Back in 2001, I was named a “GLT“, which is short for Global Leader of Tomorrow, by the lords of the World Economic Forum in Davos. I felt just a tiny a bit sheepish about the honor, and still do, as I imagine the decision making process might have gone something like “Who’s hot in the internet space? That Battelle guy sure has a great magazine, let’s get him.” Then my magazine bit the dust. Dooh!
Anyway, I got to go to Davos that year, and I still get invited, but since then I haven’t found either the coin or the time to attend. But man, what a meeting it is, the world’s entire power structure laid out in one large, wonderful, and ostentatious display, nearly everyone promenading, certain of their self worth, the fragrance of shared self-congratulation hanging thick in the air. And, in fact, it’s true: Everyone there *is* important, from the heads of most every major state, to the heads of every major corporation. The World Economic Forum, more than any meeting I have ever been to, is about power, baby, raw power dressed in impeccable french shirts, cufflinks, and hand-tailored suits. (OK, there are also a few poorly dressed geeks, and some rather boring German industrialists, but for the most part, the agenda is set by the suits).
All this came back to me as I read this post from David Weinberger, who was asked to participate in one of the Forum’s many seminars held around the world. This one was in NYC over the past few days, and his portion of it focused on the media business. The post is chilling, if you care about what the overlords of Big Media are thinking about, give it a read.
First, these people are thrashing. They’re floundering. They’re desperate to find a way in which their organizations still add value. They are in denial but, it seemed to me, they know that there’s just about nothing that the market wants from them. For example, at one point someone said, “Content is king.” I replied that judging from the content they’re producing, marketing is king; that’s where their real value is. Further, I said, on the Internet, connection is king. But then they want to know how to “monetize” connection. There’s nothing wrong with that, so long as you understand how monetizing it can kill it. The most convincing case I heard for real value was that only Hollywood can afford to make blockbusters. But beyond that…?
Second, they don’t understand what the hell we’re talking about. I can’t say that I made any inroads. To them, the Internet is a transport for distributing bits they own. Its lack of DRM is a hole that they will plug. They have no doubt that strong DRM is on its way and that it’s a good thing. (Cory could tell them.)
Third, they believe they’re responding to the market. They do not recognize that their market has abandoned them. They think that file-sharing is an aberration. In some unthought way, I think they actually believe that the legislation they’re back is something the market wants. They maintain this thought this by not actually thinking it out loud.
Fourth, they’re going to win. They are going to kill the Internet and they don’t even know it. The worst of Larry Lessig’s nightmares is coming true, at least in the US. Sure, there will be sophisticated hacks and analog holes and guys in back alleys with soldering irons who’ll remove the hardware restrictions so your kid can include a snippet of a movie in her social studies paper. But that’s exactly what losing looks like.
Depressed? You betcha. But then I think: That’s why G-d put Canada right there to our north.
These are smart people and I liked talking with them. They were willing to listen. Some, in fact, even agree to varying degrees. But they are riding beasts that are in agony, and the Internet will be a sticky stain on the bottom of their massive hooves.
We are doomed.
But then David tells us he got a chance to present, and what he said made me proud to know him.
I said that I understand that to them the Net looks like a medium through which content passes, some of which people aren’t paying for. But, (sez I) their customers aren’t “consuming” content. We’re not consuming anything. We’re listening to music, We’re watching video streams, We’re talking with friends. To call it content is to miss why it matters to Big Content’s customers.
BigCon’s product, I said, is special. It’s published. That means it’s given over to the public for us to appropriate it, make it our own. We hum it, we quote it, we make jokes with it as a punchline, we get it wrong. We do that because it matters to us. And that’s how creative works succeed. They become ours in some sense.
Further, culture advances by our having the leeway to build on published work and incorporate it into other works. From The Star Spangled Banner to most of Disney’s feature length cartoons, that’s what we do.
So, we need the leeway, both to be able to continue as a culture, and — more important from their point of view — to continue to get value from what the Big Content folks produce. It’s our ability to absorb and reuse that gives their product value.
Way to go, David. I only wonder, though, who was in the room with you?