Does the web make experts dumb?

For information to have power, it needs to be held asymmetrically. Preferably very very asymmetrically. Someone who knows something that others do not know can do something potentially useful and profitable with that information.

Information can be asymmetric in a number of ways. The first, and simplest, is asymmetry-in-access. If you can make sure that no one else has access to information that you have access to, if you’re in a position to deny others access to the information, then you can do something useful with it. In the old days this was called keeping a secret. Keeping something secret is not wrong per se. But if that secret is privileged information, there are many things you cannot do with it. Like trade on it. Or blackmail someone as a result of it.

Nevertheless, for centuries, people have made money by having asymmetric access to information. And for the most part they’ve done it legally.

A second form of asymmetry is in effect a special case of asymmetry-in-access: asymmetry-in-creation. If you create/originate the information in question, then it is possible to prevent anyone else from knowing it. All you have to do is make sure that you don’t tell anyone. Kenny Dalglish, while managing Liverpool in the mid-to-late 1980s,  was asked how he’d managed to keep Ian Rush’s return from Juventus a secret. In answer he said ‘It was simple. I didn’t tell anyone”.

If you choose not to share something you’ve created, then you are in a position to be the only person in the world to enjoy it. Take a work of art or music or literature. As creator, you can choose to share whatever you’ve created with nobody; with just one person; with just a few people; the choice is yours. And you can charge for this access. Some people may think you’re being selfish, some people may consider you “sad” as a result, but you have every right. What you’re doing is legal. You’re protecting the scarce nature of what you’ve created, and seeking to exploit that scarcity.

For centuries people have made money out of creating unique things, scarce things, and then charging others when they want access or ownership.

A third form of asymmetry is really a derivative form, where the information is itself not of much use without some way of comprehending it, parsing it, interpreting it: asymmetry-in-education. Equality in educational rights may be a much-vaunted goal, but it’s not there. Equality of opportunity continues to be mandated, and may well happen in your lifetime. Equality of outcome cannot be legislated. Asymmetry-in-education has therefore continued to persist despite the efforts of well-meaning people over the past century or so.

This form of asymmetry has been exploited by experts in many guises: doctors, lawyers, priests, even IT consultants. And their theme song is simple. “You didn’t have to work as hard as I did to know what I know. It’s complex, you won’t understand it.”. In many cases, this situation was exacerbated by the use of foreign languages, preferably dead foreign languages. And, just in case that wasn’t enough, the smoke and mirrors of specialist terminology, jargon, abbreviation and convention was used to obfuscate the environment.

For millennia experts have exploited this asymmetry and wielded power and amassed wealth as a result.

There is a fourth, and final, form of asymmetry: asymmetry-by-design. This is where you take something that is essentially abundant and, through fair means or foul, get it redefined as scarce. Most implementations of Digital Rights Management are attempts to create asymmetric access, make something scarce by design. At a level of abstraction, iPhone and Android apps are essentially the same thing in disguise: thinly-veiled attempts to make abundant things scarce.

Creating artificial scarcity out of something that is essentially abundant is also not wrong per se. But there can be legal and moral implications. Building a dam near the source of a river and charging people for access to the water may sound reasonable; on the other hand, there may be strong grounds for “grandfathered” rights to that water. Society, through the ages, has seen fit to protect the view (as in “ancient lights”), walks (as in ramblers’ rights) and even open spaces (as in commons).

[Speaking of commons, permit me an aside. There appears to be a tendency for people to use the term “by hook or by crook” to mean the equivalent of “by fair means or foul”. This is inaccurate. If you wanted to chop down wood for firewood, you were entitled to use your hook or your crook to get to branches and limbs of trees in the commons. Only fair means. No foul means.]

Asymmetry in access. Asymmetry in creation. Asymmetry in education. Asymmetry by design.

Asymmetries all of them. Asymmetries that allowed people to wield power and to amass wealth. For the most part legally.

Then, along comes the internet. Along comes the Web.

The world’s biggest copy machine, as Kevin Kelly reminded us.

Suddenly asymmetry of access was weakened, holed amidships below the waterline. One of the nicest things about the web is that it levels the playing field for access. More accurately, it is capable of levelling the playing field for access. And it is for this reason that “net neutrality” arguments tend to get most heated where there isn’t any true competition for access. Given real transparency and real competition for access, there would not be a need for legislation.

Copying machines are not designed to make things scarce. As a result, anything made available on the internet was relatively easy to copy. Which in turn meant that anything that was expressed as a digital object was difficult to make scarce. Many many industries have made money for many many years on the basis of relative scarcity; their concepts of pricing were based on scarcity models. So they tried to make the inherent abundance of the internet into something scarcer by using DRM or its more sophisticated new form, the App.

This approach, asymmetry-by-creation, and its alter ego, asymmetry-by-design, are about creating artificial scarcity. This is fundamentally doomed. I’ve said it many times. Every artificial scarcity will be met by an equal and opposite artificial abundance. And, over time, the abundance will win. There will always be more people choosing to find ways to undo DRM than people employed in the DRM-implementing sector. Always.

So when people create walled-garden paid apps, others will create unpaid apps that get to the same material. It’s only a matter of time. Because every attempt at building dams and filters on the internet is seen as pollution by the volunteers. It’s not about the money, it’s about the principle. No pollutants.

Which brings me to the reason for this post. There’s been a lot of talk about the web and the internet making us dumber.

I think it’s more serious than that. What the web does is reduce the capacity for asymmetry in education. Which in turn undermines the exalted status of the expert.

The web makes experts “dumb”. By reducing the privileged nature of their expertise.

I have three children born since 1986. One has finished her Master’s and is now a teacher. One has just finished his A Levels and is taking a “gap year” before starting university in a year’s time. The third is still in school.

The web has made them smarter. They know things I did not know at their age, and I had privileged upbringing and access. They know things more deeply than I did. Their interest in things analog is unabated, they think of the web as an AND to their analog lives rather than an OR.

Many of you reading this are experts; I myself am considered an expert in some things. And the status bestowed upon us by our expertise is dwindling

So what?

We should rejoice that access to the things that made us experts is now getting easier, cheaper and more universal.

We should rejoice that generations to come will out-expert us in every field we care to name.

We should rejoice that we continue to enter a world where the economics of abundance is displacing the economics of scarcity.

We should rise up every time there is an attempt to pollute the path of open access.

The web is not making us dumb. It is the expert in us that is being made to look dumb. And that is a Good Thing.

Views? Comments? I suspect this post might attract a few flames….

The customer is the scarcity

Every economic era is characterised by certain abundances and by certain scarcities; these change over time; yesterday’s abundances become today’s scarcities and vice versa. When I was a young child in India, cotton was plentiful and polyester scarce. People valued the scarce thing over the abundant thing: so the rich wore Terylene shirts and the poor wore cotton. Even though the Terylene shirts were overpriced uncomfortable non-absorbent non-breathable stick-to-your-back sweat producers.

Most of the time, the abundances and scarcities are natural, caused by explicable imbalances between supply and demand. So cotton was cheap in India and expensive in the UK, while polyester was cheap in the UK and expensive in India.

Sometimes the imbalances are artificial: monopolies and cartels and market power abuse and price-fixing and market-cornering are examples of such artificial imbalances. Most of these have been seen for what they are, and consequently declared illegal in most countries.

Not all artificial scarcities have been termed illegal as yet: the most glaring example is that of “intellectual property rights”, where something is made artificially scarce using the power of the state; no other rights depend exclusively on state intervention. Strange, that.


The digital age has given rise to more and more artificial ways of creating and assuring scarcity. Computer ports are a classic example: when all the ports were hardware ports, scarcity was easy to understand. When the ports in question were software ports, the concept of scarcity was less easy to establish.

Analogue things are usually scarcer than digital things, since the cost of digital reproduction and transmission is extremely low. As Kevin Kelly said, the internet is one great copy machine. [if you’re a fan of KK, do take a look at some of his other essays in related areas: Better Than Owning is well worth a read, for example.

Two other Kevin Kelly essays stand out in this context: People Want to Pay and Why People Pirate Stuff. I quote from the Pirate essay:

[Game developer Cliff Harris asked the online world “Why do people pirate my games? And in the answers, …] He found patterns in the replies that surprised him. Chief among them was the common feeling that his games (and games in general) were overpriced for what buyers got — even at $20. Secondly, anything that made purchasing and starting to play difficult — like copy protection, DRM, two-step online purchasing routines — anything at all standing between the impulse to play and playing in the game itself was seen as a legitimate signal to take the free route. Harris also noted that ideological reasons (rants against capitalism, intellectual property, the man, or wanting to be outlaw) were a decided minority.

Similarly, one of the key points made in the Want to Pay essay is this:

People buy stuff, but what we all crave are relationships. Payment is an elemental type of relationship. Very primitive, but real.

There are some caveats in this urge to pay.

Paying has to be super easy, idiot-proof and frictionless. There can’t be hurdles. The easier it is to pay, the more eager people are to pay.

The price has to be reasonable. That means it has to be reasonable in relation to similar stuff that is free!

The benefits of paying have to be evident and transparent. This takes creativity to produce and work to convey simply. Unless the benefits of paying are obvious, paying is made difficult.

Every artificial scarcity will be met by an equal and opposite artificial abundance. Port vulnerabilities will be exploited, as Microsoft users have found out to their cost. DVD players will be “chipped” to overcome the insanity of region coding on DVDs (which, by the way, is one of the stupidest things I have ever seen done). Music and film and book DRM will be hacked, as Jon Lech Johansen showed elegantly.

When I was a child, “English” films (which included those of both US as well as UK origin) tended to come out a year to eighteen months after release abroad. Not surprising in an analogue world, with very high production and distribution costs and a scarcity of copies as a result. Today, when there is an artificial gap between US and Indian or Chinese release, the artificial abundance kicks in. Piracy.

Protecting artificial scarcity is an expensive proposition, and ultimately a losing proposition. More and more people will volunteer time to help correct artificial scarcity, because they see it as path pollution, the desecration of core values by profane behaviour.

People see DRM as something that is an irritant, a pollutant, a time waster. They want to pay, but not at the price of artificially imposed inconvenience. There is also a key trust issue here: similar to the issues related to identity, privacy and confidentiality, there is a pervasive belief that those who use DRM will act more and more unreasonably.

Take Amazon. I like much of what the company does and stands for. The recent incident with Amazon and 1984 may not dent the company’s reputation overall, but many people will not buy a Kindle as a result. And I am one of them. Remotely-managed deletion of electronic copies of 1984 from people’s Kindles, copies that were legitimately paid for, is a monstrous thing to do. Incidents like “1984” will spur the pushback against DRM even more.

This post is not about the 1984 incident; although we will see consequences, the incident will pass. This post is about something far more important.


[My thanks to Bergen Moore for the photo above.]

This post is about the customer. Customers are creative people who transform scarcities and abundances in strange and beautiful ways. If two-wheelers are abundant and four-wheelers are scarce, then a way will be found to make a two-wheeler behave like a four-wheeler.

As Dan Bricklin pointed out wonderfully in his book Bricklin on Technology, we must always remember that the role of the technologist is to build tools for people to use, not to constrain them from doing things. [incidentally, Dan’s partner-in-crime during the VisiCalc days, Bob Frankston, is an excellent source of learning as well. I have had the joy of listening to him on many occasions, count both him and Dan as personal friends. If you get the chance, do read Bob on Zero Marginal Cost and on Assuring Scarcity.

People are incredibly creative. If you plan for ten uses of a tool while designing it, you can rest assured that they will find an eleventh use. Take cooking as an example. And the concept of recipes.

Recipes are tools for the transfer of cultural enjoyment. They show some classic opensource behaviours, to the extent that NEA applies. For most recipes you can say: Nobody owns them. Everyone can use them. Anyone can improve them.

I love cooking. I speak to chefs regularly in order to find out how to make what they made. Sometimes they have cookbooks, and sometimes I buy the cookbooks. Why? Because it is convenient, and I am happy to pay for that convenience, for that service. Content is a service business, as Andrew Savikas points out eloquently. Sometimes I get the book signed by the author, triggering some of Kevin Kelly’s Better Than Free generatives, especially those of authenticity and embodiment and patronage.

But what happens after I get the recipe verbally, or after I buy the book? I’ll tell you what happens. I do it my way.

I change things. I experiment with the ratios and quantities in the recipe; add ingredients, drop ingredients. Change the way it’s meant to be cooked. Pass on my learning, the comments of my guests. And learn from others as they do the same thing.

Can you imagine being told that you can’t share recipes with others? That you can’t change ingredients or quantities? That you can’t enrich, augment, mutate the ideas involved? In many ways that is what DRM and IPR is designed to do, prevent us from being creative. [Pharma and IPR is a whole separate subject, yet essentially related. I will cover that in a post on some other day].

Customers want to be creative, to experiment with things, to change things, to share what they learn, to learn by sharing.

We are fast approaching an age when many analogue things will become virtual, digital, easily copied.

We can choose to invest time and effort in making digital things harder to copy: we can choose to create artificial scarcity, and lose.

Or we can choose to invest time and effort in making digital things easier to consume, to share, to enrich. And to pay for.

The customer is willing to pay. If we get the consumption model, the paying model, the sharing model, right.

The customer is the scarcity. Let’s focus on valuing that scarcity, on giving the customer what she wants when, where and how she wants it. With the right consumption and payment and sharing models.

Did you hear what I just heard?

There’s mosquitoes on the river

Fish are rising up like birds

It’s been hot for seven weeks now,

Too hot to even speak now,

Did you hear what I just heard?

The Music Never Stopped: The Grateful Dead

There’s a fascinating study out in the latest First Monday, the “peer-reviewed journal on the internet”. Marko Rodriguez, Vadas Gintautas and Alberto Pepe have analysed the relationship between “concert and listening behaviour analysis”, using the Grateful Dead as the basis for their research.

What the researchers have done is simple and elegant: they’ve sought to build a framework to look at what people listen to online in comparison to what people had the opportunity to hear “live”. And, as I hope you would expect, there is a direct correlation.

The Dead didn’t feature much on radio. So the listening patterns of their fan base related much more to live performances than anything else. And the Dead were a performing band. As far as I can make out, the study does not look at the correlation between online listening and online purchasing, but my assumption is that the correlation is direct and high. So what we have is a simple model along the lines of “live performances drive listening habits drive purchases”.

As against this, the model that has been imposed on us for some time now is closer to  “we choose the songs, purchase the airtime, advertise the songs and you buy them from us  when and how we tell you to”. Maybe I’m being unfair, but that’s the way it felt to me.

There’s a big Because Effect coming along in music. Artists are going to make more money because of music rather than with music, although they will continue to make money with music.

Bands and artists that play live will make more money than those who don’t; live performances will become more and more important, as people recognise that digital is abundant and physical is scarce. Bands and artists who allow people to reuse and mix and mash their music will make more money than those who don’t allow it, as they get their share of sheet music sales and lyrics books sales. As the number of physical performances grow, so will musical instrument sales, and artists will be able to make money through instrument endorsements. And of course we will continue to have the T-shirt/book/video/merchandising explosion.

When was the last time you went to a concert? Did you notice the queues for people buying merchandise? Think about it. People now go to concerts early so that they can get the merchandise without queueing quite as much.

Live performances. Sheet music. Endorsements. Merchandise. None of this is new. It’s just stuff that a dying segment of the industry prefers to gloss over. Gloss over in order to try and enforce the continuance of a dead model. Rather than the Dead model.

There was a time when the only way to listen to music was by going to see someone live. In fact that was the way people listened to music for hundreds of years. For a short time someone tried to change that, tried to convince us that the way to listen to music was to listen to it on mousetraps, giving them the chance to ask us to pay again and again and again for different formats that would play on different faster-better mousetraps. That day is over.

The return of live music is a rebirth, a renaissance. And it’s happening. The last throes of DRM will see an end to the mousetrap generation, and we will go back to a time when live performances become important again. The value chain is changing, and attempts to retain the lock-ins of the past in order to preserve older value chains and distribution models are bound to fail. Artists will make money. In fact they will make more money, but this money will come from a number of sources rather than just physical format music sales.

Even vinyl can and will make a comeback. For performing bands.

In the end it’s all about performance.

A coda: I’ve made no secret of the fact that I like the Grateful Dead. A lot. Which is why this photograph is one I cherish, the opportunity to meet a boyhood hero in the flesh:

Doc Searls, who introduced me to the Because Effect, was responsible for getting me to meet John Perry Barlow, who wrote the lyrics for The Music Never Stopped, quoted at the start of this post.

Musing about artificial scarcity

The Because Effect is all about understanding abundances and scarcities. Any firm that truly understands the abundances and the scarcities of a given economic era is bound to prosper, as Gilder noted many years ago.

Opensource is all about The Because Effect, and is a means of making abundant things that were previously scarce. Abundance that is underpinned by licensing models that prevent artificial scarcity.

Which is why this post by David Wallace is worrying; while I’d heard of a few cases over the years, this example brings it home. While I don’t know all the facts, what is clear is that we need to spruce up our capacity to support and protect opensource contributors. Theory is fast moving into practice here. Doc? Don? Any advice for Dave the LifeKludger?

We have a lot to learn about abundance. How to fund it. How to make sure it stays abundant, how to protect the abundance. How to make money from it without reverting to the corruption of lock-in. I am particularly intrigued by Larry Lessig’s work on CC Zero and CC Plus.

Capillaries can carry compressed context

I’ve been playing around with FoxyTunes, installing it in Firefox, getting the TwittyTunes extension. And it’s not just because I like music. I think what’s happening here is very powerful.

Let’s start with Twitter, it looks harmless and gormless, what possible use could it have? After all, what can you do in 140 characters? Let’s see.

First off, I can send messages that look like the one below. I typed it in myself, it described what I was doing at the time.


What don’t I like about it? Well, it’s not good enough for the 21st century. For starters, I shouldn’t have to type it in. Something should be scraping what I am doing, capturing it in a way I can choose to share with others. Choose, we must remember that word. And what else? Oh yes, wouldn’t it be nice if I could enrich the information I was sending? Provide more information about the artist or group, maybe YouTube video links, maybe Wikipedia links, maybe Flickr links, maybe even the homepage of the band or group. How about a link to the song itself, so that someone else can sample it, try it out, decide for themselves if they like it? Maybe even a way to search for more information, and the tools to buy the CD or DVD in physical or digital format?

Chance would be a fine thing, but ….. how can I SMS all that? But wait a minute, the 140 character limit isn’t a real limit, not if I send a short url linking to all that. Or even better, having someone do that for me, a web service like tinyurl.

So now all I need is for someone to build an app that scrapes what I am listening to, figures out what it is, goes and collects the enrichments and conveniences I want to send with the information (band links, YouTube, Flickr, Google, Amazon, the Facebook fan page, maybe a Netvibes collection of related feeds, the Wikipedia entry and so on) and then packages all that into a small space using something like tinyurl.

Which brings me to TwittyTunes and FoxyTunes. Now my Twitter message looks like this:


It does the scraping, directly out of my iTunes. It lets me choose whether to share what I am listening to with others, song by song. It sends the message on to Twitter. But that’s not where the value is. For that, you, the “follower” of my tweet, need to click on the link, and hey presto, you get something that looks like this:


You see, this is why I play with things like Twitter. Not because I want to appear cool. But because I am so old and grey and slow that the best way I learn is by playing. Now I can really see how something like Twitter can add value in the enterprise. And I’m secure enough in myself to want to share what I find out, openly and freely. Which is what I’m doing here. [Without a business model or a monetisation plan in sight :-)]

It’s worth bearing a few things in mind. First there was the web. Then there was SMS. Without SMS there is no Twitter. Without the web there is no Twitter. Now we’ve had tinyurl for a long time, but it starts coming into its own when we start using something like Twitter. As a result of all this, someone else could build something like FoxyTunes (which looks like Netvibes meeting, and then building TwittyTunes to connect up with the Twitter world. And then suddenly everything else waltzes in to enrich what we can see and do, ranging from text to audio to video, from search and syndication and conversation to fulfilment.

What strikes me is the power manifest here, the power of connecting simple things like SMS and tinyurl and Twitter. Small pieces loosely joined, as David Weinberger said.

We are moving into a world where open multisided platforms will dominate, with simple standards and simple tools connecting up wide open spaces. We are seeing it happen now. This post is not about FoxyTunes. Or TwittyTunes. Twitter. Or Facebook. Or Google. Or Amazon. Or iTunes. Or Flickr. Or YouTube.

It’s about all of them. It’s about all of them, and the apps we don’t know about yet, the ones that will emerge tomorrow. How we can find ways of bringing all of them together and moving information around them, linking information between them, enriching and sharing that information beyond them.

By the way, we do stuff like this in the enterprise already. This is what we use e-mail and attachments for, this is why we use mailing lists and address books and spreadsheets and documents and presentations. All the things we’ve grown to love.

Or, in my case, hate. If you’re like me, you’ve had it with those tools. Absolutely had it. H.A.D. I.T. They are so not fit for purpose. Or. looking at it another way, there is a generation of tools out there that are so much more fit for purpose.

We’re not dealing with firehoses any more. We’re dealing with capillaries, as I discussed in my post yesterday. And these capillaries carry and distribute information nutrients, and process and eject information waste and toxins. The real power of all this lies in the increasing transportability of context.

Oh, incidentally, in the past, I’ve found the tools for grabbing screenshots frustratingly complex and time-consuming, so I’ve tended not to use them. It is fitting that this time around, I could do all this easily. Because of a project called Jing, and because I then had simple and seamless ways of going from Jing to Flickr to iPhoto to ecto to WordPress. And guess how I found out about Jing? Through someone’s tweet.

Also incidentally, it would be worth looking at the role played by the opensource movement in making sure we can move around so freely between all these applications. Which brings me to a strange conclusion. More a hypothesis. Am I right in considering the possibility that VRM is necessary only because everything is not opensource? That good opensource obviates the need for VRM? Doc? Don? Steve? Chris? Chris? Anyone out there?