Disposable Content

cleopatrav3.jpg

the burning of the Great Library at Alexandria… the MGM version…

This morning we had a meeting with the head of one of the largest newspaper groups in the world, based in the UK.

We were early…(which I think is a good thing for meetings like this).

And so to kill time we lingered in the lobby, which was filled with, needless to say, newspapers.

Newspapers are remarkable things. Later in our meeting, the CEO would comment on how newspapers are the original non-linear delivery system. You can move from item to item with great ease..then come back to something you find interesting.

While that is true, I was struck by something else: the piles of paper. Great mountains of it. And free (at least for those visiting the office). Outside, great mountains of newspaper filled with content were on sale for £.35 (or about 70 cents). A real deal, if you think about it.

We live in a sea of paper.

It is so cheap that we buy a Sunday Times, read a few articles and throw the rest away.

It is so cheap that we cover the walls of our homes with it, throw it out without thought, and in this country use it to serve fish and chips.

It was not always so.

In antiquity, paper was so expensive and difficult and complex to make that one might rarely see a piece of it in a lifetime.

Think for a moment of a world without paper.

What would it be like?

No books, no magazines, no newspapers, no billboards, no menus, no paper towels, no post notes.. not nothing. Cheap paper, often unheralded, is in many ways the backbone of our culture. Were paper expensive, we would treat it very differently.

In ancient Rome, paper was made from papyrus in a long and difficult process. The word paper itself is derived from papyrus. Books or scrolls existed, but they were expensive and fragile and guarded with great care.

For almost two millenia, paper has been the platform both for the creation of content, its distribution and the storage of intellectual property. The destruction of the Library at Alexandria (some say by Caesar, some say by Christians and some say by Muslims) was a shattering tragedy because of the rarity and irreplaceable nature of what was lost.

Andy Grove, the former CEO of Intel postulated that in the not too distant future computing power would be as inexpensive and ubiquitious as paper is today. That is, we would be able to cover the walls of our houses with computer processors and throw away computers after one minor use (like the Sunday paper).

There is no doubt that this is going to happen. Moore’s Law continues to remain a constant, and a recent study by IBM indicated that soon the greatest expense in computing will not be the cost of the computer, but rather the power to run it – a bit like lightbulbs.

As processing power and delivery platforms become the analogue of paper, will our own ability to create content in video and other processor-driven media keep up with the almost free nature of creativity that will become available to us?

2 responses to “Disposable Content

  1. Isn’t news sort of disposable at its very nature?

    I would think that the quick progression to virtual media for news and lots of other things is the obvious end simply for economic reasons, if not for more noble reasons such as news credibility, balance, and relevance.

    The market knows what it likes, and votes with its feet.

    That said, the first thing that came to mind when I read this blog was the “disposable” cell phone. It seemed like a good idea. Why buy an expensive phone that you can loose and have to charge, if you can just pay a single price and throw the thing away at the end.

    But nobody bought them. The prices of “regular” phones dropped such that the features on them could never replace those on the disposables. I used to carry a Palm Pilot for all my contacts and appointments. It’s all on the cell now.

    Certainly, technologies that were beyond the ken of mortal man just a few years ago are now so cheap as to be disposable. As one example, RFID tags are now so cheap that they are stuck in nearly everything (my cat has one implanted in her shoulder) for several years now as a theft deterrent. Wal Mart desperately wants every product in the store to have one, so you can simply walk through a station with your cart, and the thing will automatically ring up all your purchases at once. It will take longer to print your receipt than to scan your items. No cashier necessary.

    So I think there will be a sort of “homeostasis” between things that we want to throw away (like virtual news items) and those that we will use a lot, such as those mentioned above, as well as things like a virtual wallpaper or tabletop to deliver the virtual stuff; all of which is controlled by the desires of the consumers and the price points that can be maintained.

    Instead of more disposable “stuff,” we’ll have replacements that aren’t “stuff” at all. Some things that take more than one item in the tangible world will be integrated into a virtual system, much as my Mac can play or make a dvd, play CD’s, send email, produce video, take pictures, compose music; all things that just recently had to be done by separate devices.

    We humans still like to hold “stuff.” If we can hold or have some “thing” that we don’t have to throw away but does whatever we want it to better than the virtual alternative (from a human’s perspective, not a strictly empirical one), then I think the tangible will win.

    If we like to hold stuff so much, then why do I think that will the virtual take over for many, many things?

    One reason is that virtual things are paid for once one copy is made. For example, you can sell a zillion copies of a Shakira song on iTunes at the exact same production cost of selling one because technology has made the distribution cost negligible.

    Another reason is that it often takes many fewer people to make something virtual. Also, there are often no production inputs like steel, paper, paint, CD blanks, etc., and one machine can do the job of many different ones. I could create a news item, or a video game, or a movie, etc. on this one Mac. I could also write a book on it (which is what this post is turning into, sorry).

    Think about those books in the photo above: Do you want to read an e-book? So far nobody wants to at all. We want to hold it and turn the pages. The virtual can’t compete at any price. I don’t think it ever will.

    Last Thursday’s newscast about the traffic crash on I-95 is disposable Friday morning. My copy of “The Moveable Feast,” isn’t going anywhere.

    Jim

  2. The great thing about virtual media is that it’s easier to create a physical copy (take an ebook and print it to actual paper – Not quite so easy with video but I guess burning it to DVD could be considered an equivalent).

    The sheeple in this country tend to forget quickly about the things that matter the most and remember the things that matter the least.

    That’s what a disposable society breeds.

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