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CARS & HORSES

The arrival of the printing press changed history beyond imagining. At the time most people would not have appreciated the full implications of the changes they were living through. With innovation it is subsequent generations who really ring the changes and reap the rewards.


In the twentieth century the printing press equivalent might have been the invention of the transistor and later the integrated circuit leading to the information age and the Internet. These technologies are still in their relative infancy and the reverberations are still to be realised.


I use that perspective to underline the point that during times of radical change most don’t appreciate it. The old habits die hard and people do what they have always done albeit a bit differently. Word processors replace typewriters; emails replace letter post, even if some don’t latch on immediately. I did actually know guys who had their secretaries print out their emails for them to read. I never saw a car being drawn by a horse but the message of that image was clear enough too. People’s minds are the slowest things to change.


The digital revolution has only just began to impact on the society that has seen its inception. We are to a large extent still thinking horsepower rather than internal combustion. This is nowhere more prevalent than in attitudes within the cultural industries especially those which have built massive wealth mountains on ownership of copyrights. Technology has rocked the foundation on which these agreements are made.


You can’t have powerful copying devices on every desk, on every lap and in every pocket, then have these devices link to highly efficient networks allowing information to be passed back and forward in an infinite way; you can’t provide such innovation when hitherto nothing like it had been remotely possible then expect existing agreements around what can be copied and what can’t to stand good. You could only expect such agreements to require serious revising. If they were agreements dubious in the first place, that tended to make only a very small number of privileged people very wealthy, then you might only rejoice at their demise and relish the opportunity to formulate new ones.


Welcome to the present. Those who made fortunes from the copy boom should be pleased they did. They won’t be able to do that again. That is not to say that something created which is culturally valuable won’t produce earnings. It is to say that the earnings will not be determined by how many unit copies get notched up. Because of the ubiquity of the copying devices, that particular practice has no scarcity value anymore. Anyone can copy. Anyone can distribute. Artists of all kinds will now need to use their creative powers to fashion new ways of generating wealth, ways that specifically don’t depend on copies of their work being bought and sold.


So the message is clear to those who would prematurely shackle the emergent technology in service to their conventions: unhook your new cars from your old horses and take a drive. The frontier is an exciting place to be if you have the imagination for it. If you don’t, go do something else that better suits your mindset. Conservatism always has its place.

written 2009 when I was participating in Billy Bragg's forum