A popular circulating story on the demise of the headphone jack (that analog plug for your ear buds) makes a good point — the future listening devices increasingly are capable of producing metadata and utilizing DRM. For those not familiar: digital rights management refers to software packages intended to control how and when certain media or software are used. DRM on a DVD player might keep you from watching a film in Australia before it is officially released. Yeah, moving away from simple plug and play headphones is a bad idea. Unfortunately, it is likely inevitable. Apple is not alone in dropping the classic mini-plug, a few Android phones already have. Even if you choose to file this with your anti-Apple stuff, you should be cautious about seeing Google as something other than a large corporation that needs to appease investors. Oracle’s lawyers were on point — “free stuff from Google” isn’t altruistic. I hope that the classic jacks remain, I really do.
The story here isn’t that evil Apple is taking away your earbuds, but that the dream of the 90s really is over. Supply chain won, Napster is dead, and information was a thing just like a Matchbox car, a slip cover, or a carpet.
Bad Frosh Public Speaking
I have been in the college teacher business for nearly a decade now. My first assignment was a combined college comp/speaking class. Like most instructors I wasn’t interested in hearing the classic canned high school speeches or reading the associated papers, thus no work on: abortion, gun control, drug legalization, drinking age, or death penalty. Typically, after I announced that rule the students got somber: they would be writing a new paper this quarter. Sometimes they would actually plead that they had done a great paper on one of these topics in high school and wanted to “do it again.” The topics that students would flock to after losing their high school sweethearts were: college football playoffs and the desirability of file sharing. At least they were writing a new paper.
The file sharing papers typically made two moves: a. file sharing is inevitable and b. file sharing increases new product discovery and purchasing. Papers didn’t really get to the point of disputing sales declines in a rigorous way or pointing out that the record industry surge just before the year 2000 was likely the result of a number of factors and was not sustainable and even self-defeating. Students locked in on the A point: file sharing inevitable. The key claims toward this point were the relative ease of file sharing, the number of the students friends involved, and the idea that technologies to preclude file sharing would be seen as onerous and thus rejected. The idea that any of these three conditions would be challenged was seemingly unthinkable.
There is something deeply American about this argument. It appears in any number of controversies. People are just going to get the drugs they want, since guns exist we can’t manage their supply, and the like. A cocktail of hedonism and fatalism. In policy debate these are called uniqueness arguments. In order for an impact to be evaluated it must be unique meaning that it is not happening now. If the disadvantage of a proposal would be that large container ships would not be able to dock at Long Beach it would be a problem that large container ships can’t dock at Long Beach now. This isn’t to say that the impact would not be considered, but that things really couldn’t get much worse. Uniqueness arguments take on a certain ontological character: we can just assume that the points that made the impact non-unique will continue forever. Their assumptions were wrong.
Although the shift from Napster to Limewire (and so on) seemed trivial, each move required greater effort. Even making file sharing slightly less convenient causes ripple effects down the argument chain. Combined with increasing ease and more reasonable pricing structures, alternatives for purchasing individual songs or albums the decision to invest effort into file sharing begins to quickly shift. Throw a little policing of college computer networks in and the glut of downloadable files stops. Well this shouldn’t be a problem if everybody was doing it? But they weren’t. The students assumed that because they were doing something everyone was, instead there really were not that many people involved in the first place. Notice the feedback loop: if it is easy more people do it, if more people do it, it is easy. If fewer people do it, it gets harder. As the cost of alternatives drops both in terms of money and time, people start going above board and buying music, using Pandora (which was just appearing) and now Spotify. Conditions one and two of the inevitability of file sharing are kaput at that point, as for condition three — the platforms are being increasingly locked down all the time. People want to blame Apple for this — but that misses the point: the critical mass for ubiquitous file sharing is fading.
The response: torrent services X/Y/Z are available with a proper proxy server. Sure. But is that really that much easier than, you know, using Spotify?
The Information Supply Chain
More American than mom, apple, supply, and uniqueness arguments is the retail supply chain. Walmart does this beautifully. Replace a meaningful local supply chain with a ton of mail service and you have Amazon. Supply chain management is a robust field and an interesting one two. For basically every consumer good, there are offices of folks analyzing their flows from factory/farm through retail end point. Until it walks out of the store, it is well tracked: from firearms to cottage cheese. And when something goes wrong, like say Listeria in a batch of Costco berries: they call you. This is the modern American economy. Stuff flowing from place to place with precision.
But doesn’t information want to be free?
No. Information is a good like any other. Now the reproduction and transit of that good are far simpler than the reproduction and transit of a Chevy Silverado, but it is an item none the less. Increasingly meta-data collection processes allow the movement of these immaterial goods to be as effectively managed as those goods that we put in containers. Surely you can find other ways to get items than a trip to Target, but generally people don’t. Notice how we have drifted almost exclusively to the third point: users don’t want DRM heavy technology. Apple, Google, and the rest are smart: they will give you new headphones. Once the process begins, a top tier headphone manufacturer, perhaps owned by Apple will begin to produce USB interfacing units, and in about two years the transition will be completed. Sure some first movers will be inconvenienced, but don’t they sort of like that anyway?
It is the distant future. People didn’t learn to hack, the state didn’t cease to exist (if anything it is much stronger) and many of these long held uniqueness arguments seem to be fading fast. Contrary to the dream of self-organizing social movements coalescing around file sharing, there is just more supply chain. Enjoy your boss new headphones.