Clay Shirky explains how all the "visionary planning" in the newspaper business in the 90s amounted to variations on this theme: "Here's how we're going to preserve the old forms of organization in a world of cheap perfect copies!" This fallacy drives every conversation about selling digital units of content as though they were physical units of atoms, using DRM to stop copying or divide the uses of content into millions of infinitely fungible "licenses" ("You've bought the right to listen to this song on this player, on Wednesday, only if you've got curly hair and you stand on one leg at the same time"), and suing/"educating" your customers about why they should pay you for stuff that you're not offering in their preferred format.
As these ideas were articulated, there was intense debate about the merits of various scenarios. Would DRM or walled gardens work better? Shouldn't we try a carrot and stick approach with education and prosecution? And so on. In all this conversation, there was one scenario that was widely regarded as unthinkable, a scenario that didn't get much discussion in the nation's newsrooms, for the obvious reason.
The unthinkable scenario unfolded something like this: The ability to share content wouldn't shrink, it would grow. Walled gardens would prove unpopular. Digital advertising would reduce inefficiency, and therefore profits. Dislike of micropayments would prevent widespread use. People would resist being educated to act against their own desires. Old habits of advertisers and readers would not transfer online. Even ferocious litigation would be inadequate to constrain massive, sustained law-breaking. (Prohibition redux.) Hardware and software vendors would not regard copyright holders as allies, nor would they regard customers as enemies. DRM's requirement that the attacker be allowed to decode the content would be an insuperable flaw. And, per Thompson, suing people who love something so much they want to share it would piss them off.
Revolutions create a curious inversion of perception. In ordinary times, people who do no more than describe the world around them are seen as pragmatists, while those who imagine fabulous alternative futures are viewed as radicals. The last couple of decades haven't been ordinary, however. Inside the papers, the pragmatists were the ones simply pointing out that the real world was looking increasingly like the unthinkable scenario. These people were treated as if they were barking mad. Meanwhile the people spinning visions of popular walled gardens and enthusiastic micropayment adoption, visions unsupported by reality, were regarded not as charlatans but saviors.
When reality is labeled unthinkable, it creates a kind of sickness in an industry. Leadership becomes faith-based, while employees who have the temerity to suggest that what seems to be happening is in fact happening are herded into Innovation Departments, where they can be ignored en masse. This shunting aside of the realists in favor of the fabulists has different effects on different industries at different times. One of the effects on the newspapers is that many of its most passionate defenders are unable, even now, to plan for a world in which the industry they knew is visibly going away.
And here's the money-shot:
When someone demands to be told how we can replace newspapers, they are really demanding to be told that we are not living through a revolution. They are demanding to be told that old systems won't break before new systems are in place. They are demanding to be told that ancient social bargains aren't in peril, that core institutions will be spared, that new methods of spreading information will improve previous practice rather than upending it. They are demanding to be lied to.
- Clay Shirky's Harvard talk: Here Comes Everybody – Boing Boing
- Clay Shirky's masterpiece: Here Comes Everybody – Boing Boing
- The Newspaper Industry and the Arrival of the Glaciers – Boing Boing
- Clay Shirky on traditional media: "2009 is going to be a bloodbath …
- Shirky talks activism: how group forming networks change protest …
- Shirky: Net is a kayak, driven by its environment – Boing Boing
- Saving Newspapers, Part MMIX: Collude and Conspire – Boing Boing
- 1981 video about online newspapers – Boing Boing
- Newspapers' Depressing Internal Lingo – Boing Boing
- What's hurting newspapers – Boing Boing
- Why do newspapers charge for yesterday's news? – Boing Boing