Blowin’ in the Wind

I’m sure most of you have read quite enough about the Amazon “1984” incident; it received somewhat less coverage than the Techcrunch Twitter incident, which itself is saying something. I’m not going to comment directly on the merits and demerits of either incident here and now; they deserve considered responses and in the right context, not while emotions are high and views are unduly polarised.

Nevertheless, there are a few points I’d like to make.

One, we should use this opportunity to look at the idiocy of current copyright law. Here’s what Wikipedia has to say about 1984’s copyright status:

Nineteen Eighty-Four will not enter the public domain in the United States until 2044 and in the European Union until 2020, although it is public domain in countries such as Canada, Russia, and Australia.

So let’s get this right. A book published sixty years ago, by an author who died the next year, may continue to be in copyright in some countries for another 35 years.

Publishing today is a global business, and the costs of reproduction and transmission are extremely low. Having regionally disparate copyright law is bad enough, trying to impose or police that law borders on insanity. So what happens if I buy a “post-copyright” copy of 1984 from a bookshop in Canada, and then cross over to the US to read it?

In a digital world, the very concept of copyright needs to be rethought. [And I am glad that many people, such as those at the Berkman Center, are doing just that.] What is happening now is as indefensible as region coding on a DVD, the desperate attempts of a historical monopoly to try and retain its rents.

A second point is best articulated via the example of Dylan’s Blowin’ in the Wind. For sure he wrote it. For sure he was influenced by a negro spiritual called No More Auction Block, Dylan himself has admitted to that.

No More Auction Block is cited in literature as far back as 1873.

And No More Auction Block is shown as being under copyright to Special Rider Music in 1991.

What’s wrong with this picture?

In a digital world, we really need to revisit everything to do with IPR, inclusive of DRM and copyright and patents.

The Death of the Download?

I woke up this morning with blepharitis in both eyes. Not sure how it happened, but there you are. A considerable inconvenience, having to reschedule everything, go to the eye hospital, queue up, get seen and diagnosed, pick up the prescription, get the medications from the pharmacy, then go home. Start applying the stuff.

You could say that I was a bear with a sore pair of eyes. I spent most of the day in bed with my eyes shut, willing the infection and inflammation to go away. [Which has begun to happen, thank God.]

Anyway, there I was with my eyes wide shut and nowhere to go and nothing I could usefully do; I had the opportunity to do something I rarely get time for, but which I enjoy greatly. I just let my mind wander.

It wasn’t long before I settled on a subject close to my heart, the whole issue of “content” and its associated awfulnesses, “audiences” and “digital rights”. That was probably triggered by a number of serendipitous events:

Firstly, I received my limited edition book and CD-R of Dark Night of the Soul (or DNOTS, as it gets called), the latest work by Danger Mouse and Sparklehorse.


My copy came all shrinkwrapped, with a sticker on top. I couldn’t help but smile when I saw what the sticker said:


I heard about it. I paid for it. Yes, I paid a premium price for the book and the blank CD, the same way I paid for Arctic Monkeys (who started experimenting with the marketing process) or Radiohead (who tried to change how prices are discovered) or Prince (who really understood the Because Effect; he knew that digital copies of his music were essentially infinite, and that he personally represented the most valuable scarcity). [I’ve always felt that the only way I’m going to learn about how value is forming and morphing is by taking part in the process]. It didn’t take a degree in rocket science to figure out that digital downloads of DNOTS were going to be abundant, and that the physical book was likely to be scarce.

As Doc Searls taught me many years ago, Because Effects are all about abundances and scarcities; you make money with scarcity. You make money because of abundance. I’ve written about this repeatedly over the years; if you’re interested, take a look at this or this or this. And while you’re at it, you should probably re-read Kevin Kelly’s Better Than Free, which I refer to here.


Secondly, while in ruminative mood yesterday, I read the Guardian article referred to above. Headlined Collapse in illegal sharing and boom in streaming brings music to executives’ ears, the article is well worth reading. [Don’t worry about the gratuitous use of the word “illegal” before the word “download”, that’s just a generation thing. Like saying “social” before “media”.]. The key takeaway from the article is that teenagers are beginning to move away from downloads and towards streaming.

Thirdly, no story is complete nowadays without a Twitter angle. As I said earlier, I spent much of the day with my eyes closed thinking about things. It takes a lot of effort to do very little, so I was hungry by the late afternoon. Waiting for an early dinner, I checked Twitter out and came across Tim O’Reilly’s RT of an excellent post by Andrew Savikas:


This is a very important post. Andrew Savikas, you have made my day.

People don’t buy LPs or tapes or CDs or even downloads in order to own anything. What they want to do is to listen to music. The business of the musician is to make that music, in ways that only musicians can.

Some people seem to have forgotten that.

As Andrew says:

Whether they realize it or not, media companies are in the service business, not the content business. Look at iTunes: if people paid for content, then it would follow that better content would cost more money. But every song costs the same. Why would people pay the same price for goods of (often vastly) different quality? Because they’re not paying for the goods they’re paying Apple for the service of providing a selection of convenient options easy to pay for and easy to download.

Many people, from Rishab Aiyer Ghosh through to Larry Lessig and Terry Fisher, keep drumming this point home in their different ways. This is not about content. It’s about culture. The food and cooking pot analogies are very important. Again, Andrew Savikas makes that point very well in his post.

Read Andrew Savikas’ post. Then go and read Kevin Kelly’s Better than Free. Then come back and read Andrew Savikas’ post again. All this is a simple variant of Peter Drucker’s “People make shoes, not money”.

We should concentrate on giving customers what they want to pay for, rather than trying to force them to pay for what they don’t want to pay for. Artificial scarcities lead to artificial abundances.

An aside: For some time now, I’ve been researching and writing a book on information as seen from the perspective of food, unsurprisingly called Feed Me. Watch this space.

There’s a child in me somewhere, a child I encourage the existence of. And that child began giggling when the thought occurred to me:

What if the troglodytes finally began to realise that customers were scarce and digital music was abundant? What if they finally began to realise that downloads were an excellent way to advertise scarce things like concerts and physical memorabilia, as Prince figured out?

And what if the customers have given up and moved on, from the download to the stream?

It was never about owning content. It was always about listening to music.

It was never about product. It was always about service.

The customer is the scarcity. We would do well to remember that. And to keep remembering that.

Thinking about complexity in the world we live in today

A few decades ago, I read a book called AI: The Tumultous History of The Search for Artificial Intelligence, by Daniel Crevier. In it, the late and brilliant Donald Michie is quoted as saying something like this:

AI is about making machines more fathomable and more under the control of human beings, not less. Conventional technology has indeed been making our environment more complex and more incomprehensible, and if it continues as it is doing now the only conceivable outcome is disaster.

More recently, when I wrote about complex adaptive systems, a colleague of mine, Reza Mohsin, pointed me towards another Michie quote:

If a machine becomes very complicated, it becomes pointless to argue whether it has a mind of its own or not. It so obviously does that you had better get on good terms with it and shut up about the metaphysics.

Last month’s tragedy involving the Air France flight over the Atlantic really brought this into stark relief, as I began to understand the implications of what may have happened. I quote from a Wall Street Journal article a few weeks ago:

A theory is that ice from the storm built up unusually quickly on the tubes and could have led to the malfunction whether or not the heat was working properly. If the tubes iced up, the pilots could have quickly seen sharp and rapid drops in their airspeed indicators, according to industry officials.

According to people familiar with the details, an international team of crash investigators as well as safety experts at Airbus are focused on a theory that malfunctioning airspeed indicators touched off a series of events that apparently made some flight controls, onboard computers and electrical systems go haywire.

The potentially faulty readings could have prompted the crew of the Air France flight to mistakenly boost thrust from the plane’s engines and increase speed as they went through possibly extreme turbulence, according to people familiar with investigators’ thinking. As a result, the pilots may inadvertently have subjected the plane to increased structural stress.

I stress that investigations are continuing, that the comments above are nothing more than theories at this stage.

Thankfully, not all events arising from the behaviour of complex adaptive systems are as tragic as the Air France crash. Some of them are downright comic. Take the accidental ‘takedown’ of YouTube by Pakistan early last year, where much of the world’s YouTube traffic was directed towards a page from the Pakistani ISP saying that YouTube access had been blocked; or the Skype meltdown in August 2007, where a large number of Skype supernodes were rebooted, after downloading Vista patches, at a time of very high activity. Others range from the Northeast Blackout to more recent gmail outages.

I spent some time yesterday evening with Dave Winer, Stowe Boyd and @defrag_ami, after the end of reboot11. The evening’s valedictory keynote had been given by Bruce Sterling, and I’d found it somewhat darker and more cynical than I would have preferred. Stowe felt that I should have seen it in a more satirical light, and he’s right. He reminded me that he himself taken a similar tack the previous year at reboot10, suggesting to the Utopians in the crowd that not all problems have solutions.

[Incidentally, I will always remember the Bruce Sterling talk as the one where he introduced the comic device of “my dead grandfather”, exhorting us not to concentrate solely on climate change ideas where our efforts will always be beaten by the relative performance of our dead ancestors.]

Understanding when and why a problem becomes intractable is an art not a science, something that two close friends (and erstwhile colleagues) Malcolm Dick and Sean Park have managed to teach me over the years. Neil Gershenfeld, alluded to something similar in his book When Things Start to Think. While discussing the work of Ed Lorenz, Neil says:

The modern study of chaos arguably grew out of Ed Lorenz’s striking discovery at MIT in the 1960s of equations that have solutions that appear to be random. He was using the newly available computers with graphical displays to study the weather. The equations that govern it are much too complex to be solved exactly, so he had the computer find an approximate solution to a simplified model of the motion of the atmosphere. When he plotted the results he thought he had made a mistake, because the graphs looked like random scribbling. He didn’t believe that his equations could be responsible for such disorder. But, hard as he tried, he couldn’t make the results go away. He eventually concluded that the solution was correct; the problem was with his expectations. He had found that apparently innocuous equations can contain solutions of unimaginable complexity. This raised the striking possibility that weather forecasts are so bad because it’s fundamentally not possible to predict the weather, rather than because the forecasters are not clever enough.

Which brings me to the kernel for this post. Tunguska. For those of you who’ve never heard the word, the Tunguska event is something that happened over a hundred years ago, in a part of the Tunguska river region in Krasnoyarsk Krai, Siberia, Russia. There was a massive explosion, a large swathe of forest was destroyed, trees were reduced to matchsticks.


Recent research suggests that “clouds that form at the poles after shuttle launches are due to the turbulent transport of water from shuttle exhaust”. The ‘two-dimensional turbulence” model put forward by Michael Kelley and his team at Cornell is fascinating, insofar as it suggests a plausible reason for the Tunguska event.

I’d already been intrigued by the connection between aviation and clouds. I’ve had the privilege of spending time with Doc Searls, who has taken pains to try and educate me on the relationships between some of the cloud formations I see today and the contrails of aircraft.

So I did some personal research. Nothing significant, just a little digging around, mainly through Wikipedia. In the Tunguska event article, there’s alist of ten other events in the last 100 years where the symptoms suggested significant meteorite airburst. Of the ten, two had an explosive yield in excess of 10 kilotons.

We had the “Eastern Mediterranean Event” on June 5, 2002, and the Lugo, Northern Italy event on January 19, 1993. So I tried to correlate this with any significant space activity. And this is what I found. STS-111 was launched on June 5, 2002, with a UTS time remarkably close, and on the right side of, the eastern Med event. Earlier, STS-54 splashed down on January 19, 1993, again remarkably close to, and on the right side of, the Lugo incident.

Intriguing. Not conclusive, but intriguing nevertheless.

We live in a world where things seem to be getting more and more complex, as we represent physical things as virtual abstracts, then use software to operate and manipulate the virtual models.

We live in a world where things seem to be getting more and more connected, as devices and sensors proliferate while being reduced to nothing more than nodes on a network.

We live in a world where people are happy making snap decisions on limited and superficial information, where conclusions are drawn and propagated on the flimsiest of bases.

We need to be careful. Careful to make sure we do our root cause analysis correctly. Careful to ensure we have the right feedback loops in place for learning, so that recurrence is properly and sustainably prevented.

For all this we need patience and tolerance like we’ve never had before, and an avoidance of judgmental behaviour.

Maybe the continuing advance of complex adaptive systems means that we need to increase our understanding of the Serenity Prayer:

God grant me the serenity
To accept the things I cannot change;
Courage to change the things I can;
And wisdom to know the difference.

[While reading the wikipedia article on the prayer, I could not help but enjoy the reference to a Mother Goose rhyme with similar sentiments:

For every ailment under the sun
There is a remedy, or there is none;
If there be one, try to find it;
If there be none, never mind it.