Understanding Gilmore’s Law: Telecoms Edition

OR,
How I Quit Worrying and Learned to be a Commodity

Introduction


“The net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it.”
– John Gilmore

I read a very interesting article last week. It turns out that, despite their best efforts, the Communist government of the People’s Republic of China have failed to insulate their prodigious population from the outrageous truths to be found online. In the article from the Times, Wang Guoqing, a vice-minister in the information office of the Chinese cabinet was quoted as saying, “It has been repeatedly proved that information blocking is like walking into a dead end.” If China, with all of the resources of a one-party state, and thus able to “lock down” its internet service providers, directing their IP traffic through a “great firewall of China”, can not block the free-flow of information, how can any government, anywhere – or any organization, or institution – hope to try?

Of course, we all chuckle a little bit when we see the Chinese attempt the Sisyphean task of damming the torrent of information which characterizes life in the 21st century. We, in the democratic West, know better, and pat ourselves on the back. But we are in no position to throw stones. Gilmore’s Law is not specifically tuned for political censorship; censorship simply means the willful withholding of information – for any reason. China does it for political reasons; in the West our reasons for censorship are primarily economic. Take, for example, the hullabaloo associated with the online release of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, three days before its simultaneous, world-wide publication. It turns out that someone, somewhere, got a copy of the book, and laboriously photographed every single page of the 784-page text, bound these images together into a single PDF file, and then uploaded it to the global peer-to-peer filesharing networks. Everyone with a vested financial interest in the book – author J.K. Rowling, Bloomsbury and Scholastic publishing houses, film studio Warner Brothers – had been feeding the hype for the impending release, all focused around the 21st of July. An enormous pressure had been built up to “peek at the present” before it was formally unwrapped, and all it took was one single gap in the $20 million security system Bloomsbury had constructed to keep the text safely secure. Then it became a globally distributed media artifact. Curiously, Bloomsbury was reported as saying they thought it would only add to sales – if many people are reading the book now, even illegally, then even more people will want to be reading the book right now. Piracy, in this case, might be a good thing.

These two examples represent two data points which show the breadth and reach of Gilmore’s Law. Censorship, broadly defined, is anything which restricts the free flow of information. The barriers could be political, or they could be economic, or they could – as in the case immediately relevant today – they could be a nexus of the two. Broadband in Australia is neither purely an economic nor purely a political issue. In this, broadband reflects the Janus-like nature of Telstra, with one face turned outward, toward the markets, and another turned inward, toward the Federal Government. Even though Telstra is now (more or less) wholly privatized, the institutional memory of all those years as an arm of the Federal Government hasn’t yet been forgotten. Telstra still behaves as though it has a political mandate, and is more than willing to use its near-monopoly economic strength to reinforce that impression.

Although seemingly unavoidable, given the established patterns of the organization, Telstra’s behavior has consequences. Telstra has engendered enormous resentment – both from its competitors and its customers – for its actions and attitude. They’ve recently pushed the Government too far (at least, publicly), and have been told to back off. What may not be as clear – and what I want to warn you of today – is how Telstra has sewn the seeds of its own failure. What’s more, this may not be anything that Telstra can now avoid, because this is neither a regulatory nor an economic failure. It can not be remedied by any mechanism that Telstra has access to. Instead, it may require a top-down rethinking of the entire business.

I: Network Effects

For the past several thousand years, the fishermen of Kerala, on the southern coast of India, have sailed their dhows out into the Indian Ocean, lowered their nets, and hoped for the best. When the fishing is good, they come back to shore fully laden, and ready to sell their catch in the little fish markets that dot the coastline. A fisherman might have a favorite market, docking there only to find that half a dozen other dhows have had the same idea. In that market there are too many fish for sale that day, and the fisherman might not even earn enough from his catch to cover costs. Meanwhile, in a market just a few kilometers away, no fishing boats have docked, and there’s no fish available at any price. This fundamental chaos of the fish trade in Kerala has been a fact of life for a very long time.

Just a few years ago, several of India’s rapidly-growing wireless carriers strung GSM towers along the Kerala coast. This gives those carriers a signal reach of up to about 25km offshore – enough to be very useful for a fisherman. While mobile service in India is almost ridiculously cheap by Australian standards – many carriers charge a penny for an SMS, and a penny or two per minute for voice calls – a handset is still relatively expensive, even one such as the Nokia 1100, which was marketed specifically at emerging mobile markets, designed to be cheap and durable. Such a handset might cost a month’s profits for a fisherman – which makes it a serious investment. But, at some point in the last few years, one fisherman – probably a more prosperous one – bought a handset, and took it to sea. Then, perhaps quite accidentally, he learned, through a call ashore, of a market wanting for fish that day, brought his dhow to dock there, and made a handsome profit. After that, the word got around rapidly, and soon all of Kerala’s fisherman were sporting their own GSM handsets, calling into shore, making deals with fishmongers, acting as their own arbitrageurs, creating a true market where none had existed before. Today in Kerala the markets are almost always stocked with just enough fish; the fishmongers make a good price for their fish, and the fishermen themselves earn enough to fully recoup the cost of their handsets in just two months. Mobile service in Kerala has dramatically altered the economic prospects for these people.

This is not the only example: in Kenya farmers call ahead to the markets to learn which ones will have the best prices for their onions and maize; spice traders, again in Kerala, use SMS to create their own, far-flung bourse. Although we in the West generally associate mobile communications with affluent lifestyles, a significant number of microfinance loans made by Grameen Bank in Bangladesh, and others in Pakistan, India, Africa and South America are used to purchase mobile handsets – precisely because the correlation between access to mobile communications and earning potential has become so visible in the developing world. Grameen Bank has even started its own carrier, GrameenPhone, to service its microfinance clientele.

Although economists are beginning to recognize and document this curious relationship between economics and access to communication, it needs to be noted that this relationship was not predicted – by anyone. It happened all by itself, emerging from the interaction of individuals and the network. People – who are always the intelligent actors in the network – simply recognized the capabilities of the network, and put them to work. As we approach the watershed month of October 2007, when three billion people will be using mobile handsets, when half of humanity will be interconnected, we can expect more of the unexpected.

All of this means that none of us – even the most foresighted futurist – can know in advance what will happen when people are connected together in an electronic network. People themselves are too resourceful, and too intelligent, to model their behavior in any realistic way. We might be able to model their network usage – though even that has confounded the experts – but we can’t know why they’re using the network, nor what kind of second-order effects that usage will have on culture. Nor can we realistically provision for service offerings; people are more intelligent, and more useful, than any other service the carriers could hope to offer. The only truly successful service offering in mobile communications is SMS – because it provides an asynchronous communications channel between people. The essential feature of the network is simply that it connects people together, not that it connects them to services.

This strikes at the heart of the most avaricious aspects of the carriers’ long-term plans, which center around increasing the levels of services on offer, by the carrier, to the users of the network. Although this strategy has consistently proven to be a complete failure – consider Compuserve, Prodigy and AOL – it nevertheless has become the idée fixe of shareholder reports, corporate plans, and press releases. The network, we are told, will become increasingly more intelligent, more useful, and more valuable. But all of the history of the network argues directly against this. Nearly 40 years after its invention, the most successful service on the Internet is still electronic mail, the Internet’s own version of SMS. Although the Web has become an important service in its own right, it will never be as important as electronic mail, because it connects individuals.

Although the network in Kerala was brought into being by the technology of GSM transponders and mobile handsets, the intelligence of the network truly does lie in the individuals who are connected by the network. Let’s run a little thought experiment, and imagine a world where all of India’s telecoms firms suffered a simultaneous catastrophic and long-lasting failure. (Perhaps they all went bankrupt.) Do you suppose that the fishermen would simply shrug their shoulders and go back to their old, chaotic market-making strategies? Hardly. Whether they used smoke signals, or semaphores, or mirrors on the seashore, they’d find some way to maintain those networks of communication – even in the absence of the technology of the network. The benefits of the network so outweigh the implementation of the network that, once created, networks can not be destroyed. The network will be rebuilt from whatever technology comes to hand – because the network is not the technology, but the individuals connected through it.

This is the kind of bold assertion that could get me into a lot of trouble; after all, everyone knows that the network is the towers, the routers, and the handsets which comprise its physical and logical layers. But if that were true, then we could deterministically predict the qualities and uses of networks well in advance of their deployment. The quintessence of the network is not a physical property; it is an emergent property of the interaction of the network’s users. And while people do persistently believe that there is some “magic” in the network, the source of that magic is the endlessly inventive intellects of the network’s users. When someone – anywhere in the network – invents a new use for the network, it propagates widely, and almost instantaneously, transmitted throughout the length and breadth of the network. The network amplifies the reach of its users, but it does not goad them into being inventive. The service providers are the users of the network.

I hope this gives everyone here some pause; after all, it is widely known that the promise to bring a high-speed broadband network to Australia is paired with the desire to provide services on that network, including – most importantly – IPTV. It’s time to take a look at that promise with our new understanding of the real power of networks. It is under threat from two directions: the emergence of peer-produced content; and the dramatic, disruptive collapse in the price of high-speed wide-area networking which will fully power individuals to create their own network infrastructure.

II: DIYnet

Although nearly all high-speed broadband providers – which are, by and large, monopoly or formerly monopoly telcos – have bet the house on the sale of high-priced services to finance the build-out of high-speed (ADSL2/FTTN/FTTH) network infrastructure, it is not at all clear that these service offerings will be successful. Mobile carriers earn some revenue from ringtone and game sales, but this is a trivial income stream when compared to the fees they earn from carriage. Despite almost a decade of efforts to milk more ARPU from their customers, those same customers have proven stubbornly resistant to a continuous fleecing. The only thing that customers seem obviously willing to pay for is more connectivity – whether that’s more voice calls, more SMS, or more data.

What is most interesting is what these customers have done with this ever-increasing level of interconnectivity. These formerly passive consumers of entertainment have become their own media producers, and – perhaps more ominously, in this context – their own broadcasters. Anyone with a cheap webcam (or mobile handset), a cheap computer, and a broadband link can make and share their own videos. This trend had been growing for several years, but since the launch of YouTube, in 2005, it has rocketed into prominence. YouTube is now the 4th busiest website, world-wide, and perhaps 65% of all video downloads on the web take place through Google-owned properties. Amateur productions regularly garner tens of thousands of viewers – and sometimes millions.

We need to be very careful about how we judge both the meaning of the word “amateur” in the context of peer-produced media. An amateur production may be produced with little or no funding, but that does not automatically mean it will appear clumsy to the audience. The rough edges of an amateur prodution are balanced out by a corresponding increase in salience – that is, the importance which the viewer attaches to the subject of the media. If something is compelling because it is important to us – something which we care passionately about – high production values do not enter into our assessment. Chad Hurley, one of the founders of YouTube has remarked that the site has no “gold-standard” for production; in fact, YouTube’s gold-standard is salience – if the YouTube audience feels the work is important, audience members will share it within their own communities of interest. Sharing is the proof of salience.

After two years of media sharing, the audience for YouTube (which is now coincident with the global television audience in the developed world) has grown accustomed to being able to share salient media freely. This is another of the unexpected and unpredicted emergent effects of the intelligence of humans using the network. We now have an expectation that when we encounter some media we find highly salient, we should be able to forward it along within our social networks, sharing it within our communities of salience. But this is not the desire of many copyright holders, who collect their revenues by placing barriers to the access of media. This fundamental conflict, between the desire to share, as engendered by our own interactions with the network, and the desire of copyright holders to restrain media consumption to economic channels has, thus far, been consistently resolved in favor of sharing. The copyright holders have tried to use the legal system as a bludgeon to change the behavior of the audience; this has not, nor will it ever work. But, as the copyright holders resort to ever-more-draconian techniques to maintain control over the distribution of their works, the audience is presented with an ever-growing world of works that are meant to be shared. The danger here is that the audience is beginning to ignore works which they can not share freely, seeing them as “broken” in some fundamental way. Since sharing has now become an essential quality of media, the audience is simply reacting to a perceived defect in those works. In this sense, the media multinationals have been their own worst enemies; by restricting the ability of the audiences to share the works they control, they have helped to turn audiences toward works which audiences can distribute through their own “do-it-yourself” networks.

These DIYnets are now a permanent fixture of the media landscape, even as their forms evolve through YouTube playlists, RSS feeds, and sharing sites such as Facebook and Pownce. These networks exist entirely outside the regular and licensed channels of distribution; they are not suitable – legally or economically – for distribution via a commercial IPTV network. Telstra can not provide these DIYnets to their customers through its IPTV service – nor can any other broadband carrier. IPTV, to a carrier, means the distribution of a few hundred highly regularized television channels. While there will doubtless be a continuing market for mass entertainment, that audience is continuously being eroded by a growing range of peer-produced programming which is growing in salience. In the long-term this, like so much in the world, will probably obey an 80/20 rule, with about 80 percent of the audience’s attention absorbed in peer-produced, highly-salient media, while 20 percent will come from mass-market, high-production-value works. It doesn’t make a lot of sense to bet the house on a service offering which will command such a small portion of the audience’s attention. Yes, Telstra will offer it. But it will never be able to compete with the productions created by the audience.

Because of this tension between the desires of the carrier and the interests of the audience, the carrier will seek to manipulate the capabilities of the broadband offering, to weight it in favor of a highly regularized IPTV offering. In the United States this has become known as the “net neutrality” argument, and centers on the question of whether a carrier has the right to shape traffic within its own IP network to advantage its own traffic over that of others. In Australia, the argument has focused on tariff rates: Telstra believes that if they build the network, they should be able to set the tariff. The ACCC argues otherwise. This has been the characterized as the central stumbling block which has prevented the deployment of a high-speed broadband network across the nation, and, in some sense that is entirely true – Telstra has chosen not move forward until it feels assured that both economic and regulatory conditions prove favorable. But this does not mean that the consumer demand for a high-speed network was simply put on pause over the last years. More significantly, the world beyond Telstra has not stopped advancing. While it now costs roughly USD $750 per household to provide a high-speed fiber-optic connection to the carrier network, other technologies are coming on-line, right now, which promise to reduce those costs by an order of magnitude, and furthermore, which don’t require any infrastructure build-out on the part of the carrier. This disruptive innovation could change the game completely.

III: Check, Mate

All parties to the high-speed broadband dispute – government, Telstra, the Group of Nine, and the public – share the belief that this network must be built by a large organization, able to command the billions of dollars in capital required to dig up the streets, lay the fiber, and run the enormous data centers. This model of a network is an reflection in copper, plastic and silicon, of the hierarchical forms of organization which characterize large institutions – such as governments and carriers. However, if we have learned anything about the emergent qualities of networks, it is that they quickly replace hierarchies with “netocracies“: horizontal meritocracies, which use the connective power of the network to out-compete slower and rigid hierarchies. It is odd that, while the network has transformed nearly everything it has touched, the purveyors of those networks – the carriers – somehow seem immune from those transformative qualities. Telecommunications firms are – and have ever been – the very definition of hierarchical organizations. During the era of plain-old telephone service, the organizational form of the carrier was isomorphic to the form of the network. However, over the last decade, as the internal network has transitioned from circuit-switched to packed-switched, the institution lost synchronization with the form of the network it provided to consumers. As each day passes, carriers move even further out of sync: this helps to explain the current disconnect between Telstra and Australians.

We are about to see an adjustment. First, the data on the network was broken into packets; now, the hardware of the network has followed. Telephone networks were centralized because they required explicit wiring from point-to-point; cellular networks are decentralized, but use licensed spectrum – which requires enormous capital resources. Both of these conditions created significant barriers to entry. But there is no need to use wires, nor is there any need to use licensed spectrum. The 2.4 GHz radio band is freely available for anyone to use, so long as that use stays below certain power values. We now see a plethora of devices using that spectrum: cordless handsets, Bluetooth devices, and the all-but-ubiquitous 802.11 “WiFi” data networks. The chaos which broadcasters and governments had always claimed would be the by-product of unlicensed spectrum has, instead, become an wonderfully rich marketplace of products and services. The first generation of these products made connection to the centralized network even easier: cordless handsets liberated the telephone from the twisted-pair connection to the central office, while WiFi freed computers from heavy and clumsy RJ-45 jacks and CAT-5 cabling. While these devices had some intelligence, that intelligence centered on making and maintaining a connection to the centralized network.

Recently, advances in software have produced a new class of devices which create their own networks. Devices connected to these ad-hoc “mesh” networks act as peers in a swarm (similar to the participants in peer-to-peer filesharing), rather than clients within a hierarchical distribution system. These network peers share information about their evolving topology, forming a highly-resilient fabric of connections. Devices maintain multiple connections to multiple nodes throughout the network, and a packet travels through the mesh along a non-deterministic path. While this was always the promise of TCP/IP networks, static routes through the network cloud are now the rule, because they provide greater efficiency, make it easier to maintain the routers, diagnose network problems, and keeps maintenance costs down. But mesh networks are decentralized; there is no controlling authority, no central router providing an interconnection with a peer network. And – most significantly – mesh networks now incredibly inexpensive to implement.

Earlier this year, the US-based firm Meraki launched their long-awaited Meraki Mini wireless mesh router. For about AUD $60, plus the cost of electricity, anyone can become a peer within a wireless mesh network providing speeds of up to 50 megabits per second. The device is deceptively simple; it’s just an 802.11 transceiver paired with a single-chip computer running LINUX and Meraki’s mesh routing software – which was developed by Meraki’s founders while Ph.D. students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The 802.11 radio within the Meraki Mini has been highly optimized for long-distance communication. Instead of the normal 50 meter radius associated with WiFi, the Meraki Mini provides coverage over at least 250 meters – and, depending upon topography, can reach 750 meters. Let me put that in context, by showing you the coverage I’ll get when I install a Meraki Mini on my sixth-floor balcony in Surry Hills:



From my flat, I will be able to reach all the way from Central Station to Riley Street, from Belvoir Street over to Albion Street. Thousands of people will be within range of my network access point. Of course, if all of them chose to use my single point of access, my Meraki Mini would be swamped with traffic. It simply wouldn’t be able to cope. But – given that the Meraki Mini is cheaper than most WiFi access points available at Harvey Norman – it’s likely that many people within that radius would install their own access points. These access points would detect each others’ presence, forming a self-organizing mesh network. If every WiFi access point visible from my flat (I can sense between 10 and 20 of them at any given time) were replaced with a Meraki Mini, or, perhaps more significantly, if these WiFi access points were given firmware upgrades which allowed them to interoperate with the mesh networks created by the Meraki Mini – my Surry Hills neighborhood would suddenly be blanketed in a highly resilient and wholly pervasive wireless high-speed network, at nearly no cost to the users of that network. In other words, this could all be done in software. The infrastructure is already deployed.

As some of you have no doubt noted, this network is highly local; while there are high-speed connections within the wireless cloud, the mesh doesn’t necessarily have connections to the global Internet. In fact, Meraki Minis can act as routers to the Internet, routing packets through their Ethernet interfaces to the broader Internet, and Meraki recommends that at least every tenth device in a mesh be so equipped. But it’s not strictly necessary, and – if dedicated to a particular task – completely unnecessary. Let us say, for example, that I wanted to provide a low-cost IPTV service to the residents of Surry Hills. I could create a “head-end” in my own flat, and provide my “subscribers” with Meraki Minis and an inexpensive set-top-box to interface with their televisions. For a total install cost of perhaps $300, I could give everyone in Surry Hills a full IPTV service (though it’s unlikely I could provide HD-quality). No wiring required, no high-speed broadband buildout, no billions of dollars, no regulatory relaxation. I could just do it. And collect both subscriber fees and advertiser revenues. No Telstra. No Group of Nine. No blessing from Senator Coonan. No go-over by the ACCC. The technology is all in place, today.

Here’s a news report – almost a year old – which makes the point quite well:

I bring up this thought experiment to drive home my final point: Telstra isn’t needed. It might not even be wanted. We have so many other avenues open to us to create and deploy high-speed broadband services that it’s likely Telstra has just missed the boat. You’ve waited too long, dilly-dallying while the audience and the technology have made you obsolete. The audience doesn’t want the same few hundred channels they can get on FoxTel: they want the nearly endless stream of salience they can get from YouTube. The technology is no longer about centralized distribution networks: it favors light, flexible, inexpensive mesh networks. Both of these are long-term trends, and both will only grow more pronounced as the years pass. In the years it takes Telstra – or whomever gets the blessing of the regulators – to build out this high-speed broadband network, you will be fighting a rearguard action, as both the audience and the technology of the network race on past you. They have already passed you by, and it’s been my task this morning to point this out. You simply do not matter.

This doesn’t mean it’s game over. I don’t want you to report to Sol Trujilo that it’s time to have a quick fire-sale of Telstra’s assets. But it does mean you need to radically rethink your business – right now. In the age of pervasive peer-production, paired with the advent of cheap wireless mesh networks, your best option is to become a high-quality connection to the global Internet – in short, a commodity. All of this pervasive wireless networking will engender an incredible demand for bandwidth; the more people are connected together, the more they want to be connected together. That’s the one inarguable truth we can glean from the 160 years of electric communication. Telstra has the infrastructure to leverage itself into becoming the most reliable data carrier connecting Australians to the global Internet. It isn’t glamorous, but it is a business with high barriers to entry, and promises a steadily growing (if unexciting) continuing revenue stream. But, if you continue to base your plans around selling Australians services we don’t want, you are building your castles on the sand. And the tide is rising.

Nothing Special

I.

And so it begins.

Last week, YouTube began the laborious process of removing all clips of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart at the request of VIACOM, parent to Paramount Television, which runs Comedy Central, home to The Daily Show. This is no easy task; there are probably tens of thousands of clips of The Daily Show posted to YouTube. Not all of them are tagged well, so – despite its every effort – YouTube is going to miss some of them, opening themselves up to continuing legal action from VIACOM.

It is as all of YouTube’s users feared: now that billions of dollars are at stake, YouTube is playing by the rules. The free-for-all of video clip sharing which brought YouTube to greatness is now being threatened by that very success. Because YouTube is big enough to sue – part of Google, which has a market capitalization of over 160 billion dollars – it is now subject to the same legal restrictions on distribution as all of the other major players in media distribution. In other words, YouTube’s ability to hyperdistribute content has been entirely handicapped by its new economic vulnerability. Since this hyperdistribution capability is the quintessence of YouTube, one wonders what will happen. Can YouTube survive as its assets are slowly stripped away?

Mark Cuban’s warnings have come back to haunt us; Cuban claimed that only a moron would buy YouTube, built as it is on the purloined copyrights of others. Cuban’s critique overlooked the enormous value of YouTube’s of peer-produced content, something I have noted elsewhere. Thus, this stripping of assets will not diminish the value of YouTube. Instead, it will reveal the true wealth of peer-production.

In the past week I’ve used YouTube at least five times daily – but not to watch The Daily Show. I’ve been watching a growing set of political advertisements, commentary and mashups, all leading up to the US midterm elections. YouTube has become the forum for the sharing of political videos, and, while some of them are brazenly lifted from CNN or FOX NEWS, most are produced by the campaigns, and are intended to be hyperdistributed as widely as possible. Political advertising and YouTube are a match made in heaven. When political activism crosses the line into citizen journalism (such as in the disturbing clips of people being roughed up by partisan thugs) that too is hyperdistributed via YouTube. Anything that’s captured on a video camera, or television tuner, or mobile telephone can (and frequently does) end up on YouTube in a matter of minutes.

Even as VIACOM executed their draconian copyrights, the folly of their old-school thinking became ever more apparent. Oprah featured a segment on Juan Mann, Sick Puppies and their now-entirely-overexposed video. It’s been up on YouTube for five weeks, has now topped five million views, and four major record labels are battling for the chance to sign Sick Puppies to a recording contract. It reveals the fundamental paradox of hyperdistribution: the more something is shared, the more valuable it becomes. Take The Daily Show off of YouTube, and fewer people will see it. Fewer people will want to catch the broadcast. Ratings will drop off. And you run the risk of someone else – Ze Frank, perhaps, or another talented upstart – filling the gap.

Yes, Comedy Central is offering The Daily Show on their website, for those who can remember to go there, can navigate through the pages to find the show they want, can hope they have the right video software installed, etc. But Comedy Central isn’t YouTube. It isn’t delivering half of the video seen on the internet. YouTube has become synonymous with video the way Google has become synonymous with search. Comedy Central ignores this fact at its peril, because it’s relying on a change in audience behavior.

II.

Television producers are about to learn the same lessons that film studios and the recording industry learned before them: what the audience wants, it gets. Take your clips off of YouTube, and watch as someone else – quite illegally – creates another hyperdistribution system for them. Attack that system, and watch as it fades into invisibility. Those attacks will force it to evolve into ever-more-undetectable forms. That’s the lesson of music-sharing site Napster, and the lesson of torrent-sharing site Supernova. When you attack the hyperdistribution system, you always make the problem worse.

In its rude, thuggish way, VIACOM is asserting the primacy of broadcasting over hypercasting. VIACOM built an empire from television broadcasting, and makes enormous revenues from it. They’re unlikely to do anything that would encourage the audience toward a new form of distribution. At the same time, they’re powerless to stop that audience from embracing hyperdistribution. So now we get to see the great, unspoken truth of television broadcasting – it’s nothing special. Buy a chunk of radio spectrum, or a satellite transponder, or a cable provider: none of it gives you any inherent advantage in reaching the audience. Ten years ago, they were a lock; today, they’re only an opportunity. There are too many alternate paths to the audience – and the audience has too many paths to one another.

This doesn’t mean that broadcasting will collapse – at least not immediately. It does mean that – finally – there’s real competition. The five media megacorporations in the United States now have several hundred thousand motivated competitors. Only a few of these will reach the “gold standard” of high-quality production technique which characterizes broadcast media. The audience doesn’t care. The audience prizes immediacy, relevancy, accessibility, and above all, salience. There’s no way that five companies, however rich and productive, can satisfy the needs of an audience which has come to expect that it can get exactly what it wants, when it wants, wherever it wants. Furthermore, there’s no way to stop anything that gets broadcast by those companies from being hyperdistributed and added to the millions of available choices. You’d need to lock down every PC, every broadband connection, and every television in the world to maintain a level of control which, just a few years ago, came effortlessly.

VIACOM may sense the truth of this, even as they act against this knowledge. Rumors have been swirling around the net, indicating that YouTube and VIACOM have come to a deal, and that the clips will not be removed – this, while they’re still being deleted. VIACOM, caught in the inflection point between broadcasting and hypercasting, doesn’t fully understand where its future interests lie. In the meantime, it thrashes about as its lizard-brained lawyers revert to the reflexive habits of cease-and-desist.

III.

This week, after two years of frustration and failure, I managed to install and configure MythTV. MythTV is a LINUX-based digital video recorder (DVR) which has been in development for over four years. It has matured enormously in that time, but it still took every last one of my technical skills – plus a whole lot of newly-acquired ones – to get it properly set up. Even now, after some four days of configuration, I’m not quite finished. That puts MythTV miles out of the range of the average viewer, who just wants a box they can drop into their system, turn on, and play with. Those folks purchase a TiVo. But TiVo doesn’t work in Australia – at least, not without the same level of technical gymnastics required to install MythTV. If I had digital cable – spectacularly uncommon in Australia – I could use Foxtel iQ, a very polished DVR with multiple tuners, full program guide, etc. But I have all of that, right now, running on my PC, with MythTV.

I’ve never owned a DVR, though I have written about them extensively. The essential fact of the DVR is that it coaxes you away from television as a live medium. That’s an important point in Australia, where most of us have just five broadcast channels to pick from: frequently, there’s nothing worth watching. But, once you’ve set up the appropriate recording schedule on your DVR, the device is always filled with programming you want to watch. People with DVRs tend to watch 30% more television than those without, and they tend to enjoy it more, because they’re getting just the programmes they find most salient.

Last night – the first night of a relatively complete MythTV configuration – I went to attend a friend’s lecture, but left MythTV to record the evening’s news programmes. I came back in, and played the recorded programmes, but took full advantage of the DVRs ability to jump through the content. I skipped news stories I’d seen earlier in the day (plus all of the sport reportage), and reviewed the segments I found most interesting. I watched 2 hours of television in about 45 minutes, and felt immensely satisfied at the end, because, for the first time, I could completely command the television broadcast, shaping it to the demands of salience. This is the way TV should be watched, I realized, and I knew there’d be no going back.

My DVR has a lot in common with YouTube. Both systems skirt the law; in my case the programming schedules which I download from a community-hosted site are arguably illegal under Australian copyright law, and recording a program at all – either in the US or in Australia – is also illegal. (You don’t sue your audience, and you don’t waste your money suing a not-for-profit community site.) Both systems give me immediate access to content with enormous salience; I see just what I want, just when I want to. YouTube is home to peer-produced content, while the DVR houses professional productions, works that meet the “gold standard”. I have already begun to conceive of them as two halves of the same video experience.

It won’t be long before some enterprising hacker integrates the two meaningfully: perhaps a YouTube plugin for MythTV? (MythTV is a free and open source application, available for anyone to modify or improve.) Perhaps it will be some deal struck between the broadcasters and YouTube. Or perhaps both will occur. This would represent the kind of “convergence” much talked about in the late 1990s, and all but abandoned. Convergence has come; from my point of view it doesn’t matter whether I use MythTV or YouTube or their hybrid offspring. All I care about is watching the programmes that interest me. How they get delivered is nothing special.

Rearranging the Deck Chairs

I. Everything Must Go!

It’s merger season in Australia. Everything must go! Just moments after the new media ownership rules received the Governor-General’s royal assent, James Packer sold off his family’s crown jewel, the NINE NETWORK – consistently Australia’s highest-rated television broadcaster since its inception, fifty years ago – along with a basket of other media properties. This sale effectively doubled his already sizeable fortune (now hovering at close to 8 billion Australian dollars) and gave him plenty of cash to pursue the 21st-century’s real cash cow: gambling. In an era when all media is more-or-less instantaneously accessible, anywhere, from anyone, the value of a media distribution empire is rapidly approaching zero, built on the toppling pillars of government regulation of the airwaves, and a cheap stream of high-quality American television programming. Yes, audiences might still tune in to watch the footy – live broadcasting being uniquely exempt from the pressures of the economics of the network – but even there the number of distribution choices is growing, with cable, satellite and IPTV all demanding a slice of the audience. Television isn’t dying, but it no longer guarantees returns. Time for Packer to turn his attention to the emerging commodity of the third millennium: experience. You can’t download experience: you can only live through it. For those who find the dopamine hit of a well-placed wager the experiential sine qua non, there Packer will be, Asia’s croupier, ready to collect his winnings. Who can blame him? He (and, undoubtedly, his well-paid advisors) have read the trend lines correctly: the mainstream media is dying, slowly starved of attention.

The transformation which led to the sale of NINE NETWORK is epochal, yet almost entirely subterranean. It isn’t as though everyone suddenly switched off the telly in favor of YouTube. It looks more like death from a thousand cuts: DVDs, video games, iPods, and YouTube have all steered eyeballs away from the broadcast spectrum toward something both entirely digital and (for that reason) ultimately pervasive. Chip away at a monolith long enough and you’re left with a pile of rubble and dust.

On a somewhat more modest scale, other media moguls in Australia have begun to hedge their bets. Kerry Stokes, the owner of Channel 7, made a strategic investment in Western Australia Publishing. NEWS Corporation, the original Australian media empire, purchased a minority stake in Fairfax, the nation’s largest newspaper publisher (and is eyeing a takeover of Canadian-owned Channel TEN). To see these broadcasters buying into newspapers, four decades after broadcast news effectively delivered death-blows to newspaper publishing, highlights the sense of desperation: they’re hoping that something, somewhere in the mainstream media will remain profitable. Yet there are substantial reasons to expect that these long-shot bets will fail to pay out.

II. The Vanilla Republic

It’s election season in America. Everyone must go! The mood of the electorate in the darkening days of 2006 could best be described as surly. An undercurrent of rage and exasperation afflicts the body politic. This may result in a left-wing shift in the American political landscape, but we’re still two weeks away from knowing. Whatever the outcome, this electoral cycle signifies another epochal change: the mainstream media have lost their lead as the reporters of political news. The public at large views the mainstream media skeptically – these were, after all, the same organizations which whipped the republic into a frenzied war-fever – and, with the regret typical of a very disgruntled buyer, Americans are refusing to return to the dealership for this year’s model. In previous years, this would have left voters in the dark: it was either the mainstream media or ignorance. But, in the two years since the Presidential election, the “netroots” movement has flowered into a vital and flexible apparatus for news reportage, commentary and strategic thinking. Although the netroots movement is most often associated with left-wing politics, both sides of the political spectrum have learned to harness blogs, wikis, feeds and hyperdistribution services such as YouTube for their own political ends. There is nothing quintessentially new about this; modern political parties, emerging in Restoration-era London, used printing presses, broadsheets and daily newspapers – freely deposited in the city’s thousands of coffeehouses – as the blogs of their era. Political news moved very quickly in 17th-century England, to the endless consternation of King Charles II and his censors.

When broadcast media monopolized all forms of reportage – including political reporting – the mass mind of the 20th-century slotted into a middle-of-the-road political persuasion. Neither too liberal, nor too conservative, the mainstream media fostered a “Vanilla Republic,” where centrist values came to dominate political discourse. Of course, the definition of “centrist” values is itself highly contentious: who defines the center? The right-wing decries the excesses of “liberal bias” in the media, while the left-wing points to the “agenda of the owners,” the multi-billionaire stakeholders in these broadcast empires. This struggle for control over the definition of the center characterized political debate at the dawn of the 21st-century – a debate which has now been eclipsed, or, more precisely, overrun by events.

In April 2004, Markos Moulitsas Zúniga, a US army veteran who had been raised in civil-war-torn El Salvador, founded dKosopedia, a wiki designed to be a clearing-house for all sorts of information relating to leftwing netroots activities. (The name is a nod to Wikipedia.) While the first-order effect of the network is to gather individuals together into a community, once the community has formed, it begins to explore the bounds of its collective intelligence. Political junkies are the kind of passionate amateurs who defy the neat equation of amateur as amateurish. While they are not professional – meaning that they are not in the employ of politicians or political parties – political junkies are intensely well-informed, regarding this as both a civic virtue and a moral imperative. Political junkies work not for power, but for the greater good. (That opposing parties in political debate demonize their opponents as evil is only to be expected given this frame of mind.) The greater good has two dimensions: to those outside the community, it is represented as us vs. them; internally, it is articulated through the community’s social network: those with particular areas of expertise are recognized for their contributions, and their standing in the community rises appropriately.

This same process transformed dKosopedia into Daily Kos (dKos), a political blog where any member can freely write entries – known as “diaries” – on any subject of interest, political, cultural or (more rarely) nearly anything else. The very best of these contributors became the “front page” authors of Daily Kos, their entries presented to the entire community; but part of the responsibility of a front-page contributor is that they must constantly scan the ever-growing set of diaries, looking for the best posts among them to “bump” to front-page status. (This article will be cross-posted to my dKos diary, and we’ll see what happens to it.) Any dKos member can make a comment on any post, so any community member – whether a regular diarist or regular reader – can add their input to the conversation. The strongly self-reinforcing behavior of participation encourages “Kossacks” (as they style themselves) to share, pool, and disseminate the wealth of information gathered by over two million readers. Daily Kos has grown nearly exponentially since its founding days, and looks to reach its highest traffic levels ever as the mid-term elections approach.

III. My Left Eyeball

Salience is the singular quality of information: how much does this matter to me? In a world of restricted media choices, salience is best-fit affair; something simply needs to be relevant enough to garner attention. In the era of hyperdistribution, salience is a laser-like quality; when there are a million sites to read, a million videos to watch, a million songs to listen to, individuals tailor their choices according to the specifics of their passions. Just a few years ago – as the number of media choices began to grow explosively – this took considerable effort. Today, with the rise of “viral” distribution techniques, it’s a much more straight-forward affair. Although most of us still rely on ad-hoc methods – polling our friends and colleagues in search of the salient – it’s become so easy to find, filter, and forward media through our social networks that we have each become our own broadcasters, transmitting our own passions through the network. Where systems have been organized around this principle – for instance, YouTube, or Daily Kos – this information flow is greatly accelerated, and the consequential outcomes amplified. A Sick Puppies video posted to YouTube gets four million views in a month, and ends up on NINE NETWORK’s 60 Minutes broadcast. A Democratic senatorial primary in Connecticut becomes the focus of national interest – a referendum on the Iraq war – because millions of Kossacks focus attention on the contest.

Attention engenders salience, just as salience engenders attention. Salience satisfied reinforces relationship; to have received something of interest makes it more likely that I will receive something of interest in the future. This is the psychological engine which powers YouTube and Daily Kos, and, as this relationship deepens, it tends to have a zero-sum effect on its participants’ attention. Minutes watching YouTube videos are advertising dollars lost to NINE NETWORK. Time spent reading Daily Kos are eyeballs and click-through lost to The New York Times. Furthermore, salience drives out the non-salient. It isn’t simply that a Kossack will read less of the Times, eventually they’ll read it rarely, if at all. Salience has been satisfied, so the search is over.

While this process seems inexorable, given the trends in media, only very recently has it become a ground-truth reality. Just this week I quipped to one of my friends – equally a dedicatee of Daily Kos – that I wanted “an IV drip of dKos into my left eyeball.” I keep the RSS feed of Daily Kos open all the time, waiting for the steady drip of new posts. I am, to some degree, addicted. But, while I always hunger for more, I am also satisfied. When I articulated the passion I now had for Daily Kos, I also realized that I hadn’t been checking the Times as frequently as before – perhaps once a day – and that I’d completely abandoned CNN. Neither website possessed the salience needed to hold my attention.

I am certainly more technically adept in than the average user of the network; my media usage patterns tend to lead broader trends in the culture. Yet there is strong evidence to demonstrate that I am hardly alone in this new era of salience. How do I know this? I recently received a link – through two blogs, Daily Kos and The Left Coaster – to a political campaign advertisment for Missouri senatorial candidate Claire McCaskill. The ad, featuring Michael J. Fox, diagnosed with a early-onset form of Parkinson’s Disease, clearly shows him suffering the worst effects of the disorder. Within a few hours after the ad went up on the McCaskill website, it had already been viewed hundreds of thousands, and probably millions of times. People are emailing the link to the ad (conveniently provided below the video window, to spur on viral distribution) all around the country, and likely throughout the world. “All politics is local,” Fox says. “But it’s not always the case.” This, in a nutshell, describes both the political and the media landscapes of the 21st-century. Nothing can be kept in a box. Everything escapes.

Twenty-five years ago, in The Third Wave, Alvin Toffler predicted the “demassification of media.” Looking at the ever-multiplying number of magazines and television channels, Toffler predicted a time when the mass market fragmented utterly, into an atomic polity, entirely composed of individuals. Writing before the Web (and before the era of the personal computer) he offered no technological explanation for how demassification would come to pass. Yet the trend lines seemed obvious.

The network has grown to cover every corner of the planet in the quarter-century since the publication of The Third Wave – over two billion mobile phones, and nearly a billion networked computers. A third of the world can be reached, and – more significantly – can reach out. Photographs of bombings in the London Underground, captured on mobile phone cameras, reach Flickr before they’re broadcast on the BBC. Islamic insurgents in Iraq videotape, encode and upload their IED attacks to filesharing networks. China fights an losing battle to restrict the free flow of information – while its citizens buy more mobile phones, every year, than the total number ever purchased in the United States. Give individuals a network, and – sooner, rather than later – they’ll become broadcasters.

One final, and crucial technological element completes the transition into the era of demassification – the release of Microsoft’s Internet Explorer version 7.0. Long delayed, this most important of all web browsers finally includes support for RSS – the technology behind “feeds.” Suddenly, half a billion PC users can access the enormous wealth of individually-produced and individually-tailored news resources which have grown up over the last five years. But they can also create their own feeds, either by aggregating resources they’ve found elsewhere, or by creating new ones. The revolution that began with Gutenberg is now nearly complete; while the Web turned the network into a printing press, RSS gives us the ability to hyperdistribute publications so that anyone, anywhere, can reach everyone, everywhere.

Now all is dissolution. The mainstream media will remain potent for some time, centers for the creation of content, but they must now face the rise of the amateurs: a battle of hundreds versus billions. To compete, the media must atomize, delivering discrete chunks of content through every available feed. They will be forced to move from distribution to seduction: distribution has been democratized, so only the seduction of salience will carry their messages around the network. But the amateurs are already masters of this game, having grown up in an environment where salience forms the only selection pressure. This is the time of the amateur, and this is their chosen battlefield. The outcome is inevitable. Deck chairs, meet Titanic.

Understanding Gilmore’s Law

“The Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it.”
– John Gilmore

I

Gilmore’s Law, one of the most poorly understood principles of the era of connected intelligence, is about to zoom into prominence, as the only way to make sense of a number of convergent trends. This week we saw both Kim Beazley (leader of Australia’s Labor party, currently in opposition) and Helen Coonan (Australia’s Minister for Communications, who once quipped, “Digital is the new black”) announce their support for an nation-wide Internet “filter,” designed to block “obscene and violent” content from reaching the web browsers of Australia’s three million children. Minister Coonan had previously opposed such a filter, arguing that it would seriously cripple Australian’s Internet access, but there’s no stopping the march of the “Net Nannies,” with their cries of Won’t somebody think of the children? and endless statistics on the prevalence of pornographic materials online. While one could engage in a fierce intellectual argument about the origins of “innocence” in the Modern age – children in the Mediaeval period slept in the same bed their parents, were confronted with public nudity on a daily basis, and, in general, inhabited a culture whose coarseness would offend nearly all of us moderns – there’s no way any argument can defeat the innate desire to protect the young. Much better then, to take a more direct approach, and send politicians and parents the same message: it simply won’t work. You can’t break Gilmore’s Law.

John Gilmore formulated his law more than a decade ago, in a world somewhat different from the one which confronts us now: when only a few tens of millions of people surfed the web, instead of a billion; in the golden age of Web 1.0; in the world before September 11th. China was rising, but had not fully arrived on the world stage. Only a few universities and large corporations had connections faster than dial-up modems. Most of what we think of as life online did not exist. And yet, because Gilmore understood the basic principles at work on the net – and as one of the co-founders of SUN, purveyors of the first intrinsically networked computer, he ought to have – he had the capacity to synthesize a whole range of intuitions about net logic into a simple declaration.

Richard Stallman famously claimed, “Information wants to be free.” The truth is somewhat more complex. Instead, we might say that information seeks to preserve itself, and the best way to do that is by replication. Multiple copies of the same information are better than a single copy – at least as far as the information is concerned. While it might seem philosophically questionable to invoke an entelechy of information, as if it possessed some inner life of its own, much of the modern theory of evolutionary biology rests on this foundation. Our genes, bearers of the bits which define us, do seek to replicate and reproduce themselves endlessly. If Richard Dawkins can claim that a chicken is an egg’s way of making more eggs, Richard Stallman can legitimately talk about the agency of information. Once some bit of information exists, it becomes increasingly likely, over time, that this information will be replicated. (Just as with a backup of your computer’s hard drive, having one copy of it is good, but having two copies is better.)

While Gilmore undoubtedly incorporated this axiom into his Law, he focused his own philosophical postulate on the network itself. Unlike information, the network is an active entity. The reason that the Internet exists, the reason it is so reliable and so efficient, is because it possesses agency of itself. Each part of the Internet is designed to be fantastically resilient: if any part fails, other parts of the network will adapt to the failure, sending their messages around the damaged components. This was a design goal of the Internet, back when it was a project of the US Department of Defense: a network which could recover from its failures might survive a nuclear war relatively intact. This is the essential feature of the Internet. It’s not so much about getting bits from point A to point B – that’s easy – but to do so under any conceivable circumstance. Kill one part of the Internet, and another part will smoothly fill the gap. This is why Internet-wide outages have never occurred; there have been attacks, and failures of portions of the Internet, but, as a whole, it remains reliable, because it has the capacity to recognize failures and remedy them.

II

Gilmore’s insight combined Stallman’s statement about the agency of information with the designed intent of the Internet. Consider: Information wants to be copied. The computers which are used to copy this information are connected together in a resilient network – the Internet. In order to stop the copying of information, you’d have to break the Internet – and that’s practically impossible. Human agency has nothing to do with this, except in its origins: we may have created this information, and we may have created the Internet, but – once information and Internet meet – there’s no more room for human agency. The information will be copied, freely and reliably. That’s why censorship is practically impossible.

Many people have pointed to the “Great Firewall of China” as an example of a violation of Gilmore’s Law. And yes, the Chinese do broadly censor their Internet, by directing all Internet traffic to their nation through a single choke-point, where computers and humans examine it for faithfulness to party doctrine. If a site is deemed inconsistent with Communist Party beliefs, the site is blocked. But don’t be fooled: this is not censorship, this is monitoring. When something is censored, people are unable to gain access to it. Yet every Chinese net surfer of any skill knows precisely how – using a broad array of techniques – to thwart the Great Firewall. There are many sites on the Internet which document precisely how to do this, and it’s not even particularly hard. It’s time to say it: this emperor wears no clothes. The Great Firewall of China doesn’t actually work; it’s just that if you evade it, you’ll be subject to arrest, and possibly shot. That’s not censorship, that’s dictatorship. Even the Chinese, for all their enormous efforts, have to resort to the threat of force to defeat the inexorable dictates of Gilmore’s Law.

All efforts toward censorship inevitably surrender to Gilmore’s Law. The biggest blog on Earth, Boing Boing, has recently run afoul of Secure Computing Corporation’s SmartFilter, a piece of software known as “censorware”, because it blocks access to sites deemed obscene, violent or otherwise unacceptable. Because roughly one half of one percent of the imagery posted to Boing Boing consists of naked human beings – mind you, these are not pornographic images, just naked bodies – SmartFilter has placed Boing Boing onto its list of blocked sites. This was recognized when Boing Boing readers in the United Arab Emirates noted they could no longer reach the site. SmartFilter has contracts to filter the Internet traffic of entire nations, as well as numerous other deals with corporations and individuals. When contacted by Boing Boing, SmartFilter suggested techniques Boing Boing might adopt to appropriately rate their content, so that individual posts could be filtered, while keeping the majority of the site available. After due consideration, Boing Boing rejected this approach as inconsistent with their basic philosophy (because they do understand Gilmore’s Law), and instead, went on the offensive, asking their readers – there are nearly two million of them – to contribute their own suggestions on ways to defeat SmartFilter. Within a few days a page of suggestions and techniques, provided by its readership, ended up on the Boing Boing web site. This page has itself been replicated throughout the Internet, to sites which aren’t blocked by SmartFilter, and so, in this way, SmartFilter’s block of Boing Boing has become a minor annoyance – but is no longer censorship.

This is Gilmore’s Law at work, through the combined agency of networks and people: the damage was detected, and, very quickly, techniques were developed to route around it. Furthermore, when you multiply the innate tendencies of networks to route around damage by the creative capabilities of millions of readers acting in concert as a “swarm,” the product dramatically outweighs any effort to censor information. The swarm is always smarter, faster and more adept than any actor which seeks to thwart it. That’s the engine driving Gilmore’s Law.

III

What is censorship? At an essential level, it’s someone saying, “Here’s some information. I won’t let you have it.” The reasons for the censorship are unimportant. This is perhaps the most poorly understood aspect of Gilmore’s Law. Gilmore’s Law isn’t a pronouncement on politics or morality; it’s a scientific statement. Only one condition needs to be satisfied: someone must be in possession of some information (on the Internet) which is being withheld. Once that condition has been satisfied, Gilmore’s Law comes into play.

In this sense, Digital Rights Management (DRM) – which seeks to protect the copyright of information through various encryption and authentication techniques – represents an economic form of censorship. And, just as with political and moral censorship, economic censorship is doomed to fail, because of Gilmore’s Law. Every attempt to “lock” information behind walls of commerce has been systematically thwarted; the creators and purveyors of these locks have been confronted, at every turn, by a swarm of people who are smarter, faster and more adept than the locksmiths themselves. The only way to keep information secure is to refrain from putting it onto the Internet. Once any locked information is placed onto the Internet, the lock is perceived as damage, the lock is picked, and the information is then free to replicate. That this lock-picking is illegal (because of the political and economic power of copyright holders) is as immaterial as a Chinese citizen circumventing the Great Firewall (backed by the political power of the Communist Party); in other words, both locks only maintain their integrity through the threat of force.

We’re seeing a dramatic increase in these attempts at censorship – political, moral and economic. CBS was recently fined $3,600,000 by the US Federal Communications Commission for “indecency” in a broadcast of the drama Without a Trace. This sanction is possible only because the FCC asserts a monopoly control over the broadcast spectrum: if CBS does not comply with the ruling, they’ll lose their coveted broadcast licenses. But CBS has an alternative; they are already selling their shows through Google Video, and could easily reach millions more viewers through Apple’s iTunes Music Store. Because of Gilmore’s Law, Internet distribution may be subject to censorship in name, but never in fact. Anything CBS wants to distribute, however prurient, can be delivered through the Internet. Images of Abu Ghraib prison, which could not be shown by the US media, because of a lawsuit filed by the US Department of Defense, were broadcast in Australia and quickly found their way to US viewers, via the Internet. George Lucas’ Revenge of the Sith – tightly guarded by FOX Studios, the film’s distributor – was freely available on Internet file-sharing networks even before the film had premiered in theatres. Every attempt to lock away information is failing, because it is in the nature of information to reproduce itself freely.

Finally, another threat of censorship looms on the horizon, the threat of altering the Internet itself, an attempt to modify its basic function as a system for the replication of information. On the 23rd of March, the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, Kevin Martin, announced that he favored a proposal, floated by US telecommunications giant AT&T, for a “tiered” Internet. The essence of the proposal is this: the largest carriers of Internet traffic would entitle themselves to a “tariff” levied on the Internet’s biggest sites – sites such as Google, Yahoo!, and Microsoft. Sites that refuse to pay this tariff would be reduced to “second-class citizen” status, their network traffic transmitted more slowly – if at all – across the vast commercial networks controlled by these telecommunications giants. As more than a few commentators have pointed out, this is nothing more than extortion – as if a thug wandered into Google’s Redwood Shores headquarters and mused, “It’d be a shame if your offices happened to burn down, wouldn’t it?”

As expected, Google and the other major sites are fighting this proposal, but they’ll probably lose the battle, as they’re political neophytes, while the telecommunications carriers have a century of political experience – and patronage – to draw upon. Fortunately, it won’t matter. Gilmore’s Law will come to the rescue. A tiered Internet represents yet another form of censorship, an attempt to fetter the passage of bits trying to get from point A to point B. Insofar as any telecommunications carrier is successful in slowing the flow of bits, they’ll be signing their own death warrants. In an age of pervasive, cheap and fast wireless communication, any block on the wire (and that’s all the carriers control) will inevitably result in the rapid development of wireless mesh networks, unconstrained by the artificial economies of scarcity of a tiered Internet. Thus, the more that carriers tighten their grip, the more customers will slip through their fingers. A tiered Internet isn’t just bad business practice, it originates from a fundamentally flawed understanding of just what the Internet is. It is not a service that can be switched on and off, or turned up and down; it’s a force that, like gravity, exerts an attraction everywhere, one that can not be resisted. And, like gravity, the Internet has its own inexorable laws. Gilmore’s Law is just the first, and we’ve yet to plumb its full expression. There will be others, and as we divine them, we’ll learn what Samuel Morse meant when he asked, “What hath God wrought?”

In Medium Rez

I

Although Apple introduced its Video iPod at the end of 2005, this is the year when video begins to take off. Everywhere. The sheer profusion of devices which can play video – from iPods to desktop and laptop computers to Sony’s Playstation Portable, the Nintendo DS, and nearly all current-generation mobile phones – means that people will be watching more video, in more places, than ever before. You may not want to watch that episode of “Desperate Housewives” on your iPod – unless you happened to be tied up last Monday evening, and forgot to program your VCR. Then you’ll be glad you can. Sure, the picture is small and grainy, the sound’s a bit tinny, and your arms will get tired holding that screen in front of your face for an hour, but these drawbacks mean nothing to a true fan. And the true fans will lead this revolution.

We’re growing comfortable with the idea that screens are everywhere, that we can – in the time it takes to ride the train to work – get caught up on our favorite stories, the last World Cup match, and the news of the world. A generation ago it seemed odd to see someone in public wearing earphones; today it’s a matter of course. This afternoon it might seem odd to see someone staring into their mobile phone; tomorrow it will seem perfectly normal.

II

Now that video is everywhere, it won’t be long until the business of television moves online. Already, Apple has sold close to ten million episodes of television series like “Lost” and “The Office”. Google wants to sell you episodes of the original “Star Trek”, “The Brady Bunch” and “CSI”. For television producers it’s a win-win; they’ve already sold the episodes to broadcast networks – generally for a bit less than they cost to make – so the online sales are extra and vital dollars to cover the gap between loss and profit.

Today only a few of the hundreds of series shown in the US, UK and Australia are available for sale online. By the end of this year, most of them will be. Will the broadcast networks like this? Yes and no. It deprives them of some of the power they hold over the audience – to gather them at one place and time, eyeballs for advertisers – but it also creates new audiences: people see an episode online, and decide to tune in for the next one. That’s something we’ve already seen – “The Office”, for example, spiked upward in broadcast ratings after it was offered online. This year, there’s likely to be another breakout television hit – a new “Lost” – which starts its life online.

III

Once video is everywhere, once all our favorite television shows are available online for download, we’ll learn something else: there’s a lot more out there than just those shows produced for broadcast. On sites like Google Video and YouTube, you can already download tens of thousands of short- and full-length television programs. Some of them are woefully amateur productions, the kind that make you cringe in horror, but others – and there are more and more of these – are as funny and dramatic as anything you might see on broadcast television. Think TropFest – but a thousand times bigger.

Once we get used to the idea that television is something they can download, we’ll find ourselves drawn to these other, more unusual offerings. Most of this fare isn’t ready for prime-time. Much of it is only meant for a tight circle of friends and aficionados. But some of it will break through, and get audiences in the millions. It’s already happened a few times in the last year; this year it will become so common that, by the end of 2006, we’ll think nothing of it at all. This thought scares both the broadcast networks and the commercial TV producers. After all, if we’re spending our time watching something created by four kids in Goulburn, that’s time we’re not watching commercially-produced entertainment. And how do the networks compete with that?

IV

This fundamental transformation in how we find and watch entertainment isn’t confined to video. It’s happening to all other media, simultaneously. More people listen to the podcasts of Radio National than listen to the live broadcast; more people read the Sydney Morning Herald online than read the print edition. And these are just the professional offerings. As with television, each of these media are facing a rising sea of competition – from amateurs. Apple offers tens of thousands of podcasts through its iTunes Music Store – including Radio National – on just about any topic under the sun, from the mundane to the truly bizarre. You can get “feeds” of news from Fairfax – headlines and links to online versions of the stories – but you can also get that any of several thousand news-oriented blogs. Click a few buttons and the news is automatically downloaded to your computer, every half hour.

As it gets easier and easier for us to choose exactly what we want to watch, hear and read, the commercial and national broadcasters find themselves facing the “death of a thousand cuts.” Every pair of ears listening to a podcast is an audience member who won’t show up in the ratings. Every subscriber to an “amateur” news feed is a subscriber lost to a newspaper. And this trend is just beginning. In another decade, we’ll wonder how we lived without all this choice.

V

Choice is a beautiful thing. We define ourselves by the choices we make: what we do, who we know, what we fill our leisure time with. Now that our media is everywhere, available from everyone, any hour of the day or night, we’re going to find ourselves confronted by an unexpected problem: rather than trying to decide what to watch on five terrestrial broadcast channels – or fifty cable channels – we’ll have to pick from an ocean of a million different programs; even if most of them aren’t all that appealing, at least a few thousand will be, at any point in time.

That kind of choice will make us all a little bit crazy, because we’ll always be wondering if, just now, something better isn’t out there, waiting for us to download it. Like the channel surfer who sits, remote in hand, flipping through the channels, hoping for something to catch his eye, we’re going to be flipping through hundreds of thousands and then millions of choices of things to watch, hear and read. We’re going to be drowning in possibilities. And the pressure – to keep up, to be informed, to be on the tip – is about to create the most savvy generation of media consumers the world has ever seen.

We’re drowning in choice, but, because of that, we’ll figure out how to share what we know about what’s good. We already receive lots of email from friends and family with links to the best things they’ve found online. That’s going to continue, and accelerate; our circles of friends are becoming our TV programmers, our radio DJs, our newspaper editors, and we’ll return the favor. The media of the 21st century are created by us, edited by us, and broadcast by us. That’s a deep change, and a permanent one.