Saturday, February 16, 2008

Kevin Kelly: When copies are free, you have to sell what can't be copied

More and more things are becoming digitised, and thus easily copied. The Internet is a big machine for grinding out free copies. And when copies are free, you need to sell things which can not be copied. So argues Kevin Kelly, in his post Better Than Free.

So what can't be copied? He lists eight things, which he gives plenty of examples of:

  • Immediacy
  • Personalization
  • Embodiment (which is really a subtype of personalization)
  • Interpretation
  • Authenticity
  • Accessibility
  • Patronage
  • Findability
Basically, making money from these means making money from capturing attention, which is a different kettle of fish from what we're used to.

I reckon his post presents some pretty deep insights into future technological development.

Here's a few other details about it.

He criticises the notion that advertising is essentially the only means to make money from free copies.

He also generalises his argument from digital copies to "any kind of copy where the marginal cost of that copy approaches zero", going on to say
Maps just crossed that threshold. Genetics is about to. Gadgets and small appliances (like cell phones) are sliding that way. Pharmaceuticals are already there, but they don't want anyone to know. It costs nothing to make a pill.

Additional Notes

Walter Benjamin's 1936 essay Work of Art In the Age of Mechanical Reproduction is relevant to these issues, according to one of the post comments: it is "arguably one of the cornerstones of an understanding of multiple media in modern life, and it describes convulsive, revolutionary changes to media distribution really elegantly".

The same comment also recommends Bruce Sterling's Shaping Things for more on the value of "findability".

In relation to technological development as the removal of constraints

I think what Kelly writes fits in nicely with the notion of technological development as the removal of constraints, which I talked about in a 2006 post Scientific and Technological Development = Removal of Constraints.

Briefly, my argument was along these lines:
  • Our capabilities are obviously limited, to differing degrees and in various ways
  • Technologies lessen these limitations (or constraints).
    • It can be two-steps forwards, one step back, but I think there is an overal trend in this direction
  • You can think about where technological development may go by thinking about the ways our capabilities are constrained, and the ways these constraints can be lessened.
    • You don't have to do this just to speculate, but to try and figure out how to improve on current technologies.
I think Kelly's post fits in nicely with this. Copying used to be heavily constrained. It took a fair bit of time and effort to make copies of things. But now, technology has removed a lot of these constraints.

The copying constraints enabled you, as the producer of some content (e.g. a song), to charge people for copies. But since that constraint is drastically lessened you have to find other things to sell that people can't copy - things where our ability to copy them is heavily constrained.

But even these other constraints may be lessened by further technological development. For example, it will become easier to personalise content, through higher-level ways to configure things, and through more intelligent software that knows your preferences better and can do a reasonable job of ensuring they're met.

Dimensions upon which to imagine ideals

This bit is sketching...

Another way to look at Kelly's list of eight items, is as a list of eight dimensions along which we can remove constraints, to look at where technological development may head. To think, for example, of ways for making content more immediate, or more authentic.

What I think is actually the most useful thing to do is have a clear idea of what the ideal would be for each of those constraints. For example, the ideal in terms of Findability might be for you to simply want to desire something, and with the most minimal amount of effort be able to get it. Or even better, for technology to be able to (reliably) predict that you'll want something and deliver it to you before you even have to realise you want it.

Removing all the constraints associated with interpretation would mean there is an automatic provision of interpretation -- of what the content means, what you can do about it, how to use it, etc -- suited to you. The ultimate step would be not to have to provide you with this information, but for it to be automatically applied for you.

But so what, right? What's the use if you're just imagining some fantasy ideal, and not thinking about something more realistic, or about how to improve the technology? The answer to this is that we need to think beyond means that directly lead to the improvements. What imagining these ideals can do is help give you higher-standards. And high-standards are crucial for any creative work. Steve Jobs has very high standards. So does Ricky Gervais. So it seems with most people who make good stuff.

You've got a benchmark that keeps you from simply being satisfied with an incremental improvement. You're taking a broader, more fundamental viewpoint. This might lead you to redesign things from the ground up, or at least not simply see an incremental improvement as "good" and stop there, but be thinking about there being more that is possible.

Apple is an example of a company that pushes things more than just 'one step further'.

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