Why do the Knaves have all the money? People consume more stories, more music, more video, more writing and more user-generated and professionally made content than ever before. Digital media, in all of its forms, are in their heyday. Demand for content has never been so strong. On the face of it, you would think that more content producers would be making more money than was ever possible before, but they aren’t. So who is making the money from all this media commerce?
Names like Apple, Amazon, Spotify, Pandora, Netflix and so on will be offered routinely. In fact, Apple’s content delivery business is now bigger than their laptop/desktop business. It seems that the delivery companies are making more money than the producers collectively are. Imagine if that were the case with physical products. The delivery van would be a Rolls Royce and the chauffer would open the door for the delivery guy. Something is wrong here and the phenomenon needs an explanation.
Jaron Lanier, in his book “Who Owns the Future?” provides a pretty cogent argument for what’s going on. By insisting that information needs to be free, we’ve set the price of content at zero, even though it clearly has value (and, arguably, increasing value). Meanwhile, the guys that actually deliver the content to you, with their massive servers (he calls them “Siren Servers”, because they lead you into peril and onto the rocks), are extracting all the value of everybody having greater access to content. We love free content, it seems, until we want to make a living producing it.
By sticking it to the man, we’ve managed to stick it to ourselves.
So, the content delivery guys make all the money, either by capturing the lion’s share of the purchase price of paid for on-line media, through subscription charges, from advertising (selling your time and attention without paying you for it) or by selling your behavioural data (more user generated content, in fact) to the spies and other exploiters that want to get inside your head and predict what you will buy.
The counter argument to the current situation is that content ought not to be free, but it doesn’t have to be quite so expensive as it used to be either. After all, producers are able to reach consumers directly, without middle men, promotions, warehousing, distribution, production or retail, like physical products must have. Yes, there are distribution and warehousing equivalents, in digital media. They’re called servers and we’ve let a couple of dozen companies own and operate all of them. We’ve handed them a monopoly. The crucial difference is that if you have to pay for content, then you ought to be paid for content you contribute too. Everything you post, in fact. Music, poetry, memes, whatever.
I think the future lies in overlay peer to peer networks and a change in culture. If we accept that content has value, that we should pay for it, if we wish to be paid for ours (including all those free reviews and witticisms we post routinely) and that content shouldn’t be as expensive as it was when it was carried on plastic, via the physical delivery paths of the past, then it ought to be possible to run viable media commerce over a peer to peer network. People might steal the media, but only if they want their own content to be worthless too. The alternative is that we all get paid something for everything we produce, digitally, and we all make reasonable livings from being creative.
So we can continue to enrich content delivery channels, donating content we make to keep them solvent, or we can boycott digital media entirely and produce nothing (but also consume nothing, too), or we can choose a third way, which is to pay for and be paid for the media we make, diluting the value of having a monopoly over digital distribution and media commerce. If we owned the means of storage and distribution, as we would over the peer to peer network and added a layer that takes care of payments to and from each of us, directly, then we could do away with the Siren Servers entirely. Those with data centres would be paid for their carriage of digital media only, not for the entire value of the content they deliver and hold, nor for the value of our behaviours and privacy to spies and other merchants. Only the third way seems acceptable, to me. The choice is ours to make.