Thursday, March 25, 2010

Irony is Alive and Well and Living in Las Vegas

It is more than a little ironic that a city sustained by the business of getting other people to lose their assets willingly should host a panel discussion on maintaining property rights. It is even more ironic that, since wanting to lose money requires a certain detachment of the intellect, the property rights being discussed were those of intellectual property. However, that is the sort of thing that happens when a large trade show comes to Las Vegas and a bunch of high-profile people discover that audiences would rather listen to their opinions than feed hungry slot machines.

To be less elliptical, consider a portion of Marguerite Reardon's coverage today from CTIA 2010 for CNET Reviews:

[James] Cameron [director of the film Avatar, for those who have been under a rock for the last few months] joined Twitter co-founder Biz Stone, CNBC Anchor Michelle Caruso-Cabrera, and U.S. Chief Technology Officer Aneesh Chopra for a discussion at the CTIA 2010 tradeshow Thursday morning. The group, assembled at the wireless industry's largest gathering in the U.S., discussed a range of topics from Internet piracy to using Twitter to promote free speech to Net Neutrality to Google's exit from the Chinese market.

But the most interesting part of the discussion centered around Cameron's thoughts on digital piracy and how new technologies, such as high-definition 3D video, can create new experiences for viewers and drive demand.

He said the music industry made a critical mistake by trying to stop piracy instead of innovating to give consumers new experiences that the industry could use to generate more money.

"The music industry saw it coming, they tried to stop it, and they got rolled over," he said. "Then they started suing everybody. And now it is what it is."

Instead, Cameron said he has tried to innovate to give movie goers a reason to go to theater. And in creating a rich, "reinvigorated cinema experience," Cameron said he discovered that people are willing to pay money to experience the same content in different ways. Not only are they willing to pay $10 or more to see Avatar on the big screen in 3D, but they also will pay to own the DVD and to take it with them on their phone or portable device.

"People are discriminating about the experience," he said. "They want to own it, have it on a iPhone when they want it, and they want the social experience of going to the cinema. These are really different experiences. And I think they can all co-exist in the same eco-system."

Cameron said the fact that people are still going to the theater to see Avatar now nearly four months after it was released supports his conclusion. He said he has had several discussions with the movie studio trying to figure out when to release the DVD of the movie. Typically DVD's are released after the film has left movie theaters. But he said since people are still going to see the movie in the theater, they decided to release the DVD next month with the movie still playing in some cinemas. The movie will also be available soon on iTunes.

Consider how many times the word "experience" appears in the above text. Consider then my rant on Tuesday about "transmedia storytelling." Recall that the rant was grounded on an underlying failure to recognize the distinction between an act and an experience and combine that failure with Walter Benjamin's despair that "the art of storytelling is coming to an end."

Let's not kid ourselves. Avatar is all about having an experience. Even in a publication as elevated as The New York Review, Daniel Mendelsohn could barely conceal his ecstasy over the experience before getting down to the nuts and bolts of the narrative, at which time he made it clear that there were precious few (if any) nuts or bolts. If the art of storytelling is coming to an end, it is because storytellers who once knew better words have discovered that it is more profitable to build theme park rides, particularly now that you can "experience" the ride without going to a theme park. So perhaps Benjamin really did call it right; he just made the call three-quarters of a century too soon.

Of course the sorts of storytellers that Benjamin had in mind never had to grapple with concepts like "intellectual property" that would be vulnerable to piracy. Storytelling was supposed to be an act that united a community, rather than dividing it through fights over who got how big a slice from which pie. What mattered to Benjamin was not a product to be safeguarded but an activity to be encouraged; and, as I suggested earlier this month, these two concepts are in dialectical opposition.

Let me try to consider this from the position of one who believes that stories still have value. From that position I would argue that Cameron believes that the best way to protect the storyteller's "well wrought urn" from piracy (which presumes that the storyteller wants it protected) is to smash it to bits and replace it with a dog-walking-on-its-hind-legs "experience" that is extremely difficult to replicate. I am willing to honor his logic, but that does not mean that I have to stomach it. Fortunately, I am out there at a significant distance down the long tail. People who live by balance sheets neither know nor care how I spend that money that is not set aside for food, clothing, or shelter. The good news is that, for all of my remoteness, I still live in a city where I never have to worry about a lack of satisfying "experiences," many of which involve novel encounters. So it is easy for me to let Cameron continue to make his rather prosperous living by innovating virtual theme park rides, as least as long as his activities do not jeopardize my own!

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