More on why I’m excited about 2012

[This is a follow-up to the post I wrote late last night; thank you very much for your comments, Likes, RTs, +1s and Shares. Active and visible feedback is a great motivator, and helps me learn to write about the right things and in the right ways].

Where was I? Oh yes. Why am I so excited about 2012? I’ve shared some of the reasons with you already in my earlier post, but there are a few more that I want to make sure I get on to your radar right from the get-go.

I’m excited about what’s going to happen with intellectual property during 2012. Let me explain. First, a bit of recent history. Here’s a quote from something Esther Dyson wrote. [Esther is a friend and mentor, someone I admire greatly, someone who has influenced how I think far more than she perhaps even realises].

The laws of physics seem to change when you enter a new environment, such as the gravity field of the moon — or the Internet and its easy replication of content. In this issue, we argue that the newly revealed physics of information transfer on the net will change the economics and perhaps ultimately the laws governing the creation and dissemination of intellectual property…call it content to avoid the presumption of ownership.

What happens to intellectual property on the net? Perhaps the question is best answered with another: What new kinds of content-based value can be created on the net? We believe the answers include services (the transformation of bits rather than bits themselves), the selection of content, the presence of other people, and assurance of authenticity — reliable information about sources of bits and their future flows. In short, intellectual processes and services appreciate; intellectual assets depreciate.

Esther Dyson, Intellectual Property On The Net, Release 1.0, 28 December

I guess some of you don’t think her views are going to pan out this year. Maybe you think she’s being a bit too futuristic, too optimistic about human ability to change, and the speed of change. Perhaps.

And perhaps not.

You see, I left out a small piece of information from that quote. The year. Esther Dyson wrote those words over seventeen years ago, in 1994. A great read then, and a great read now. [Incidentally, isn’t it fantastic that I could access the archives of Release 1.0 to find the quote, all free-to-air? Thank you Esther for writing it, thank you everyone who’s worked on Release 1.0 over the years for mentoring me from afar, and thank you Tim and Sara for continuing to make it available.]

So I’m excited about what’s happening with intellectual property. You must think I’m mad, what with SOPA and ACTA and Hadopi and DMCA and Digital Economy Act and who knows what else. How could I possibly think that things are getting better when they palpably aren’t? What am I smoking?

For the answer to that, I have to turn to a second friend and mentor, Clay Shirky, as quoted famously by a third, Kevin Kelly.

Institutions will try to preserve the problem to which they are the solution.

Change is never easy, especially if you’re the one being changed. That’s not just true of people but of institutions as well. In many ways, I was not surprised at the way the entertainment industry as a whole pushed back on changing their business models while desperately working on changing their business models. They knew that all they could buy was time.

They’ve bought their time. And the time is running out.

The key word in the Shirky quote is “try”. In the same way that nature abhors a vacuum and water seeks its own level, problems cannot be preserved beyond the paradigm and environment that created them. You can try to do that, but over time you will fail. You. Will. Fail.

And that’s what is happening now. SOPA is a terrible act of legislation because of some of the words used in the bill. Words that were put in by people desperately trying to preserve the problems of the past. And the level of desperation is a good measure of the way time is running out.

DMCA. Hadopi. Digital Economy Act. ACTA. SOPA. Yup, with the passage of time, the level of desperation is getting higher, the clauses are getting less and less workable, making the laws harder to enforce, to prosecute, socially, politically, economically. It gets harder to sponsor them when you have information from sites like Maplight available to all; it even gets harder to support, as GoDaddy found out recently.  We live in a world where trust is an increasingly important currency, and where transparency is the mint that produces that currency.

So it’s over. It may not appear so, but it is.

The culture of the internet, the Web, the communities that build it and shape it, it’s a culture of openness. There will always be people who attempt to build walled gardens in the open spaces, and they can succeed. But only up to a point, and only for a short time. It’s like the app-store and device locked apps taking on those built in HTML5. Faites vos jeux, messieurs, faites vos jeux. Only one winner.

Which brings me to my next reason to be excited about 2012. Open data.

Tim Berners-Lee and Nigel Shadbolt wrote an important piece in the Times last Saturday, on how the information age boosts the economy, makes our lives easier. They called data “the new raw material of the 21st century”. Sadly, unlike the archives of Release 1.0, this article is behind a paywall so I don’t have an easy way to share it with you.

They’re not alone in this: I’ve heard Tim O’Reilly wax lyrical about the importance of Open Data, Vivek Kundra show his support and appreciation, people like Wendy Hall and Noshir Contractor at the Web Science Trust (working with TimBL and Nigel) have worked very hard to show what can be done.

Again, it’s a question of timing. There’s a tipping point. And the tipping point is now.

Why? It’s simple. As I said yesterday, we’re beating up on the banks for lending too much and too unwisely, and we’re beating them up for not lending and for lending too slowly. Who would be a banker nowadays? It’s not that easy for governments either, particularly those in the West. Borrow less. Spend less. Perform these miracles without putting people out of work.

If it were only that simple.

Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee have written a very interesting book on the economic impact of modern technology on society and work. If you haven’t read it, please go out and buy the e-book. It’s called Race Against The Machine. I had the chance to talk about it with Andy a few months ago, and it’s fascinating.

Many of the current white collar jobs are disappearing and will continue to disappear. And this is where, in my opinion, open data can help us in incredibly powerful ways. How do I love Open Data? Let me count the ways:

One, there’s a lot of data out there that is paid for by the public purse. Governments don’t have to do very much to release that data. In a few cases commercial arrangements have been made about closed private exploitation of such data, but these can be reviewed, often reversed. It’s only a matter of time. The key is that the data is publicly owned and not difficult to make publicly accessible.

Two, when that data gets released, three things happen:

(a) people learn that they can build businesses around that making that “open” data useful to a wider body. The point that Esther Dyson was making in her 1994 article, about people paying for accessibility and ease of use, is coming home to roost. Incidentally, Andrew Savikas wrote a very worthwhile piece on the subject of Content as a Business fifteen years later, you can read it here. People will package and repackage and mash and create useful and valuable services, given the chance. After all, the infrastructure needed to process and distribute the services are now available for peanuts.

(b) people learn that they can build businesses around cleaning up the data, making it better, more accurate. There’s a new form of curation needed, new curators, people with the passion and the domain knowledge and, in all probability, unintended “cognitive surplus” through unemployment. if you think you’ve seen a firehose of data, just you wait. A change is gonna come, as the song goes. 21st century curation is big business, particularly for open data.

(c) as the data gets better and more accessible, there are second-order payouts for the economy and for society. More informed decisions. Less waste.

Of course there are problems to overcome, particularly when it comes to personally identifiable information. John Perry Barlow has been telling us for some time now that the very concept of privacy is changing, that social mores and values will change as well, as we move from a world where we regulated access to personal information to one where we regulate usage.

Whenever there is change there is a mess to deal with. There is an immune system response, an inertia, an attempt by the incumbents to preserve their very existence.

Whenever there is change there is a mess to deal with. There is misinformation and disinformation, as incumbents do everything they can to confuse and befuddle customers. [I work for, and I see the dinosaur dances of dying incumbents every day; if it wasn’t for the terrible waste of resource and energy caused by the dinosaur incumbents, I would probably find the whole thing quite funny.]

We’re at a critical inflection point in our existence, surrounded by problems often of our own making, and needing to adopt new ways of thinking in order to solve them. There are barriers that prevent us from doing that, some legal, some social and conventional, some down to pure skulduggery by those who would prolong their survival.

Sometimes I think that if Henry Ford were alive today, he would find that all he could build was “faster horses”. Because the horse industry would have grown another hundred years, grown to a point where it served seven billion people, grown to a point where it had permanent access to K Street, grown to a point where it could arrange for legislation to protect its very existence.

Alan Kay used to say “The best way to predict the future is to invent it”. I met Alan some years ago at a convention in San Diego, and he was affected by the experience of the decades that had passed since he said that. Now, he thinks the saying should be “The best way to predict the future is to prevent it”.

Well, people have been doing just that, trying to prevent the future.

And for a time, they’ve succeeded.

But it’s over.

2012. The Show-Me Year.




7 thoughts on “More on why I’m excited about 2012”

  1. Great blog post, JP. I think the “big data” movement is an incredibly interesting, especially in the public domain. However, I think a lot of these grand “open” movements result in things that are already available, albeit free instead of commercial. To use Jaron Lanier’s oft-quoted examples, Linux instead of UNIX (or Windows), Wikipedia instead Encyclopedia Britannica (or equivalent).

    What excites me about open, big data is the innovation that could be spawned from all this data and the inherent value that could be extracted by taking this from data to information to knowledge. Innovation in this space nearly always come from the private, commercial sector.

    I am the first person that would like to be disproved, but I’m struggling to think of examples to the contrary.

  2. James, in principle I agree with you. But with a subtle difference from the past. The scale of entry. I think private and commercial interests will continue to create most of the innovation. *Small* private and commercial interests. *Startup* private and commercial interests. They couldn’t in the past, but with the cloud they can and will.

  3. JP, I’d definitely agree with that especially considering I’ve recently moved from one of the “dinosaurs incumbents” you referred to, to a much smaller, cloud startup. I geninuely hope that’s the case — if 2012 is the year of data-based startups utilizing the cloud, in the same way 2011 was for mobile apps using cloud resources, that’d be superb.

    My concern about it staying commercial is that I’d love to see the humanist side of what big data could provide coming out. Remember when the Internet was about sharing ideas and innately personal? Geocities, with it’s non-conformal, annoying-background-music and epilepsy-inducing flashing coloured text presented people’s own ideas and thoughts in a truly personal way. The Internet has been (like everything else) shaped heavily by it’s commercialization — in short, Google. Commercialization does tend to “average” everything out, taking a lowest common denominator approach to content and the underlying data.

    The superb thing about big data, especially government data, is that it is relatively untouched and will hopefully give people the ability to interpret it in their own way. For example, a hyperlocal map of data with macroscopic context on a national/global basis. Back-room economists feeding into our policy makers (god knows, they need the help). Universities and students studying weather data for poorer countries that may otherwise go missed.

    I’m very optimistic about the potential for technology and data to change much about our (and others’) lives, I just hope smaller companies use the cloud to make their individual voice louder, rather than to average out the murmerings of thousands or millions of people.

Let me know what you think