This Christmas, as has been the case for the better part of a decade, my children wanted the same thing in their stockings. I-Tunes gift cards so they could buy music, since in my family we tend not to steal it. They have also spent their own money on music, and by now, bit by bit, this has added up to a considerable amount of money. This Christmas it suddenly occurred to me: what exactly had I bought? What exactly do they now own, and for how long? When I was their age and purchased vinyl records, I owned whatever was on them for as long as the vinyl lasted. When I purchased music on compact discs, I was promised a “lifetime” of listening. What about now?
What about e-books? What about videos? What about electronic magazine and newspaper articles? What about family photos, if they exist only in the so-called cloud, off on a server somewhere? With the typical person lasting longer than the typical business firm, what guarantees are there? And from whom?
Assuming all this gets worked out, I believe the digitization and remote storage of information and media is far more of a benefit than a burden. In the past information and media had to be stored in the form of stuff, and everyone who had a right to see or hear that information had to have separate copies of the stuff to hold it. One million people with those rights required one million copies, even though only a small number of people would be using it at any one time.
Taking the things I own by weight, the largest share of it would likely be the physical manifestations of media and information. Books. Compact discs. Videos. Family photo albums. I found this out the hard way when I had to move some of it in order to have parts of the house rewired and painted.
As George Carlin noted, a house is just a place to put your stuff.
And most middle class and up Americans now have too much stuff occupying too much space relative to the amount of value that stuff and space provides in their lives. Including, for some, stacks of newspapers and magazines they wanted to save to have access to the information in them. So much stuff that they no longer even know what they have. And more stuff that younger generations, poorer on average, are going to have a place to put.
If I were starting over, in contrast, I might choose for all that information to be stored in virtually no space, requiring very little energy, somewhere else. All I would need is a few devices to access it – to listen to my music, read my books, and view my videos and photographs. Perhaps one big device with quality sound for everyone, and one personal device for use by just me.
These days, moreover, the big device can be hung on a wall, rather than taking up floor space. In place of the television, VCR/DVD player, wifi receiver/Blue Ray player, stereo receiver, compact disc player, tape player, speakers, and radios we have to day. That’s great.
Moreover, it isn’t as if information in physical form is really secure. The one thing most people grab when exiting a house in a fire or flood, other than family members and pets, is the one thing they can’t replace – their memories in the form of family photos. When the physical manifestation of the audio, video, text or photographic information is damaged, is destroyed, or degrades, so does the information.
The devices used to playback audio and video information, furthermore, have a shorter and shorter lifespan – due both to quality and to obsolescence. I’ll bet that many home film projectors and stereos sold in the 1950s and 1960s could still be in use today, if anyone wanted to use them. My parents had a large stereo set they purchased in 1958 with their engagement money, consisting of two large pieces of furniture connected by a speaker wire, for decades. And through the magic of the internet, here it is.
Now that’s a record player to play Sinatra on. I doubt that anything bought today would last as long.
But even if it did, would it be usable? Because the media distribution industry has repeatedly changed the format of the devices used to play back audio and video information, forcing people to buy the same thing over and over again. Or lose information and media one has produced themselves. I have a copy of much of the research I did while working at New York City Planning in the 1990s on a “Zipdisk.” What good is that now?
In theory all these problems go away if what was being purchased, or stored after being produced, was the media or information itself, separate from any single type of device to play or view it on. But is that going to be the case? And what is the guarantee of permanent future access?
I had heard that an I-Tunes license allows music to be downloaded and placed up to five devices. But devices wear out so quickly what is that worth? My daughter corrected me – the license allows music to be downloaded on up to five devices at a time. As one device breaks it can be deregistered, and a new one can be registered to replace it. But what are the rules for other music distributors? How does that compare with Amazon.com e-books? And is there any guarantee that the policy will not suddenly change – after a song, video or book has been purchased? Unlike the updated polices I get all the time from the bank.
Moreover, if what is being purchased is viewing, reading, and listening rights, why does the content have to be stored on individual devices at all?
In addition, back when information was in physical form, the difference between borrowing for temporary use and owning for permanent use was clear. When someone want to the library and took out a book or record, they were borrowing. When one went to a video store and picked up a VCR tape for the evening, they were renting. They had to bring it back, and if they wanted to read, listen to, or watch it again, they had to pay again. When someone went to a bookstore, record store, or video store and purchased a book, record or video, they got to keep it, read, listen to or watch it when they wanted for as long as they wanted, and pass it on to others. How about now?
There are no standard answers to these questions. They are found in pages and pages (or should I say screens and screens) of fine print legalize that most people should not be expected to read, let alone understand. And when there are no standards, there is a high probability that consumers will not in fact fully understand what they are buying, and will be ripped off. If not today or in the recent past, then certainly in the not too far off future. And not just consumers. Do media and information creators truly understand what rights they are selling to media and information distributors?
Back in the industrial era, the obligation of the federal government to set standards to facilitate transactions between businesses and other businesses, and between businesses and consumers, was well understood. How well understood? Consider Article 1, section 8, of the Constitution of the United States, which holds that Congress holds the right to “fix the Standard of Weights and Measures.” Today that job is delegated to the National Institute of Standards and Technology, or various industry groups whose standards are adopted.
Moreover, Article 1, section 8 of the Constitution also assigns the Congress the job of regulating information, “To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.”
Of course this is our Congress we’re talking about. The worst group of Americans outside of a prison. These days, the most honest way for it to dishonestly set standards for the sale of digital information, given current realities, would be to have an open auction on the steps of the Capitol, and turn over the right to set the rules over to the highest bidders.
Unlike our government institutions, financial institutions, many other companies and even non-profits, however, the players in the information technology field are still new enough to have a moral dimension to their organizations. They are still building, rather than plundering, and may see a set of clear, enforceable standards as a way to lure future generations of consumers away from individually held physical manifestations of information and media, to the cloud. In particular those who pay, rather than merely download illegally, so that the former really are better off than the latter.
Perhaps the new content distributors and groups such as ASCAP
could get together and set the standards. And then pay one big bribe to the politicians to get them to adopt them. If they do so, they might eliminate the need for people (who don’t already have them) to each purchase and store physical manifestations of text, audio, or video information. Or even to download and store individual copies of text, audio, or video information. They could just access a copy from the cloud when needed. That would create all kinds of economic and environmental advantages.
Even if, however, the industry were to create common standards for initial purchase and sale, there would be another problem. What happens when the content distributor that people had purchased from went bankrupt, and perhaps disappeared? Would the right of each consumer to that media or information still be recorded, and would someone still honor the I-Tunes or e-book purchase from decades ago?
Perhaps you believe that I should be more worried about the U.S. government disappearing than Apple, which seems to have accumulated a large share of all the cash outstanding.
In that case you fail to understand what almost happened in 2008. Article I Chapter 8 also assigns the U.S. Congress the right to “coin Money, regulate the Value thereof.” But like text, audio, video, and photographic information, most of the money in the U.S. is no longer in physical form. It is merely electronic contracts for people and organizations to pay each other, generally created not by the government but by banks.
What is this “cash” that Apple has so much of? Not piles of coins or stacks of Federal Reserve Bank Notes. Probably bonds, notes, repo agreements, deposits, and other short term and long-term obligations, all in electronic form. If all those banks went under in a domino effect, then all the other companies would too, and suddenly all that “cash” Apple has would just go “poof!” And so might Apple.
Sound too apocalyptic? What about Amazon.com, which only recently became profitable years after its founding, and only because people are willing to trust its information “cloud” business?
Or Netflix, whose stock soars and crashes due to differing opinions about the company’s future?
In reality the loss of one of these firms, years or decades after e-books, videos or music had been purchased from them, would be no worse than having bought a large number of 8-track tapes or Sony Betamax videos. You could always just buy the same thing again. But what if your family photo album was in the cloud and the company storing them for you went under?
This has already happened. When shifting to a digital camera I decided to give a New York State company a break and bought a Kodak EZ-Share camera. It came with the EZ-Share software and service, pictures that could be unloaded to Kodak’s cloud and then be printed and returned to you.
This did not work out so well. Like my Kodak printer, the camera kept failing. The company dutifully honored its warranty, sending me new parts, assemblies, and entire cameras and printers over and over. But they kept failing, just like the Alstom relays, also manufactured in Rochester and installed in the NYC subway signal system. It seems the precision has gone out of Rochester’s precision manufacturing.
Then Kodak went Chapter 11, and exited the camera, printer, and EZ-Share business. That was that.
Because I’m aging into obsolescence and the past 15 years have been a transitional phase, nothing was lost. The pictures I cared about got printed and saved in physical form, just as the chemical film pictures before them. They are also on my hard drive, having been transferred from the old Dell to the I-Mac the youngsters talked me into buying. And in any event Kodak turned its picture printing business over to a new firm, Shutterfly, one again honoring its commitment despite its failure and saving the pictures I had uploaded to the cloud.
But it didn’t have to work out that way. Today nobody but enthusiasts has actual cameras. They have phones, and that’s where the pictures are until they are uploaded to Facebook, Instagram, or someplace like that. With what assurance?
In some cases there are copies on hard drives, but hard drives fail, sometimes very often, which is why I switched from Dell to Apple. And in some cases there are no copies on hard drives. To what extent can Mark Zuckerberg guarantee the preservation of people’s memories decades from now, perhaps after he is dead? Has he even thought about that?
As it happens there is another, much older industry that is in the business of preserving memories, and that takes all of its income in the form of up-front fees while promising services in perpetuity. Cemeteries. In other countries it works differently. The plots are rented rather than sold, and when the family stops paying the remains are evicted. Or the occupancy of the crypt only lasts so long before the bones are removed and piled up somewhere.
Here in New York State, however, there is a law on the books that attempts to ensure the preservation of a gravesite in perpetuity.
Section 1507: Trust Funds
Every cemetery corporation shall maintain and preserve the cemetery, including all lots, plots and parts thereof. For the sole purpose of such maintenance and preservation, every cemetery corporation shall establish and maintain (A) a permanent maintenance fund, and (B) a current maintenance fund. At the time of making the sale of a lot, plot or part thereof, the cemetery corporation shall deposit not less than ten per centum of the gross proceeds of the sale into the permanent maintenance fund. An additional fifteen per centum of the gross proceeds of the sale shall be deposited in the current maintenance fund. In addition to the foregoing, at the time the cemetery corporation receives payment for the performance of an interment or inurnment, the cemetery corporation shall collect and deposit into the permanent maintenance fund the sum of thirty-five dollars.
The permanent maintenance fund is hereby declared to be and shall be held by the corporation as a trust fund, for the purpose of maintaining and preserving the cemetery, including all lots, crypts, niches, plots, and parts thereof. The principal of such fund shall be invested in such securities as are permitted for the investment of trust funds by section 11-2.3 of the estates, powers and trusts law. The income in the form of interest and ordinary dividends therefrom shall be used solely for the maintenance and preservation of the cemetery grounds.
For people to really be secure in the cloud, there would have to be something like this for every organization in the business of selling and storing text, audio, video, and photographic information. Or better yet, something like reinsurance, with a separate organization owned and funded by the others to preserve back-up copies of that information and records of who has what rights to it, and honor those rights.
This is all new, and I’m not sure that people are thinking about it. Don’t expect our politicians to think about it before something really bad happens, unless somebody shows up at their fundraisers with paper bags of physical currency. The ball is in the “new media” sector’s court. I hope they’ll address it.