“The price of nothing”

February 21st, 2013

Kim Dotcom

Kim Dotcom has a new service, with features that Forbes calls “See No Evil, Store No Evil”. But perhaps that should be “see no value, store no value”.

I have not come to mock the rotund self-promoter, but rather to talk about what might happen if its users were to throw themselves at the service to share copyrighted content. But first, a history lesson.

One criticism of the monetarists during the Thatcher years was that they “knew the price of everything and the value of nothing”. It’s a magnificent phrase: a withering encapsulation of the view that value doesn’t merely reside in a price. It also strongly implies that these individuals were guilty of philistinism.

This condemnation was a response to some radical changes. After many years in which the supremacy of technocratic planning had been unquestioned, Britain in the 1980s saw supply-side reforms introduced in many areas. These were intended to reveal a pricing signal. John Birt’s Producer Choice at the BBC – which gave programme makers the power to buy services from outside the BBC – was one example, and internal markets at the NHS were another.

Enthusiasts for the changes argued that while the new systems coughed up occasional absurdities, the internal markets put a price on goods which ultimately allowed resources to be used more efficiently than a central planner could anticipate.

People responded to the pricing signal by thinking about how they used things. They began to use things more cleverly, and source alternate supplies, for example. The “value of nothing” was a response to the fact that “somethings” had a value beyond the immediate market price signal. For example, we might want to subsidise a good or service (like transport, or coal power) for a long-term benefit.

Now let’s wind forward to today. Something quite remarkable emerges.
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Why do sheep need Twitter?

August 1st, 2012

Spot the broadband user in this picture

A House of Lords committee this week declared that British taxpayers must foot the bill for an internet that nobody wants – unless perhaps they have a second home in the country.

Some observations by the committee may be accurate: Britain’s broadband is slower than its rivals. But this doesn’t seem to be what vexes our noble and learned friends. Observations don’t amount to a rational argument – what the Lords are making is a very radical proposal. Huge and open-ended taxpayer funding must be committed, they argue, to build a national utility. One that will largely be used by sheep.

As every one knows, the nation’s finances are in a dire state. The national debt is increasing. So what’s the economic argument for new public spending? The peers won’t say: their report almost completely avoids making the economic case. To our knowledge, no study, public or private, has ever shown any benefit to UK plc from expenditure on rural broadband infrastructure. The committee has a glimmer of understanding how much this will be – citing a four year old Broadband Stakeholder Group study estimating the cost of building fibre to the home to every home as £28bn.
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How to fix the broken internet economy

July 13th, 2012

How can we begin to unpick the tangled mess that the technology and creative industries have created?

There’s certainly no shortage of blame to go around. In the past every new wave of technology has delivered healthy creative markets – but today this is no longer happening.

Just 20 years since the birth of the internet economy, with the advent of the worldwide web, it’s worth asking why. It’s time we looked afresh at where both industries went wrong, and how they can get on the right track again.

Much of what follows will highlight key mistakes made – but before we do that, we need to put them in some historical context. What worked in the past is a fairly reliable indication of what can work again in the future.

The current impasse between technology and copyright sectors is certainly an odd one. Historically, war is the greatest driver of technological innovation of all, but in peacetime it’s the demand for culture and entertainment that spurs the most innovation. People want to see and hear stuff, and are prepared to pay for it.

The cash generated is ploughed into more entertainment – even creating new art forms. (Recall how the first movie dramas were starchy, filmed theatrical plays.) This creates more investment in technology so people can enjoy the entertainment in a better way. Round and round it goes.

At the heart of this virtuous circle, copyright has been the obscure back-room business-to-business mechanism that keeps the players honest. Creators demanded that their industries engage with the new technologies to create new markets, which returned more money for their talent.

As a result technology innovators needed to attract talented creative people, and induce them to produce stuff for their kit: recording their music on long-players rather than shellac, or printing their movies in Technicolor™. So the two sides need each other. Technologists’ incentives were simple: create more amazing gear to deliver the best of other people’s stuff. And each wave of innovation grew the market, and ensured the creators and workers were richer. Remember: No innovation has ever made creative industries poorer.

Unfortunately, the truth of this historical mutual dependency gets forgotten today because the incentives aren’t lined up. Investment decisions in technology services are made without a thought for the health of the creative people who generate the demand for the goods. Creative investment decisions either don’t take advantage of the technology, or are hamstrung in a way that leaves the potential of the technology untapped. Things are also complicated by another factor we’ll call the Unicorn.

I’ll open the catalogue of errors at chapter one, the music industry.
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The Open Rights Group gets rights wrong. Again

June 29th, 2012

oscar_award

When Open Rights Group executive director Jim Killock opens his mouth, his foot soon disappears inside. The UK’s leading digital rights advocate has just demonstrated still more difficulty understanding the "rights" the group campaigns about.

At a Citizen 2012 data conference in London yesterday, where he was introduced as "the infamous Jim Killock", Citizen Jim listed the many injustices of the UK’s copyright law.

"The Olympic logo is copyright. The Olympic mascots are copyright. Therefore, reusing them is a breach of copyright and of course parodies using them get pulled down," claimed Killock.

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Windows Metro Maoist cadres reach the desktop, and pound it flat

June 15th, 2012

metro_hubris_450w

The revolutionary dogma of Metro is sweeping through the old Windows desktop, too, a new leak of Window 8 confirms. The leaked build, newer than the public release of a fortnight ago, abandons the 3D design elements introduced into Windows in 1990 for a resolutely two-dimensional world. The ‘legacy’ desktop in Windows 8 is denuded of anything that takes advantage of human depth perception, such as window shadows, gradients or sculpted controls.

It’s a flat, flat world.

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The IPO Enquiry

May 30th, 2012

ipgroup_full_logo

Sketches from the three hearings held by the All Party Parliamentary Group on Intellectual Property’s enquiry into the IPO in April and May 2012

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Orphans, giants, and your disappearing digital rights

May 30th, 2012

bbc_oops

 

They’re at it again. Who? Take a guess: if it’s not the Daily Mail, then it’s probably the BBC. The corporation has once again been caught pinching photos, wrongly attributing them, and pretending nothing ever happened – in a triumph of crowd-sourced “citizen journalism”.

But this incident of photo-lifting is slightly more noteworthy than most: the BBC used a photograph taken nine years ago in Iraq to illustrate its story about the massacre at the weekend in Syria. Read the rest of this entry »

Shoreditch’s sparkle leaves BBC presenter ‘tech-struck’

May 18th, 2012

fi_glover_tech_struck

“I haven’t felt so good having spoken to a businessman for ten minutes in about 25 years. That’s not normally how I feel! So thanks very much!”

And thanks to you, BBC presenter Fi Glover, for sharing the feel-good factor with us.

Glover was bringing the miracle of Shoreditch’s internet companies into the nation’s living rooms as part of a mission for Radio 4’s One to One slot. She had vowed to find out, in her words, “what do these tech-enabled business zoomers do”.

We learned that “while the rest of this country hangs onto the cliff face of economic prosperity by its fingernails, it seems that many of these internet-savvy people are right on top of the cliff, planting a flag”.

We need more flags on cliffs.

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Popper, Soros, and Pseudo-Masochism

May 2nd, 2012

ip_watchlist_2012

A new report by intellectual property campaigners has again put the UK on the naughty step.

This year, as last year, activists list the UK alongside Brazil and Thailand as having the most “oppressive” copyright laws in the world. The report was published by an international NGO called Consumer International, but this delegates the work out to a Soros-funded group called A2K.

It’s certainly a bold point of view. How does it arrive at this conclusion? Helpfully, we have the founder’s testimony to aid us.

A2K Network’s world view is that “publicly owned” knowledge is good, but “privately owned” knowledge is bad. It considers this a binary, zero-sum choice – and it is also one that trumps all other considerations.

So, by A2K’s yardstick, it doesn’t matter if the knowledge is easily accessible to citizens. It doesn’t matter, either, if a wide range of cultural material is available: a plurality of goods. Or that all this material is accessible to us at a low cost. Private ownership is the most important factor in any consideration; private ownership is evil.

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Compulsory coding in schools: The new Nerd Tourism

April 18th, 2012

 

child_robot

The writer Toby Young tells a story about how the modern 100m race is run in primary schools. At the starting pistol, everyone runs like mad. At the 50m point, the fastest children stop and wait for the fatties to catch up. Then all the youngsters walk across the finishing line together, holding hands.

I have no idea if this is true – it may well be an urban myth. But the media class’s newly acquired enthusiasm for teaching all children computer programming is very similar.

Speaking as a former professional programmer myself, someone who twenty years ago was at the hairy arse end of the business working with C and Unix, I can say this sudden burst of interest is staggeringly ignorant and misplaced. It’s like wearing a charity ribbon to show how much you care. And it could actually end up doing far more harm than good. Read the rest of this entry »