2 Jan 2009

The age of content

When the century of plenty was announced, people that understood its meaning thought it applied to everything. Plenty of consumer things. Plenty of money. Plenty of choices.

But the only novelty showing through at the beginning of the tenth year of the century isn't that. It's not about tangible things. The only really new and lasting innovation is content. It doesn't matter whether youtube or facebook has the most users or rakes in revenue or investors. The thing they have in common is not the technology, but what it facilitates.

In the first ten years of the twenty-first century by Western reckoning, more content will have been created by the human race than in all the thousands of years before.

And I'm not talking about written content versus the spoken traditions of old, I'm talking content as a whole. All six Billion of us will have created more content in ten years than all of our ancestors joined together. I'll even bet that before the end of the year, someone will have proven this statistically.

The one thing that has made this possible is, by the way, not the internet, but the free market. This is very meaningful for the age of content because in a world where markets could become less free, content creation could dwindle.

I'll try to elaborate a bit on the last two points, and then conclude as to what it all means.

Many people will observe that without the internet, none of the content that is so freely available would be in our homes and offices. This I won't dispute. But the internet has been around for fifty years, and in the present form since the beginning of the 1990's. But we didn't have computers in the fifties. Many don't today, but with a Billion computers in use in 2007, most humans could get access to one.

But internet access and computers isn't all it takes. It's not about text, anyway. We've been producing written words for centuries, although never on a scale as today. About a hundred million people are creating material in text, video or audio form. Never before in human history has this happened. It relies on digital cameras and mp3 recording devices, available software for editing all that's created and so much more. But none of these techological means by themselves explain the current content revolution.

Foremost, the age of content relies on free markets. It doesn't need democracy although free markets don't work as well without it. It doesn't need actual freedom but people in undemocratic countries find themselves continually in peril of censorship. Most cope pretty well with this, though, usually by remaining unseen by authorities and a form of self-sensorship.

But the one force driving all this content creation is the free market. Most people need the confirmation that somewhere, there is a customer for their product. A reader or listener to what they've created. And this is only possible in a free market form. It is the reason why openly accessible platforms are so popular. If this blog article could only be read by people willing to pay for it, I probably wouldn't be writing it. I'm not implying I wouldn't want to see it published commercially, but it's not the main reason for me writing it.

There has to exist a very large incentive to create for closed platforms and it's usually money or another form of monetary reward. This has existed for a long time and it's still - and rightly so - a very important force in society. Many people would love to be professional writers, but will never make a living from that. And in the age of content, that is absolutely all right.

So my concept of the free content market doesn't rely on money and that is also an important observation. It implies the astonishing height of human development and prosperity. There have always been people who were freely creative, in any community. But never before have they been able to share what they create with so many. It's even become a paradigm in its own right, where teachers encourage their students to create their own interpretation of what they learn and then label it e-learning. The debate on the use of web 2.0 within the educational world has never been more fierce.

So if we accept the fact that we are at a peak; how do we preserve this magnificent human creation abundance? This is a question with many possible answers. The first answer is basic: the infrastructure has to remain freely accessible. Already there are some who deem it desirable to split the different forms of creation. A separate scientific internet, for instance. A secure internet. They are the wrong answers to important questions. I'll not try to answer the questions (How to decide what's scientific debate? and How to make our commercial and societal infrastructure less prone to tampering?) here, but creating closed environments is not the answer, as I've hinted at earlier.

The second answer is one where many fights are fought: what's the boundary between free and protected? The old copyrights debate will go on for a while and it's hard to say how it will turn out, if it ever leads anywhere at all. But because so much is at stake, a solution must aventually be found. I just hope it will not be an exclusive one, but will include us all.

The third answer goes right to the core of the matter, and to the nature of creation. What is human creation and can any value be attributed to it? To the latter the answer of course is yes, but it is related to the former and there is much debate on this. Many blogs are reported to be just comments on very minute bits of information, and these bits of information may have had a limited possible audience to begin with. Many Youtube videos are of questionable value so why would we want to preserve this kind of creation? Why should we even allow it to use bandwidth? Because when I answered affirmatively I never implied what the value of creation should exactly be. Nor who should measure it. Everyone knows the example of artists who became famous after their deaths: how long do we have to preserve everything to make sure we're not casting aside an artwork with future worth potential?

This brings me to the last answer to my question. When the economy turns sour, a lot of content could be lost when companies fail. Do we try to preserve this? Do we let people continue their creation? Will not the free market solve this?

Perhaps, instead of spending so much money on banks and car factories, governments could have set aside a little for the true novelty of our time. If Youtube were to fail, who would save our legacy? How can we be remembered for the future, when there might perhaps not be so many fortunate people creating new things and when they want to read or experience some of the things we've left behind? If anything, we should be thinking about how we'll deal with that legacy. It is a role for librarians, for politicians, for scientists, to acquire new and active ways of indexing and preserving, not by fossilization, but by nurturing the creative processes and outcomes of this age of content.

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