Friday, August 08, 2008

The commoditisation of content

The transition from analogue to digital photos significantly changed the relationship between users and their photos. At one point, every picture taken had to be printed however with the advent of DSC (digital still cameras) you could suddenly take, delete and re-take as many photos as you liked. This change of activity changed our value relationship with the media, though the importance of the moment that was captured may remain unchanged.

The digitisation of content and the commoditisation of the means of mass communication through the internet has also significantly changed our value relationships with content based industries such as newspapers and music. In some cases we have started to lose the physical link to the media (i.e. a music CD) and our favourite songs have become little more than index entries on our ipod. Since digital music can be copied and shared at virtually no cost, we tend to value the experience (the song itself) as opposed to the medium. As more and more music becomes freely available, we seem to expect that experience to be free and we appear to be increasingly only willing to pay for "enhanced" experience, such as gigs themselves.

So why should more and more music become freely available? The medium itself (whether CD, LP, tape or other) used to act as a barrier to participation in the music industry due to the cost of manufacture and distribution. The commoditisation of the means of mass communication and the digitisation of content have simultaneously eroded both these barriers and the value we place on the medium. "Free" music is almost inevitable.

The same is increasingly true of journalism. Anyone can freely publish and distribute "news" and our value relationship becomes less about the medium (a newspaper) and more about the experience (whether this is trusted news). If the blogosphere eventually creates a reputation based network with timely, trusted and readable news then the old medium will decay. "Free" news is almost inevitable.

This is not necessarily a bad thing (unless you're a traditional journalist or musician) as it will provide new means for future budding artists to quickly reach a wider audience. Whilst it is more meritocratic, providing opportunity for those with ability, it will also drive the "price" to zero through competition. The path to free is almost inevitable for any content or knowledge which is suitable for digitisation and distribution to mass audiences. None of this is new, just take a look at wikipedia.

Radio 4 recently featured a discussion on the future of e-books. Now regardless of whether you like it or not, the e-book has the potential to change our value relationship with books. When combined with the further commoditisation of stories through digitisation and the erosion of value created by activities such as project gutenberg, we should see a mad dash to zero. Competition in the marketplace will eventually (but slowly) drive us in this direction as more and more budding authors release their content for free and seek revenue through other means. "Free" books is almost inevitable.

Well, that's the common story. However what is forgotten is that any story or song is an experience and the way to counter this drive towards zero is to create an experience far beyond simply reading or listening and to instantiate that experience into a physical form.

The "Young Lady's Illustrated Primer" is a futuristic example of this, an instantiated experience in physical form far beyond that of something which can be easily commoditised, as it is only relevant to the holder of the book.

To survive commoditisation and the drive towards zero, the experience has to become more uniquely adapted to the individual.

In my view, the future of music, books and news is brighter than ever .... just not in the form that we are used to. A new art form await us.