Archive for the 'digital' Category

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Was Blind, But Now, I See

Many say, this is the future. As we gaze toward the horizon, waiting patiently for the next new thing to appear, we cover our eyes. In the photograph above, some focus on Mr. Zuckerberg striding confidently and unencumbered by direct network inputs, but my eyes drift toward those whose eyes are captured by the technology.

It's a sea of true believers–alone together. What are they seeking? The moment they believe they've found it; that is the moment of true danger.


Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound,

That saved a wretch like me….

I once was lost but now am found,

Was blind, but now, I see.


Reading Mont Blanc

There are a couple of reasons that writing has migrated toward the screen. The biggest reason is that it's cheaper. The production process migrated to the screen, and in the end, it seemed easier to skip the part where you turn digital files into plates, smear ink on them, and print the offset onto paper. Once lots of people had screens that could serve as readers, the economics of it gained traction.

The same thing happened in movies and television, photography, and music. The consumption device is just a simpler version of the machines, or set of machines, used to produce the work.

The flexibility and agility provided by digital production methods hasn't really translated into the artwork. There are a few experimental attempts, but nothing has broken through into the mass market. A few people are working on computational narrative outside of the video game context. Generative music has also been available at your local app store for a while.

These kind of generative and computational works take the form of software applications. Computing power and algorithms are a necessary element of the product. They sit in a kind of no man's land between traditional media and video games. For the most part, the digital publication has simply been a cheaper form of print. As the hypertext medium matures, we'll need to see something more than “cheap.” Eventually, the audience won't be impressed with “free” or “cheap.” Libraries are filled with “free” books, but it's not on that basis that a reader checks out a book.

I started down this train of thought because of a book I checked out of San Francisco's Mechanic's Library. It's a membership library located downtown. If you like chess, it houses a beautiful chess room. Motivated by reading Tim Morton's review in the “LA Review of Books” of Steven Shaviro's “The Universe of Things,” I became interested in reading the poem that resonates so strongly with the title of Shaviro's book.

The poem is called “Mont Blanc” and was written in 1816 by Percy Bysshe Shelley. The poem is available online through a number of sources. I own several volumes of Shelley's work that contain the poem. Whenever I'm in a used book store I look for unfamiliar editions of poetry by William Blake and Percy Shelley. While their poetry is widely available, most of the editions are not very readable–tiny type, horrible layout.

Book publishers still working with ink and paper have also succumbed to the trend of producing the cheapest product possible. And when it comes to so-called classics, the worst tendencies of cheapness converge. It's as though the publisher cynically believes that it's enough to say one owns the complete works of Shakespeare in a single volume. Of course, no one would waste their time actually reading the plays; so why bother making them a pleasure to read?

You've probably seen these kinds of books. Their unapproachability has nothing to do with their status as “high art.” It's just that the type is too small. They're technically readable, in that, all the words have been converted to ink on paper. This is perhaps where the saying “machine readable” comes from.

Back to the poem. I'd been reading Shelley's “Mont Blanc” every evening for several weeks. I find that I need to read a poem a number of times over an extended period before it begins to function as a poem. I'd been switching off between various books that contained the poem. And then recently, I happened to be in the Mechanic's Library looking for something else, and thought I should find out if they had a nice edition of Shelley's poetry.

When I got to the designated shelf, I recognized the dark green seven volume, hard bound set of “The Complete Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley.” For some reason I'd always resisted it. I think I'd had a previous bad experience with an old edition of Coleridge's poems. Completely unreadable. I pulled down a volume and started paging through it. What a revelation.

This edition was published by Virtue & Company out of Boston in 1909. It's the library edition, and bears the number, 141 out of 1000. It has beautiful illustrations, and was edited by Nathan Haskell Dole. The volumes are simple, durable and luxurious.

Reading “Mont Blanc” in this beautiful edition, with excellent typography and a generous layout, was a qualitatively different experience. The poem has technically been printed in many books. All the words are there, and the lineation is correct, but not every printing of the poem actually does service to both the poem and the reader. The quality of the ink and the paper has something to do with it, but one also has the sense the publishers have a real understanding of what they're committing to paper. It's as though they knew in advance what it would be like to read these poems in this particular configuration.

Due to financial constraints, much of print publishing has lost its sense of usability. There are, of course, some notable exceptions. Web design has gone through the opposite problem. The “usability” profession killed design in the production of web sites. Some good principles were unearthed, but the usability specialists over-played their hand. We're only starting to see web sites (if there still is such a thing as a “web site”) wriggle out from under the boot of usability.

Reading the poem “Mont Blanc” online isn't a particularly pleasurable experience. The screen, and the vast network of interconnected pages behind it, seem to work against the flow of the poem. Rather than open the reader to the experience of the natural world flowing through the senses, as though one were a kind of Aeolian harp; the hypertext screen radiates the opposite polarity, and entices the reader to flow her attention through the connecting paths of the Network.

While it is true that the cost of publishing the written word will always be cheaper in some digital format, the value of the work in many cases is diminished. In the last year, a few online publications have started to break the mold and create more reader-friendly screen publications. Perhaps as we read more and more online, we'll begin to realize the absolute poverty of the reading experience. It's not very good. When the economics of publication, whether for print or screen, tells us that we can't afford to do good work–that's when the whole thing really starts to fall apart. We've been facinated with the idea of commodity prices approaching zero. What we're learning (again) is that value tends to follow price as it moves toward zero.

Where is that revaluation of digital values that we've been waiting for?


The Stream: Music Without a Container

A common complaint among collectors of recorded music is that they've had to buy the same music over and over again in different formats. First the vinyl, then the cassette, then the CD, and now the digital files. Somehow the consumer believes he is buying the “music” and not the mechanical means to play the recording.

The cost of producing and distributing physical containers for music recordings has played a large part in what consumers have paid for recorded music. As the cost of producing these containers goes down, the price of recorded music remains the same. The theory is that these expanded margins allow the record labels to invest in new and undiscovered musical talent. That rarely happens anymore, the capital is deployed into other kinds of investments. It's no longer considered a good investment to develop talent.

The cut-of-the-pie taken by non-musicians is enormous, even as the risk taken by the record companies gets less and less over time. All of the risk has been shifted to the musicians. If they show up with a built-in audience ready to buy product, then there's a contract waiting for them to sign. This is true in the publishing world as well.

The issue lost in all these calculations over the cost of producing and distributing various containers for recorded music is: what is the value of the music itself? Since, for the most part, all CDs are the same price, can we assume that all music has identical value? In this model, the differential in artist compensation is based on the number of units sold. Sell a lot of records, make a lot of money. Or as it sometimes plays out: take an advance on future units sold; don't sell enough units; end up owing money to the record company; work without compensation to pay off the debt.

If you want to understand how power and morality works in business arrangements, simply ask who is taking risk and who is being compensated for it. Imagine a business where an artist is asked to take most of the risk, but isn't compensated when the risk pays off. Reducing risk and increasing profit is business as usual for corporations.

The digital file download was the last remnant of the music container. The file was downloaded and actually existed on some device. Cloud-based services parked your files in a location where network-connected devices could access the full library without specific files being physically present.

The music streaming services have done away with the container altogether. You don't even get the files. The consumer only gets access to the stream. Since the cost of the container is no longer and issue, the price of the service is lower. If you look at it from the pure consumer perspective, it's a bargain. Let's say you're big music fan and you buy two or three CDs, or album downloads, a month. For the cost of one download, you have access to a huge library of recorded music streams. For the cost of 12 album downloads a year, you get access to all popular recorded music all year long. It's pretty obvious that the economics favor a mass migration to the streaming services, and that movement is backed up by industry stats.

We're familiar with the old story about musicians who were paid a flat fee to record a set of songs. Some of those songs were turned into vinyl records that became hits. The record company took in all the profits for record sales, and the musicians had signed away their right to a piece of the action. Over time that model was adjusted to give artists some compensation for record sales. But what happens when nothing is actually sold anymore? No music is sold, streaming service revenue is based on monthly subscriber payments. Turns out the value of an individual stream of a song is a tiny fraction of a penny. That's what the artist receives each time the consumer streams a song.

For the consumer, the risk of buying an unknown album becomes zero with a music streaming service. Since nothing is bought or sold, the consumer can take a bite and if it doesn't taste good, it can just be put back on the shelf. This lack of real investment changes the whole dynamics of new music discovery. (And by the way, streaming is NOT a discovery method prior to purchase. It replaces purchase.)

Ask any investor whether it makes sense to take uncompensated risk. This is the question musicians need to ask themselves. By releasing their new music to the streaming services, they've effectively eliminated any possibility of selling physical CDs or downloads. If sales of recordings is a significant part of a musician's annual income, streaming will quickly eliminate that income category.

Working outside the music industry system used to be considered big risk. It was a risk that limited the upside of sales and popularity because big distribution only existed through the system. Even the “independent” and “alternative” categories have ended up inside the thing they're supposed to be independent of, and alternative to. Since the streaming services take sales out of the picture, all that's left is the promise of the possibility of popularity. But like the risk, it's uncompensated popularity.

Musicians are already taking risks. A risk is an investment, and musicians need to figure out where they can be fairly compensated for the risks they're taking. Music consumers need to understand that they're part of a whole ecosystem. The idea that the world owes consumers free music forever is childish and self-centered. If you don't value music enough to pay for it, then you really don't value music much at all. Do you think fair-trade coffee is a good idea? How about clothes that aren't made in a sweatshop? How about seafood that isn't the product of slave labor? How about fair-trade music? Does that sound good to you?


The Unit of Content Consumed

We've yet to come to terms with how musicians are paid, on a per stream basis, by the big streaming platforms. Suddenly news comes from Amazon that they are set to pay self-published authors as little as $0.006 per page read. Longer books may receive a slightly higher payment rate.

If one had the goal of stopping writers from writing for e-book publication, or stopping musicians from creating music for the recorded music format, this would be a good strategy. It's hard to imagine another industry that would tolerate this kind of economic contract. If I only eat half of my meal in a restaurant, I expect to pay half price. If I drive my car less than other drivers, I should pay a lower price. If I buy something from Amazon and grow bored with it after a week, I shouldn't have to pay full freight.

Following in the steps of the band Vulfpeck and their album “Sleepify.” I shall self-publish an Amazon e-book with only twelve blank pages. “Sleepify” consisted of ten 30 second tracks of silence. The band encouraged its fans to play the album on a loop while they slept. Funds raised through this method were used to finance a free concert tour by the band. Spotify owed the band $20,000 in royalty payments and eventually paid up. They then pulled the album citing violations of various policies.

Readers, set your library of self-published e-books to auto-advance and loop. After all I have machines that read all my books for me these days. All I need to know is whether I liked it or not, and a few bon mot for cocktail party conversation.

This is what passes for innovation these days.


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