only “lease” a video, you cannot share it with friends in this manner. I think the appeal is dangerous, because they will lose that one, too, and then where will this new way of thinking be?

So does anything I “buy” from the copyright industry really belong to me? On that question hinges the future, and it’ll be fun to watch the twisting and turning in Congress and the Courts.

When I’m sixty-four

Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band emblemI was yet to turn 21 in 1967 when the Beatles released “When I’m Sixty-Four” as part of the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album. Aside from being a catchy and popular tune, the song made all of us ponder back then what it would be like to be 64 and when we would hit that age. When you’re 20 years old, 64 seems light years away, and I honestly didn’t think I’d last until 2010. Too many things can go wrong, you know.

In less than two weeks — on July 9th — I will turn 64.

When I get older, losing my hair
Many years from now
Will you still be sending me a Valentine
Birthday greetings, Bottle of wine
If I’d been out till quarter to three
would you lock the door
Will you still need me
Will you still feed me
When I’m sixty-four

I’m a lucky fellow, I think, to have lived this long and in the period that I’ve called my life. Old fogeyness is coming upon me, because I like to talk about how much things have changed, and mostly for the good. I grew up with rock-n-roll, and I’m thankful to have been a part of that. Vietnam was my war, and I still marvel today when the flight I’m on welcomes troops coming back from the current war. We didn’t know that at all. I’ve witnessed the death of smoking, the rise of women and the advent of the computer. Race relations are actually similar to what they were back then, but that’s the subject of an entire article. Love continues on, but marriage, like religion, is a troubled institution.

I could be handy mending a fuse
When your lights have gone
You can knit a sweater by the fireside
Sunday mornings, go for a ride
Doing the garden, digging the weeds
Who could ask for more
Will you still need me
Will you still feed me
When I’m sixty-four

There are a few things that surprise me about being 64, things that hadn’t occurred to me those many years ago. First of all, I don’t think I’m 64. I mean, my body shows the sign and serves as a constant reminder, but I still see life through these same eyes. If it wasn’t for the bodily reminders, I really wouldn’t think of myself as 64. Time is a linear process, a created dimension. Our spirits and souls stand still in a constant here and now, while everything else moves. So the thought of actually being the same person is pretty easy for me, and I think it’ll be that way until I breathe my last. Secondly, young people look just, well, young. I can’t tell if a young lady is 16 or 25; they both look the same to me, and I never thought that would be the case. I also find youth to be incredibly arrogant; they seem to think they invented everything from sex to getting high to cool. Life will slap them and that will be that.

Send me a postcard, drop me a line
stating point of view
indicate precisely what you mean to say
yours sincerely wasting away
Give me your answer fill in a form
mine forever more
Will you still need me
Will you still feed me
When I’m sixty-four

Thirdly, I have so much more respect for my parents and their generation these days. My wife and I talk about it all the time, and I’m honestly speechless at their sacrifice — to each other, to us, and especially to the culture itself. There will never be another generation like them, and I’m stunned to hear myself say that. Fourth, I marvel at how we used to play with virtually nothing as kids and how our imaginations were able to turn a stick into any form of weapon we chose. The games we play today still require imagination, but it’s more applied in strategy and tactics. I marvel at the skill of young people who play video games, to say nothing about their ability to multi-task while so doing.

I have made many discoveries in this life of mine, but the most significant occurred 12 years ago, when I realized I was an asshole. We’re all assholes, really. It’s just that some of us know it, and those who do are in for a much easier ride.

I could wax on, but I’ll stop here. Groovy, huh?

Privacy Disrupted

Two in one week! Here’s the latest in my ongoing series of essays, Local Media in a Postmodern World.

Privacy Disrupted

As institutions in our culture are disrupted by the Web and its horizontal connectivity, a lot of people are squawking about privacy concerns. There’s software out there to block anything we view as intrusions, and Congress is now considering legislation to regulate online behavioral targeting (don’t they have anything better to do?). Facebook got all jammed up a few months ago when the company sought to make “public” things members believed were “private.” Privacy is a big issue, but is it realistic that we demand the same kind of online privacy that we so celebrate offline? I’m not sure, but I do think this is something we badly need to talk about, for the same forces disrupting media are the ones disrupting privacy. Newspapers, for example, would love to maintain the offline privacy (and its commensurate authority) that they’ve known since the beginning, but horizontal connectivity makes that impossible.

It’s a heady but fascinating matter and one that smacks at the heart of the cultural shift underway. I hope you enjoy it.

The Evolving User Paradigm

Here is the latest in my ongoing essay series, Local Media in a Postmodern World.

The Evolving User Paradigm

Media companies are in what feels like the relentless chase of a moving object, a greased pig contest with a lot at stake. Every time we catch up, the thing moves again. Technology, it would seem, cannot be tamed.

But what’s really going on has little to do with technology and much to do with people, for while people are using technology, they’re also learning, and as their understanding increases, they demand more. I call this “the evolving user paradigm:” the longer users use the Web, the greater the acceleration of the disruption they create.  I think it explains much, and it also gives us a tip in where to look for our next steps.

Enjoy and Happy Father’s Day to all you dads.

The convoluted logic of paywalls

The AtlanticThe Atlantic is running a couple of articles in favor of the concept of paying for content that are so delusional that it’s hard not to actually laugh. The meme being fostered here is that “information wants to be paid for,” because the old saw “information wants to be free” is a mistake, or worse, a deliberate attempt by the hippies of old to dismantle institutions based on information. Hmm.

In Closing the Digital Frontier, Chris Hirschorn paints the picture of the iPad’s paid app model being a fort in the wild west where the good people can safely gather to conduct their business. It’s worth the click through just for the image.

Hirschorn argues that this whole “free” business originated from what he views as a radical organization, “the Northern California–based Whole Earth ’Lectronic Link (known as the WELL), the wildly influential bulletin-board service that brought together mostly West Coast cyberspace pioneers to discuss matters of the day.”

I take you on this quick tour not to make fun of futurism past (I have only slightly less-purple skeletons in my closet), but to point out how an idea that we have largely taken for granted is in fact the product of a very specific ideology. Despite its Department of Defense origins, the matrixed, hyperlinked Internet was both cause and effect of the libertarian ethos of Silicon Valley. The open-source mentality, in theory if not always in practice, proved useful for the tech and Internet worlds.

My only response to this is so what? Maybe we — as a people — ought to be searching for something different. After all, take a look around and ask yourself if our culture might not be in need of some rather drastic alterations.

The fort image aside, Walter Isaacson argues in a second article (Information wants to be paid for) for pay walls for news and information.

Thanks partly to the advertising recession, people are now looking for ways to resolve the tension between the two parts of Brand’s maxim (ED: Stewart Brand – information wants to be free AND expensive). As news organizations slash their staffs, reliable and reported information from trusted sources will remain valuable but may become harder to find, which means that some folks are likely to be willing to pay for good sources of it.

Regular readers here know of my distaste for assumptions in prose attempting to make an argument, so let me deconstruct two in this paragraph alone. One is the assumption of trust (“information from trusted sources”). Gallup’s research since 1973 shows a decline in trust with 55% of Americans now distrusting the press more than trusting it. The second is this idea that advertising is in a recession. This is a critical assumption, for it suggests the day will come when advertising will be “out” of its recession, and business will want to spend money with the media again. This assumption is dangerous, for advertising isn’t in a recession; it’s in an all-out revolution. Media companies fool themselves if they think that paywalls will save them in an era of advertising disrupted. Our business isn’t news; it’s advertising, and this is where our focus should be, not in crazy thoughts about subscriber fees and paywalls.

Caviet Venditor

This is a rant, so please bear with.

budget logoAs I have preached for years, the essential disruptor of the web is horizontal connectivity. It guts institutional authority, because we can talk back AND to each other. Media, of course, is a visible example of this, but it’s impacting everything. I’ve often quoted Rishad Tobaccowala’s wonderful 2004 saying, “We have entered an empowered era in which humans are God, because technology allows them to be godlike. How will you engage God?”

Indeed, and one of the most visible arenas for this “engaging God” is in the world of buying and selling, and that’s where I’d like to begin my rant.

My beef is with Budget Truck Rentals, a company I have used and respected for decades. No link, because all love has been lost. Here’s the story.

A few months ago, my youngest daughter moved back to Huntsville, so we rented a Budget truck to move her things. On the way back, we got off the main road to get a bite and took a wrong turn getting back on the interstate. It was dark and the truck went under an old railroad bridge, putting two tears in the roof of the truck. I was unconcerned, because I had purchased the top end insurance.

I need to say here that at no time during the rental process was I told that the overhead wasn’t covered by insurance. When I brought the damaged truck back, the proprietor (a super nice guy named Chris) said, “It’s a good thing you bought the insurance, because I would have ruined your day otherwise.” That is an exact quote. Not even a paraphrase. (Remember, I’m a professional observer.)

A month later, I got a bill from Budget for over $1,000. A phone call later, and I was directed to a paragraph in the rental contract — what I would call “fine print” — stating that overhead damage wasn’t covered. Beneath this paragraph is my signature.

Okay, so let’s be real here. I signed a contract clearly stating my liability. I can have no argument. Guilty as charged. What I do have issues with are the following:

Despite what the proprietor of the rental franchise might say to the contrary, I was completely unaware that the top end insurance I bought didn’t cover the overhead. This was further evidenced by the comments of the guy when I returned the truck. Even he didn’t think I was liable, or he would have said something. In my discussions with the claims department, I was told that “the proprietor said he tells EVERYONE who buys the insurance that overhead damage isn’t covered. That is simply untrue.

I have an issue with insurance on a rental truck that doesn’t cover the overhead. WTF? If it’s such a high potential for liability, then charge me more for the insurance, but don’t put me on the road without coverage.

I have issues with the way this has been handled by Budget. I wrote a letter to the CEO and copied those who might care, including their public relations people. The CEO turned it over to the manager of claims, who called and offered to deduct the administrative fees but still expected I pay $940. That man insisted that the paragraph above my signature wasn’t “fine print.” Yeah, right. Judge for yourselves. “Fine” or not, it’s buried there, folks. “Sign here. Intitial there.” You know the drill.

My rental agreement

The manager seemed to take great joy in reminding me that it was my responsibility to read everything before I sign. Okay, duh! But if you’re going to toss “caveat emptor” in my face, then permit me toss “caveat venditor” in yours. Let the seller beware. Why? Because I am not entirely powerless here, and I think that what has happened to me is wrong, not only from a business perspective but also from a moral one.

Budget Truck Rental sold me insurance that I didn’t really have, and no one will convince me otherwise.

As I told the CEO of Budget in my letter, I will never again rent from his company or its affiliates. I have spent thousands and thousands of dollars with Budget over my many years, and the company would rather squeeze me for a grand over this than take into consideration all of that former business. Fair enough.

The claims manager said he couldn’t understand why I wouldn’t take responsibility for what I had done, and that’s the convenient response of someone who’s got you by the short and curlys. Why doesn’t Budget take responsibility for deceiving me not only when I rented the truck but also when I brought it back damaged?

In the end, I’ll have to pay the $940, because our culture says I have no choice. “Don’t rent to” lists have unintended consequences, that I don’t need, so all I can do is to tell my friends that there are choices beyond Budget when it comes to renting trucks and choices beyond Avis (same company) when it comes to renting cars.

Meanwhile, I’ll load up the consumer beware sites with my story, so that others will understand that they have choices, too.