Saturday, November 22, 2008

New Alexandria

It is serendipitous that the director of my local library discovered my blog this week, because when I made my promise in last week's post for a proposal that would compensate creators for their work, it was the model of the public library that I had in mind.

But first, another serendipitous development in the last week: A series of articles about the dismal state of the music retail industry, some of the articles focusing on the hopes that Guns n Roses, Metallica, and AC/DC will prevent a catastrophic holiday retail season. The obvious common thread between these bands is that, beyond genre, they enjoyed massive popularity back when the only way to acquire music was to purchase it. It doesn't take a marketing genius to realize that consumer habits formed in youth carry through into adulthood. So while the record company this year looks to those who have fond memories of buying the Appetite for Destruction CD back in high school, the high schoolers of today will have no commensurate inclination to purchase a physical copy of the new Fall Out Boy disc in 2029.

But I suppose I'm merely belaboring the obvious by pointing this out. We already know that the CD is not a viable technology for the future, but we probably should realize that consumption of video content that is not web-based will also one day be obsolete. Serendipitous development #3: this weekend's "Youtube Live." The "I Want My MTV" generation may not actually watch MTV anymore, but they will probably cling to TV networks as long as possible. But I wouldn't expect such loyalty from those for whom Youtube is their MTV, and who have grown up with the expectation that entertainment be on-demand.

So what is all this leading up to? About a year ago, I wrote about my vision of a reborn Library of Alexandria, in which we would be able to access a common pool of all visual, audio, or textual content produced by humankind. The technology for such a venture seems to be in place right now or not too far off (I'm particularly interested in the development of e-readers). The infrastructure is not, but there is no reason to assume that it couldn't be. The biggest hold-up to realizing such a vision is purely economical. How can we fairly compensate someone who has created something that others want to consume, when what is created is intangible?

Ideally, the person who chooses to consume the product would be willing to pay a fee. And this has worked to an extent. Many people pay money for the legal right to download songs, movies, TV shows, and books. However, all of those items are also available for free. And many otherwise moral people see nothing wrong with accessing what is there for the taking. It seems to me that expecting the current system to work would be like expecting a sales tax system to work in an all-cash society.

And this brings me back to the public library model. I know that I am not the first person to propose such a solution, but it seems to be the way of the future. Almost everyone pays taxes to support a local library. Some people may choose to visit the library on a daily basis, while others may never once avail themselves of the resources they have helped to purchase and maintain. But the precedent is there. We need a national virtual public library, funded by the people, for the people. Creators can be compensated based on how often their work is accessed; since the consumer has no financial disincentive for openly accessing the work, a fair rendering can be brokered (and furthermore, there is no reason to assume creators can't also continue to be compensated through advertising). And I think that despite an uptick in taxes, most people should have more disposable income, since they won't be spending any money on books, movies, CDs, or cable TV.

Obviously, such a massive re-structuring of the entertainment industry would have ramifications on many people's livelihoods. Entire empires have been built on the premise that someone needs to help creators market and distribute their creations. But those empires are already crumbling; re-structure is inevitable, and will be less painful if there is a guided transition to a new paradigm. I think there is still a place for "middlemen" within the virtual walls of New Alexandria. Navigating the labyrinthine, Borgesian catacombs of the library will be daunting. If there can arise among us guides and chaperons to show us the way, well, they just may be able to earn a decent living.


OpenID said...

12:35 PM  
Blogger thesincitymama said...

Gratitude, Azor, that your pearls of wisdom are still available on this blog for free. The national library idea is genius. I want to be the librarian. -Kim

2:41 AM  
Blogger Nanette said...

Count me in, too! I like the idea of tying the creators' compensation to usage. Number of hits on a certain online video or song wouldn't do it, though. The system would also have to measure time spent consuming/enjoying the creation. When a song can keep someone listening to the end (especially in our low-attention-span culture), a better reward is definitely called for.

Of course your idea would likely be attacked by some as another government intrusion in our lives. Sounds a little like ... horrors! .... socialism.

But providing equal access to cultural resources is what libraries are all about. You're just talking about expanding access (albeit dramatically).

12:38 AM  

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