Content Deliverance

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in The Feature on 25 January 2004

Content Management is for losers. Young people may have discovered the dark truth about digital media: the person who wins the right to store a piece of data has actually won the booby prize.

A good friend of mine in the user interface business, Mark Hurst, has argued for years that we should all keep our hard drives free of unnecessary data. Although internet industry experts always disagreed with Hurst (they were in the business of manufacturing hard drives, after all) those of us working in the PDA sector and on early cell phone databases realized that he had a point.

In the old world of physical stuff that most of us were raised in, it made sense to collect things. Things have inherent value. He who dies with the most toys, wins. And where has this credo gotten us? End-stage consumer capitalism has rendered the United States a wasteland of ‘mini-storage’ facilities where the middle class pile up the merchandise they don’t have room for in their mortgaged, pre-fab homes. We are, for the most part, as overbought as our stock market, and as consumptive as we are obese.

This is why it was our tendency, in the early internet days, to save and store pretty much everything that passed over the digital transom. Many of my colleagues are proud to have saved every email they ever received, multiple draft versions of every article they have ever written, and full-page saves of website articles they once used, or may someday use, as resources.

The Napster era seemed to confirm that this consumerist attitude towards digital content would survive another generation. Kids spent their afternoons snarfing (downloading) anything and everything they could find. Dispensing with Taoist notions of minimalism and grace, young people filled their hard drives quite indiscriminately, amassing huge collections of music they would never have the time or inclination to listen to. As if taking a cue from the values of Monster Truck culture, all that mattered was the size of the collection. After all, the status symbol was to be someone who owned a server from which everyone else downloaded.

Of course, the mere ownership of so much data makes its organization a chore. It is more efficient to save only the emails and files you might actually use, so that categorizing and then accessing them when the time comes is more efficient. The person who refuses to make the hard choices about what data to keep and what to trash remains, in Hurst’s words, “a slave to information.” He who owns the most bytes loses. In the world of digital data, few seem to realize that mastery involves learning to distinguish between the valuable and the excess.

However, I believe that we’re finally seeing a new trend emerging thanks, in part, to the proliferation of cell phone technologies that do not allow for the mass accumulation of content but instead provide quick and temporary access to what young people might want. Content for content’s sake is out; contextual content is in.

As Joichi Ito explained on his blog last summer:

“Attention is moving from commercially produced content to dynamic or contextual content. An example of this is the shift of Japanese youth spending from CD purchasing to karaoke to cell phone messaging. CDs let you passively consume content produced by companies. Karaoke is more interactive - you are part of the content. With Cell phone messaging, the customer creates the content.”

Although Ito is describing the shift from consumed content to produced content, his observation can also take us beyond the idea that content must be passed around as Social Currency in order to be useful. It also indicates a trend away from valuing data as stuff to have, and towards an emphasis instead on having access to.

For example, when most of us were kids, vinyl was the dominant form of music recording. We listened to songs on the radio, and then purchased records of the songs we wanted to have. Although 45’s (singles) were relatively disposable (beach-worthy and breakable), record albums became part of our collections. They had object value.

So it was only natural for the object value of recordings to extend to CDs and, eventually, to MP3s. But the relationship of a listener to a file is very different from that of a listener to an analog recording. An analog recording is a physical object and a physical event, occurring in space and time. The record is a thing that makes sound. A digital recording is not a thing, at all, but a set of instructions. That makes MP3’s more of a memetic construct than a recording. It is more like a message than a bottle. (And even more like the words on the paper than the paper itself.) The blueprint, not the building. The instruction set - infinitely repeatable, and utterly worthless except as information.

Me, I’m probably too old to make this leap. But of the 40 students I’ve surveyed so far (from an admittedly biased sample of technology enthusiasts ranging in age from 23-27) 29 of them say they no longer see themselves needing to own the music they listen to. They are perfectly content to access music from servers, or to belong to subscription services or, better, illegal clubs of music sharing.

Right here at New York University’s Interactive Telecommunications Program, for example, there’s a wireless boombox called The Bass Station that everyone uses for networking music. Its creators, students Ahmi Wolf and Mark Argo, call it a Community Based Information Space. Anybody can upload songs to the Bass Station, and anybody can download or stream what they want to listen to.

More than a plot for teaching the values communism to graduate students, the Bass Station gives its users the freedom not to own the music they listen to - but to remain confident that they will maintain their access to all those tunes whenever they may want to hear them.

So what does this mean for the wireless industry? A lot. It means that the next shift in content delivery and marketing may be as extreme as Steve Jobs’ recent innovations in music distribution for Apple’s iTunes (now imitated or soon-to-be imitated by the entire music industry).

It’s a gamble, for sure, but the best place to invest in the future of content may be to focus on temporary delivery and always-on libraries. Kids are coming to believe that the person who takes responsibility for storing and maintaining the data is the one who deserves to be paid. And they’re smart enough, at any rate, to realize that it’s a job they don’t necessarily want to be charged with, themselves.

Like Piggie, the boy who kept the fire going in Lord of the Flies, the kid who has to maintain the content will rarely be the one who gets to dance naked, with abandon. Cellular technology almost always moves in the direction of increased liberation. People delivering content must come to understand that what they deliver is not just content, but delivery itself.