Wednesday, September 30, 2009

What Will the Internet Become to Whom?

It has always seemed to me that Barry Diller has tried to keep a low profile. He strikes me as someone more concerned with running his business than with indulging in subjunctive speculations about how businesses of the future will be (or ought to be ) run. I thus found it interesting that he should go on a rant over the "information wants to be free" mantra on CBS News. The outburst was documented by Jonathan Skillings for CNET News as follows:

In Barry Diller's paleontological view of the Internet, we're still just coming out of the primordial ooze and slouching toward the "click to buy" button.

The IAC/InterActiveCorp CEO and self-professed opportunist, rather impatiently told CBS News' Katie Couric earlier this week that the day is coming when people will regularly pay for content. As he has before, he trotted out the example of Apple, which has managed turn its iTunes store into a "multimillion-dollar business" based on the once-heretical notion of asking people to spend money on digital music and video.

"We're still so young at this," Diller said of where the world is on the Internet timeline. "We don't even have, really, a first real generation. We're just kinda getting one."

In due time, he said, content companies will be unburdened of "this mythology of 'the Internet is free,'" which was perpetrated by a seemingly prehistoric tribe that cared only about bandwidth and availability.

"The Internet, you have to remember, was started by tech people," Diller said.

That last declaration is an interesting kicker, primarily because of its irrelevance. Perhaps in the course of sticking to his business, Diller never had much time for Peter Drucker, who made one of the most persuasive arguments that those who initiate rarely have much say in the future of what they have initiated.

I might have let this whole kerfuffle pass unnoticed had I not attended a talk that Thomas Hampson gave yesterday evening at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music in conjunction with members of the Library of Congress with whom he has been working closely on his Song of America Project. The Library of Congress, just like any other public library, is a free resource; or, to be more accurate, it is a resource we pay for through our taxes. I can go into the San Francisco Public Library to check out CDs, DVDs, and sheet music, not to mention the books I read. The Library of Congress may have greater limitations on what I can check out, since I live in San Francisco; but I certainly do not have to pay for access to any of their performing arts resources when I am physically at their site.

I am not sure that the Library of Congress has a uniform policy; but Hampson clearly has a personal conviction that, if one is studying music through the Internet, one should be able to listen to that music. Thus, if one's studies take one to a public library facility, then Internet access to that library's resources should be as free as physical access. I support his conviction, which is why I gave this post its somewhat convoluted title. Having recently written about the irreconcilable differences that are now surfacing in the wake of the mess that rampant capitalism has made of globalization, it seems to be fair now to raise the possibility that such rampant capitalism will soon have to confront irreconcilable differences over the future of the Internet. Those who live by capitalism (and Barry Diller is an excellent example) see the Internet strictly as an opportunity for revenue, a way to confront the decline of traditional revenue sources such as manufacturing. These guys just do not live in the same world as those who were "present at the creation" of the Internet (and its most significant predecessor, Usenet), who realized that they were approaching a major breakthrough in making knowledge sharable; and, to put the difference in its most hyperbolic terms, those who aspired to that breakthrough are about as capable of having a productive conversation with the capitalists as George W. Bush would be in having a conversation with Osama bin Laden.

The problem with irreconcilable differences is that the different parties ultimately reduce everything to who takes which side (the strategy that Newt Gingrich applied in getting the Republicans to wrest power from the Clinton Administration). Having such a fight over the Internet could well unravel the value that the technology can bring to both sides. Part of the problem is that institutions that once were regarded as public trusts have been transmogrified by that rampant capitalism into next-generation industries. Health care is probably the most obvious example of such transformation right now; but this is also the crux of the argument that Muhammad Yunus has tried to make that the financial sector should be based on a non-profit business model. Thus the irreconcilable differences between the capitalists and the scholars may ultimately be resolved by the attrition of the scholars.

Back in June I told a joke about how a friend of mine had reacted to C. P. Snow's Two Cultures thesis:

There is only one culture; the problem is that the other one does not realize it!

This seems to capture nicely the way in which the capitalist culture feels about the scholar culture. It is nicely reinforced by the history-is-bunk philosophy of Henry Ford. Now it seems that the vision of the Internet as the embodiment of the library of the future of which Vannevar Bush once dreamed has been dismissed as bunk by Barry Diller. I just hope the Library of Congress can continue to hang tough in their convictions of what a library should be and their efforts to extend those convictions to the Internet.

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