Shirky: What "people must pay for content" really means

Clay Shirky's latest broadside, "The Collapse of Complex Business Models," is as incandescent as ever. It's a thoughtful and provocative piece on the way that "high quality" products (which are also complex and expensive) reach diminishing returns, where they are being made ever-more complex without any rise in value, because the institutions that made them don't know how to be less complex. It's a great commentary on walled gardens, paywalls, and the reflexive entertainment industry sneer that YouTube is made out of nothing but priceless pirated media and worthless videos of cats.
To pick a couple of examples more or less at random, last year Barry Diller of IAC said, of content available on the web, "It is not free, and is not going to be," Steve Brill of Journalism Online said that users "just need to get back into the habit of doing so [paying for content] online", and Rupert Murdoch of News Corp said "Web users will have to pay for what they watch and use."

Diller, Brill, and Murdoch seem be stating a simple fact--we will have to pay them--but this fact is not in fact a fact. Instead, it is a choice, one its proponents often decline to spell out in full, because, spelled out in full, it would read something like this:

"Web users will have to pay for what they watch and use, or else we will have to stop making content in the costly and complex way we have grown accustomed to making it. And we don't know how to do that..."

In the future, at least some methods of producing video for the web will become as complex, with as many details to attend to, as television has today, and people will doubtless make pots of money on those forms of production. It's tempting, at least for the people benefitting from the old complexity, to imagine that if things used to be complex, and they're going to be complex, then everything can just stay complex in the meantime. That's not how it works, however.

The Collapse of Complex Business Models

(Image: Learning from bridge collapses I-35W Minneapolis and Tacoma Narrows, a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike (2.0) image from goldenswamp's photostream)