Friday, November 27, 2009

History Will Be Written By Nobody

The historical record is the most important object that civilization probably creates. It's not a discreet product or manufactured building or monument that is pre-ordained, pre-determined, or pre-meditated.

It's not a cultural mandate or steered agenda. It's not controlled and it's not finished. The historical record is made up of millions of memos and emails, hundreds of thousands of news stories and video feeds. Documents and bank statements and journal entries and tape recordings. Photographs. Paintings and graffiti and poems and testimony.

Evidence. It's authentic and it's honest and it's made for reasons other than historical reasons, which is why it is so valuable. It's not worried about how it will look 100 years from now; it's worried about now. It all survives as a cumulative and infinite monument to who we were and what we cared about so that the culture of the future will understand how we lived, why we lived, what we were trying to discover about the world and about ourselves.

The most important primary resources of the 19th century frontier life were the hand-written letters that were saved by the pioneers. It was a big deal to get a letter in the old days, and endless minutia were relayed in those pages, which still exist today for historians to discover how things were in the summer of (18)49, how much bread costs, where the roads were being laid down by who's property, who sired what children.

This everyday discourse isn't written down with pen and paper anymore. It's hiding in emails, Facebook news feeds, or Twitter. Its sheer amount - and the perception that it's all so very unimportant noise - precludes anyone from wanting to save it, or being able to, certainly not the people who first created it. Facebook isn't archiving their site... except to mine your data to place ads. While someone' s grandfather may still be printing out all their emails, no one I can imagine is printing out all their friends' status updates.

You won't be able to pull your tweets out of a shoebox under the bed in 100 years like you could a box of letters. The vast amount of social interactions are now taking place between those iPhone IMs and Google docs and whole new generations of us will never commit our diaries, business contracts, family photos, geneology, or bank transactions to anything other than the cloud, up there on someone else's server, where no one's saving it for the sake of its historical value.

Only for its financial exploitation.

We all have stories of that hard drive that crashed last year and lost the pictures of our trip to Disney World or our Aunt Lora, who's dead now and we'll never see what she looked like the last 10 years of her life.

We're likely living in a digital dark ages, right now, and in 100 years we won't be able to know who our friends were, what we said to each other, what roads we travelled next to what properties, how much we made or who sired our children. All, uncommitted to long-term storage and without true historical custodians, will be lost, along, I'm sure, with this post.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Would You Buy A Used DVD From This Man?

The good news is that we, as a race of consumers, have finally figured out that we really don't need to buy every sell-through DVD in stacks at Best Buy, in spite of any value-added deleted scenes or alternate soundtracks. The DVD of Don Roos's "Bounce" had 120 minutes of stuff that was deleted from the final version, longer than the running time of the film itself.

I for one would have loved to have seen the integral version, all 3 3/4 hours edited artfully together.

DVD sales have dropped over 10% last year, and are falling faster this year as consumers figure out how they want to consume their media, either by paying for 2-disc/special edition box they may not want to watch more than once or ordering it instantaneously on their increasingly hi-def devices in their living rooms.

Blu-ray can go home. It's estimated that 20% of people watch some sort of video online daily. Whether it's Hulu, YouTube, or Netflix's streaming, it's clear that consumers aren't beholden to the old model of buying individual widgets anymore. I remember the days of walking into the used DVD aisle in Amoeba and seeing literally 100+ used copies of Cast Away, all for less than a quarter the original price. The disconnect between our need to "possess" a cultural event (which Cast Away arguably was, at least for a month) and realizing we had woken up with the hangover after having drunkenly overindulged was clear to me then. The chilling feeling that our pockets had been picked when we weren't paying attention made us want to just get rid of the evidence and take a long hot shower.

We will have more access to more video and other filmed entertainment once broadband reaches to every corner of every coffee shop, to every device large and small. Quality will depend on what we're watching and where. We won't have to buy director's cuts of films that had no directors in the first place or collect deleted scenes just to be completists, a Sisyphean quest in that it's like trying to collect everything that isn't there.

What we will be buying access to all this stuff. It'll be in the famous "cloud." It's up there, somewhere. That means it won't be on your shelf, and that also means you won't be in control of it. Consider it Web 3.0. While the last iteration was nice for all you home-brew radio jockeys who got off on changing facts on Wikipedia and remixing Lawrence Lessig, now the corporations have a chance to feed you the films, the videos, the songs, the content wirelessly onto devices they are building to make sure their content plays just for you.

And plays just from them. That's the bad news. No more all-access t.v.s, radios, or computers. (Or even, iPods, a more restrictive but still relatively crackable container, in part because the songs are objects that can move and morph fairly easily.) Set-top boxes like Apple TV and Netflix's Roku are the beginning of the movement to get Trojan horses into your gates. DRM'd, all of them. Disney has their KeyChest scheme and an impressive handful of other major companies have announced DECE. Best Buy and CinemaNow are in cahoots to build and sell and fill these devices in the short term.

This paying for access through a box we don't have the keys to will effectively replace cable eventually, as well as the easy ability to TIVO or record these things off the "air." Disney, as you may have read, is promising to allow access to any film or program you "lease" from them forever.

Forever is a long time. I'm not sure I believe that.

As we, as a race of consumers, let these big players in distribution take charge of where we get our content, and how much we pay, we have lost an important part of out rights to choose, to browse, and to do with what we want with the content we (think we have) bought. Even it it's copying the damn thing onto our drive to remix it and selling the original to Amoeba.