On comics and teleportation and similar Saturday meanderings into the future

Do you remember good old everyday comics? Not manga, nor the kind of stuff people treasure in polythene wrappers and pay a million dollars for. The stuff you touch and read and laugh at and with. At home, we were brought up on a rich diet of comics; I must have read my first comic book around 1962, and for sure I was reading comics regularly all the way to 1975.

Our reading was fairly eclectic and wide-ranging, despite being drawn solely from the US, the UK and India. Children’s comics were mainly from the US: Sugar and Spike and Fox and the Crow were early favourites, as was Dennis the Menace (the Hank Ketcham version rather than the UK “Beano” version, which, amazingly, made its unrelated debut just three days after the Ketcham version).

Dagwood and Blondie. Sad Sack. Beetle Bailey. The Archie series. Superman, Batman, Spiderman and the rest of the superhero class. The whole Walt Disney thing. Yup, we read them all.

We didn’t spend much time across the pond as it were, that was reserved for the hard stuff. Books. So we read Enid Blyton and Richmal Crompton and Frank Richards and Anthony Buckeridge till the cows came home, and topped them off with PG Wodehouse and PG Wodehouse and PG Wodehouse as soon as our hands were big enough to hold his books properly. From what I can remember, the primary UK comics we read were the Beano and the Dandy, along with “Commando” series War comics.

And then of course we had MAD Magazine. What would we have done without MAD? Alfred E Neuman and his crazy gang kept us going during hard times; I have particular and deeply thankful memories of reading Sergio Aragones and Don Martin, on days when everything looked bleak and black and blecch. And there were a few of those.

The only “Indian” comics I remember reading, in English, were the Phantom series, the Ghost Who Walks, and the Mandrake series. [It was only some time later that I found out that the original Lee Falk series was set in some place called Bengali, and where there were pigmy people called Bandars. This would obviously not do in Bengal, where I was born and raised, and where the native was called a Bengali, and where “bandar” meant “monkey”. So, magically, the Indian version of the comic was set somewhere called Denkali, if I remember correctly. Both Phantom as well as  Mandrake the Magician were from the same Indrajal comics stable.]

And of course we had the past, represented by the Flintstones ……….

……….and the future, represented by the Jetsons:

Were you one of those people who sincerely believed that we would be flying around in bubble cars by the turn of the 21st century? I was. As a child I really thought it would happen.

And, after thirty years of commuting, I still fervently wish for a solution. Sometimes I think that the concept of the suburb did more to destroy the fabric of society than any single other “invention”; to my way of thinking, only wars have inflicted more visible damage on society.

I hate commuting. With a passion. I hate the idea that people should travel large distances to work and large distances back, every day, like lemmings. The only people who could possibly gain from that are in the transportation, fuel and insurance industries. Enough said.

Which brings me to the point of this post.

Teleportation.

Take a look at this extract from the Wikipedia article:

One means of teleportation proposed in fiction (e.g., The Fly, Star Trek) is the transmission of data which is used to precisely reconstruct an object or organism at its destination. However, it would be impossible to travel from one point to another instantaneously; faster than light travel, as of today, is believed to be most likely impossible. The use of this form of teleportation as a means of transport for humans would have considerable unresolved technical issues, such as recording the human body with sufficient accuracy to allow reproduction elsewhere (i.e., because of the uncertainty principle).

There’s also the philosophical issue of whether destroying a human in one place and recreating a copy elsewhere would provide a sufficient experience of continuity of existence. The reassembled human might be considered a different sentience with the same memories as the original, as could be easily proved by constructing not just one, but several copies of the original and interrogating each as to the perceived uniqueness of each. Each copy constructed using merely descriptive data, but not matter, transmitted from the origin and new matter already at the destination point would consider itself to be the true continuation of the original and yet this could not logically be true; moreover, because each copy constructed via this data-only method would be made of new matter that already existed at the destination, there would be no way, even in principle, of distinguishing the original from the copies.

Interesting. So what about things that are not human?

I think we’re at a stage where we already have virtual “teleportation” of digital objects. In the digital world, when we take a piece of text or still image or moving image or music, and we “move” it across the ether, what we’re doing is tantamount to disassembling the digital object at one end of a pipe and reassembling it at the other end. Now this is fine as far as purely digital objects are concerned: it’s the reason why Kevin Kelly called the internet a copy machine, why Hollywood and Universal Music want to own the internet and make it work according to their rules, why downloaders seem to get treated worse than modern-day war criminals. It appears easier to go to war hunting for things that don’t exist than it is to go to peace attempting to change hopelessly outdated intellectual property law.

Over the past few years, this virtual teleportation (where digital objects get disassembled and reassembled at two ends of a fast and fat pipe) has shown the capacity to make considerable inroads into the physical world.

We already have the ability to take decent photographs, store them in the cloud and print them off at home, at the edge.

We already have the ability to order books via the web and then to print the books off at home: here’s the “espresso” book machine:

We already have the ability to make physical CDs and DVDs at home, and to print off the artwork.

And then we have the gift that keeps on giving: 3D printers are already here, and slowly getting better: take a look at Reprap:

When you have the ability to express something mathematically, and when you have the ability for the “ingredients” for that something to be drawn from a standardised pool, then there is no reason why the “reassembly” of physical things cannot take place at the edge: at home, at work, wherever. Using further generations of toolkits  like Arduino, this will happen. [Incidentally, we ran a cloud services workshop for the Innovate and Design leadership team a few days ago, where everyone worked with arduinos. The whole thing was set up, supported and stage-managed by Alex and her team at tinker_it. Thank you Alex, thank you tinker_it.]

Soon we will be in a place where the instructions emanate from one end of a pipe, and where standardised components get assembled at the other end. Like feeding in a recipe at one end and having the cooking done at the other end. As long as the components are addressable and accessible and standardised, this is already possible. Soon we will be in a place where remote tailoring is commonplace, where the instructions are fed down a pipe to a machine and standardised inputs in the home, in order to produce clothes at the edge. [How nice to see that the paper is imagined and written by a Calcuttan].

We’re long past the point where all we could do is to query, maintain and repair things digital remotely. The pipes are getting fatter and faster. The devices at the edge are becoming more powerful. There is greater standardisation of input materials. There is a growing ability to express the workings of markets in mathematical models, to simulate the workings of markets via abstractions. [This, I understand, is part of what Salim Ismail and friends are focusing on at the Singularity University].

There was a time when people could build machines, when people could take machines apart and when people could rebuild them. Cars. Radios. Planes. Boats. Amplifiers and turntables. And yes, computers.

There was a time when people designed and built machines that built machines.

You know something? I have this gnawing sense of unease when I write this. I begin to think about something that unnerves me, that unsettles me. And that is this:

when people were heavily involved in the making of things, the things stayed made.

Building things to last is a builder’s instinct. Building things for planned obsolescence is not a builder’s instinct. We need to stop this cycle of constant build-waste-replace-waste. The world is too much with us.

THE world is too much with us; late and soon,
          Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers:
          Little we see in Nature that is ours;
          We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
          The Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
          The winds that will be howling at all hours,
          And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;
          For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
          It moves us not.--Great God! I'd rather be
          A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
          So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
          Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
          Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
          Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.

One of my favourite Wordsworth sonnets. Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers. Little we see in nature that is ours. Such powerful words, stated simply.

Human beings love to make things. And that love has been denied for a while, as we moved headlong into more and more efficient manufacture of more and more obsolescence and more and more waste. This is no longer tenable, we have to take our stewardship of the earth’s assets more seriously. And the move to a digital world will help us get there. [I know, I know, the cloud consumes energy. Computers consume scarce raw materials. But these things can be solved.]

I think this human instinct to make things is what drives people like Tim O’Reilly and Dale Dougherty over at Make Magazine, a fantastic read. I think this human instinct is what Cory Doctorow fictionalised so well in Makers. I think this human instinct is what Larry Lessig described so well in Remix.

Taken from the Makers site: Ben O’Steen got his maker on by printing out the entire text of Makers on a cash-register receipt, using a till printer.

Building things is a human instinct.

Taking things apart is a human instinct.

Rebuilding things is a human instinct.

Doing all this in a way that makes the built things last is a human instinct.

When you see battles about copyright and patent, when you see battles about downloads and DRM, when you see battles about net neutrality, don’t assume that the battles are about them, the pinko lefty tree-hugger criminals.

The battles are about you. And your right to build things and unbuild them and rebuild them. The right of your children to build things and unbuild them and rebuild them.

The battles are about the generations that will follow you and me. And their rights to follow their human instincts.

Instincts that are much closer to stewardship and conservation than those of the moguls of Mammon. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. The internet was not designed to become an exclusive distribution mechanism for Hollywood and Universal Music. There is a lot of value still to be obtained from the internet and from the web, in terms of health, education and welfare. And it is our duty to see that value emerge.

So go read Make magazine, visit the web site. Buy Makers, or read it for free. Understand the cultural and creative implications of Remix. Do something.

We all need to become better stewards of what we have on earth, so that others may enjoy some of it. The “maker” culture is a critical component of this.

A coda. Thank you Jimmy Wales, from the bottom of my heart. This post would have been so much harder to write if Wikipedia didn’t exist. Thanks, Jimbo!

Musing about culture and customers and choice: the eBaying of “content”

I have the privilege of spending time with many startups, in a variety of guises: as incubator, as advisor, as investor, as chairman, as well-wisher, friend and supporter. The startups differ widely and wildly: they range in size from a handful of people to hundreds;  they have annual burn rates in the thousands and in the millions; they have different strategies and different ways of executing them; the motives that drive them are different, the things that keep them awake at night differ as well. They make different types of products and services, for different markets, with different social and economic aims and consequences.

But they share one thing: They keep asking themselves the same set of questions:  “What does the customer want? What will she do with our product or service, how will it be used? Why will she come to us for it? And what will she pay for it?”

This isn’t rocket science; it isn’t even illuminated startup management. It’s Customer 101. So we speak a lot about customer choice, and, much of the time, we do something about it.

When it comes to culture, however, we seem to forget. Which is strange, because the changes that are taking place are at their most severe in the cultural arena. Changes that are taking place to reverse the developments of the last fifty, maybe even hundred years in a number of key aspects of culture.

  • These changes are simple yet far-reaching:
  • Consumption to Participation: The television and broadcast ages brought the ability for people to consume events globally, but it took the tools of today to let them participate globally. Obama’s campaign is a classic example. There were people all over the US, even in the “red” states, who contributed to his campaign, who participated in the discussions. Yes, there were people in Europe who tried to donate money into Obama’s campaign and failed for good legal reasons; but they could still engage.
  • One Place to Many Places: You couldn’t be part of an orchestra unless you went to where the orchestra was. Now the Mountain comes to many Mahomets, the orchestra comes to you, there are many examples of distributed music ensembles.
  • One Time to Any Time: Gone are the days when Super Bowl Monday was a nightmare for young men in Europe, who had to stay up into the early hours of Monday if they wanted to make an “evening” of it. Now they can still do that, but they don’t have to. They can hold their party on Monday night if they want. Not everything is streamed live, or needs to be. YouTube passed a billion hits a day and doesn’t stream anything live.
  • Hit Culture to Long Tail: When costs of warehousing and distribution were a significant proportion of overall cost, it made sense to reduce the number of items in inventory. As that changed the size of “inventory” available changed dramatically. So for example I buy many books from Amazon or Abebooks that aren’t in their top 10,000 sellers. Many of these books would be impossible to get via a traditional bookshop. The same goes for music and video. It doesn’t matter how many studies I see that seek to pooh-pooh Chris Anderson’s thesis, I look to what I do and what I can do. What I can do is a lot more than what I could do, because my transaction costs for “long-tail” items have reduced sharply.
  • Using to Making: The proliferation and ubiquitous availability of tools that are themselves participatory by nature has changed the basis of participation. Think of the number of video cameras you saw in the 1960s, the 1970s, the 1980s and now. Just look at the photographs, videos and notes that make it on to Facebook. Soon, Facebook will be a country whose population exceeds that of every country bar India and China. A country where everyone has feedback loops to the mother ship. Say what you like about the Borg, but don’t underestimate it. A critical change is taking place there. A country with more photo uploads than Flickr, more games players than World of Warcraft, more people than most of Europe or America. And global in reach. The stuff that gets uploaded to Facebook is not “copies of originals” but often mutations. Think of the number of video cameras you saw in the 1960s, the 1970s, the 1980s and now. More on this later.
  • Scarce to Abundant: One of the most fundamental changes is that of the internet as a copy and remix machine, making artificial scarcity something very difficult, something almost impossible. The very concept of artificial scarcity is relatively new, born of the consumption mindset driven by mass marketing. Things analog were, or at least could be, scarce. [If they weren’t scarce then you could hoard them or cartelise in order to make them seem scarce]. Things digital are fundamentally infinite in abundance, since the cost of reproduction and transmission is trivial.
  • Forced to Voluntary: Payment for cultural services has always changed from age to age; sometimes it’s been about patronage; sometimes it’s been about passing the hat around; sometimes it’s been about levies and fees, as with library schemes and radio broadcasting. The fixed purchase scheme is relatively recent in comparison and is in the process of being rendered obsolete. People will now pay what they are willing to pay, even for ostensibly free things.

I could go on, but won’t. The point is simple. We’re moving from an analog world to a digital world. That means that many things change. The most important change is that in a world of abundance, the buyer sets the price. The customer is in control.

The story is one of empowerment and inclusion, of enfranchisement. And one of the key shifts that is taking place is in the almost-random repurposing of things past. For example, take the concept of “literal videos“, as exemplified by Dustin McLean. What a lovely idea. Take an old video, keep to the original pictures and backing music, rewrite the lyrics to reflect what’s actually happening on the video rather than in the song. My particular favourite is the literal video version of Bonnie Tyler’s Total Eclipse of the Heart. My thanks to Dave Morin, who pointed it out to me via Facebook.

I keep trying to tell people that while the internet may have been discovered or even invented by Al Gore, it was definitely not invented exclusively as a new distribution model for Hollywood or its musical cater-cousin. Who could have predicted that someone would do this to Carl Sagan and to Stephen Hawking.

People are creating value from things long forgotten, long abandoned, long deemed worthless.

There is an eBaying of content going on, as people repurpose stuff they find in the digital garage and attic that is the Web.

Some people will become the new scavengers, looking through the detritus of the web for things to reuse and remix. Some will build the places where they look, the tools they look with: the Bit Torrents and Pirate Bays of this world. Some will do the remixing, as in the Dustin McLeans. Some will buy, but not all: there is already a plethora of data points about freemium models and conversion rates.

If we allow this to happen, then new revenue streams will begin to emerge, new business models will come about.

If we allow this to happen, then we can participate in these new revenue streams and models.

If we try to prevent it from happening, we will fail. And therefore not participate in the new revenue streams and models.

The customer now has choice.

And we have a choice. To be on the customer’s side. Or not.

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