Via the Rationalitate blog:
“Tim Lee has an interesting analysis of the shortcomings of Apple’s iPad, but at the end he makes what I believe is a very prescient, more general point about the future of intellectual property and digital media:
“This is of a piece with the rest of Apple’s media strategy. Apple seems determined to replicate the 20th century business model of paying for copies of content in an age where those copies have a marginal cost of zero. Analysts often point to the strategy as a success, but I think this is a misreading of the last decade. The parts of the iTunes store that have had the most success—music and apps—are tied to devices that are strong products in their own right. Recall that the iPod was introduced 18 months before the iTunes Store, and that the iPhone had no app store for its first year. In contrast, the Apple TV, which is basically limited to only playing content purchased from the iTunes Store, has been a conspicuous failure. People don’t buy iPods and iPhones in order to use the iTunes store. They buy from the iTunes store because it’s an easy way to get stuff onto their iPods and iPhones.
Apple is fighting against powerful and fundamental economic forces. In the short term, Apple’s technological and industrial design prowess can help to prop up dying business models. But before too long, the force of economic gravity will push the price of content down to its marginal cost of zero. And when it does, the walls of Apple’s garden will feel a lot more confining. If “tablets” are the future, which is far from clear, I’d rather wait for a device that gives me full freedom to run the applications and display the content of my choice.”
Lots of interesting discussion in the comment following Tim Lee’s article.
Andy Robinson echoes the points about the dangers of using such freedom-limiting technologies:
“This isn’t just about whether intellectual property is abstractly a good or bad thing or whether the overall outcome of DRM is beneficial or not. It’s about dangers of control built into the relationship between users and technology. The argument, “it saved the music industry” could as well be applied to mass executions of file-sharers or their deportation to Guantanamo Bay. People in favour of some generic prohibition often become absolutely fanatical about keeping it in place – look for instance at what has happened with the drugs war. Since limits to power will often make it impossible to enforce whatever prohibitions one happens to think justified, limits have to be drawn on how far one is prepared to go to enforce them – otherwise every case of a difficult or impossible to enforce rule will be an occasion for slippage into totalitarianism. The result is a need to distinguish a general frame of restrictions within which social goals can be pursued from the desirability of the goals themselves, and to prioritise the former over the latter. There are limits in the price which can be conceded for any particular enforcement advantage. Maintaining basic rights and a proper balance of power, preventing the powerful from becoming too strong, is a higher-order issue over the production of desirable aggregative social effects.
The ground zero of this is that the technology in question is wrong. And it’s creepy, and it’s creepy because it’s wrong.
Technology which can be remotely told what to do without permission from its user is scary.
The fact that people using DRM-enabled systems have had files deleted without their consent is scary.
The reason it is scary is twofold. Firstly, it has ceased to be a tool in the hands of the user, and has become an agent of a foreign will. And secondly, it gives far too much power to the people who control the updates. In short, it violates the right of the user to be in control of the tool they use. (I’m drawing here on Illich’s use of the term ‘tool’). This affects the balance of power in the social field in general. It’s FAR bigger than the question of whether people should download music for free. It’s about whether people are to be free or enslaved.
This is because the principle which justifies control in this case, would also justify control in a million other cases – like the hammer (isn’t it worth it if a few murders are prevented, or X amount of criminal damage?)
Of course, once in place the tehcnologies of control will be used for purposes other than those originally intended. Some song causes political controversy (such as the outcry over ‘Cop Killer’, or the Marilyn Manson/Rammstein hysteria after Columbine) and the company could be pressured to delete entirely legal copies for political reasons. They could be ordered to turn over records of who was listening to a song later deemed to correlate with some kind of criminality (like the Patriot Act library dragnets). An artist or company could decide to withdraw their work (as with Lucas’s stance on the Holiday Special, and Kubrick’s withdrawal of A Clockwork Orange) and they could pull every copy. This might happen if a studio was in dispute with an artist – suddenly the artist would disappear. And what if Apple ended up in a dispute with a studio? Again – the entire catalogue of the studio could disappear (either because Apple withdrew it as an act in the dispute, or the studio demanded such a measure in court). This is before we even get onto what the likes of China and Iran could do with this technology. It would be far better that the technological capacity to do such things were to be prevented from being actualised or normalised.
A good tool is something for use, like a hammer – not something which has particular uses built into it. Pretty much all tools can be put to legal and illegal uses, or to harmful and harmless uses. This can’t justify the project of working controls on how tools are used into the tools themselves. Would you really want a hammer that would decide what you want to hit, distinguish corporate-sanctioned uses from non-corporate-sanctioned uses, and amend its rules on what it could hit without your being able to veto it, in response to its maker’s commands? Wouldn’t a hammer which did that be rather creepy? Wouldn’t you rather have a regular hammer?
Basically, we don’t need technologies making our decisions for us, distinguishing what uses they want to allow. It gives far too much power to the tools, and therefore, to whoever is sending the long-range responses. Things have already gone too far in this direction with mobile phones. There’s no good reason why calls aren’t encrypted, why phones phone in their location from afar, or why they can be turned on from a distance, or why sim cards can be disabled from afar. It all makes political abuse so much easier, and usefulness so much less. The only reason it’s been allowed is that it was sneaked in along with the technology when it was introduced, and then normalised (and in some cases legislated) once it was already established. Eventually no doubt, somebody will design mobile phones based on a distributed model which do just function as tools rather than surveillance devices, which don’t generate records of where you are or who you’re talking to. And then all hell will break loose because of their greater functionality.
It’s the same problem with iPods and these new things – the convenience of the technology, and its monopolisation for a short period by a few companies, and the relative invisibility of its inbuilt constraints, outweigh the negative impact on functionality. They aren’t playing on widespread support for DRM, they aren’t playing on greater competitiveness of less-functional technologies. They’re relying on market dominance to generate enough convenience to outweigh the obvious disadvantages to the end-user.
Unless a vast control-regime is established to keep in place this order of affairs, it will end up being a temporary advantage. If all of this goes too far, if reduced functionality becomes a serious inconvenience or if abuse becomes too visible and creeps people out, we will see people deserting the new technologies for older ones where they at least know where they stand. A radio may have less functionality than an ipod but it won’t tell anyone what you’re listening to. But people wouldn’t have to go that far. They’d just have to opt for older systems with greater functionality. Notice how Microsoft have basically been forced to revive Windows, because people preferred XP to Vista in spite of the latter’s add-ons.”