The Language Barrier

News.com: “The vast potential of broadband has so far benefited nobody as clearly as it’s benefited downloaders of pornography and pirates of digital content,” [News Corp. President Peter] Chernin told an audience of about 200.

Herein lies the conflict between Hollywood and the technology industry in a nutshell. One sees content as the critical resource, and data networks as simply another mechanism to deliver it. The other sees connectivity as the essential factor, with movies being one of many resources that can travel along those connections. Hollywood sees a moral dimension in protecting its property and the creative works of its artists, as well as a nobility in bringing entertainment to the masses. The tech industry things bits are bits, and the only moral value that really matters is freedom.

For the Peter Chernins of the world, content is a calling, while distribution is just a business. The relevant players should sit across a table and hash out the numbers, because broadband has “vast potential” as a way to connect audiences with content. Porn and piracy, in his view, sully the medium. The tech community views things differently. From its perspective, networking is a calling, while commercial activity riding on the network is just business. We should find ways to make those businesses viable, but never at the cost of damaging the “vast potential” of broadband to tie people together innovative, disruptive ways. Go read David Weinberger’s book, Small Pieces, Loosely Joined for a wonderful ellucidation of this worldview. Both sides feel moral indignation, for the simple reason that they have different moral hierarchies.

These two communities could coexist when they inhabited largely different worlds. During the Internet boom, the technologists were ascendant, so Hollywood had to play along, though its online efforts largely failed. Now, thanks to the economic crash, consolidation of the media industry, and the long-awaited rise of broadband, these strange bedfellows are finding themselves thrown together. It’s not a pretty sight.

There’s one company that has a chance to bridge the gap between content and computing. It’s AOL Time Warner. Everyone is writing off the merger as a failure, and so far it has been. But the company could rise again if it could somehow make the compomises internally that haven’t been made externally between the tech and content industries. Put Jamie Kellner, who knows how to run a profitable content business but holds the laughable view that failing to watch commercials is stealing, in the same room with the Merry Pranksters of Nullsoft, who are great at creating disruptive technology but don’t have a business model. See if they can find some common ground. Do the same with the record label, the movie studio, the cable network, and the online service. Maybe we’ll get somewhere.

Right now, these communities aren’t speaking the same language. As far as I’m concerned, Peter Chernin is talking in Swahili. It’s not that I think he’s wrong, it’s that I know his assumptions and definitions are completely different from my own. And as Larry Lessig rightly points out, most members of Congress speak Chernin’s language.

Stewart Brand had it right. Everyone remembers that he said, “information wants to be free.” In the mainstream history of dotcom mania, that got transmuted into, “information should be free, because we’ll make it up on volume,” which turned out to be a fallacy. But that’s not the same thing, and in any event, the real story of the Internet boom is more complicated. What everyone forgets (and what Stewart will remind you of, if you bother to ask), is that there was a second half to the aphorism. “Information,” he said, “also wants to be expensive.” And you know what, it’s true. We’re still working out that conflict, almost 20 years after he made the observation. Only now the stakes are higher than ever.