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Time to Nut Up, Tech Companies

Regardless of how one may feel about the rise of the glowing screens, it’s not possible to care about art in 2013, for instance, without caring deeply about the Internet. The Internet is such a perfect delivery mechanism that it has rendered every other distribution system irrelevant (and it has done this in just under 20 years). But though we may no longer need to tolerate the greed and complacency of the traditional media outlets, there’s no escaping the fact that the Internet runs on the content that we have always relied on those guys to finance. User-generated content can be delightful, but so can a hundred thousand (or a hundred million) dollar budget.


Google and Facebook have tried to convince us that the cable TV subscription model was misguided, that the time-honored advertising model will work better. For Google, at least, this has been the case. Ads have powered Google like no other company in history, but no one in their wake has been able to produce even remotely similar results. Still, we pretend otherwise, because we have spent 20 years fostering the cultural expectation that the Internet should be loose and free. We pretend not to notice big data and the shadow Internet that tracks and targets us, exposing us to risks we don’t really understand. We simply say: If you don’t like the ads, ignore them. After all, network TV, newspapers, and the radio have been training us to ignore ads for 100 years, so what’s the problem?


The problem, in part, is that we’ve gotten too good at it. We ignore the ads so effectively that YouTube—with millions (billions?) of customers served—is not, in the traditional sense, profitable. The response to this blunt fact has been surprising. Instead of suggesting that ads are not up to the enormous task of floating the Internet, we’ve just concluded that we need better ads. So we sell our data, habits, and patterns—and even our precise physical location—to create ever more personalized ads. But why doesn’t anyone just tell us how much the internet costs to run, and then give us an option to pay our fair share and opt out of the bullshit?


Why are the operating costs so opaque? And what happens when we apply this same wobbly logic to the arts? Right now, for example, I’m listening to Spotify. It is like my favorite Christmas present ever. Honestly, it’s probably better than all my Christmas presents combined. But why doesn’t it cost more? Why doesn’t it make enough money to pay the artists who provide the music? Why does it pretend that ads will save the day?


Being of the indie persuasion, it has not escaped my notice that some of the more outré artists are not even bothering to join Spotify, while other early adopters have already removed their music. If a niche audience is the best you can hope for, maybe it’s best not to give the milk away for free. Maybe they’ve done the math—factoring in the sold-out tours, lucrative product tie-ins, and endless t-shirt sales that free music is supposed to generate—and they’ve come to the startling conclusion that selling a few albums for $10 would actually still be better (never mind that it’s no longer an option). I selfishly hope that Spotify isn’t already peaking, but only time will tell.


To pick on Spotify or Pandora, though, is unfair. They are just minor players trying to survive in a culture that was created long before they arrived on the scene. Instead, we should ask Google, Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, Facebook, and Netflix to nut up and lay their cards on the table. You want unlimited music, movies, and social networking? Fine—we’d love to sell it to you! Good news, we sat down with the ISPs, the labels, the studios, hashed out the terms, and here’s the deal: You can have it all for $50 ($100? $200?) a month! Because that’s how much it costs to produce (and pay the content providers, and make our 45 percent margin, natch).


Needless to say, I’m not holding my breath that this scenario will ever come to pass—because when the big cats sit down to divvy up that sweet pie, the only thing everyone can agree upon is that they deserve the biggest piece (alas, even when there’s hundreds of billions of dollars to be made, communism still can’t get a foothold). So instead we’ll suffer a world of art bankrolled by geo-targeted ad campaigns (and “creative” directors everywhere shall rejoice). Apple is the only company with the money and the power—and arguably the incentive—to challenge the ad-based model, but recent moves like iTunes Radio indicate that they will probably just follow the herd (there was a flicker of hope when they eliminated browser ads by putting that Reader button in Safari—essentially giving Google the middle finger—but Safari was so slow and jenky that I ended up going back to Chrome anyhow).


And yet, as quick and violent a sea change as the Internet has been, the battle between the old guard and the new still rages on, with Netflix being the perfect case study. Netflix snuck onto the scene and Hollywood agreed that sending DVDs through the mail would be a neat idea. It turned out to be such a neat idea that Blockbuster disappeared almost before anyone had time to notice. Then Hollywood took a step back. Netflix said, “Hey, this is going great, now let’s stream everything.” But unlike the music industry when Apple came calling (or the publishing industry when Amazon came calling), Hollywood still had enough money in the coffers to say, “Fuck you”. And, at least temporarily, they wrestled some power back (and Netflix’s streaming selection remains abysmal, opening the door for Apple, Amazon, and anyone else who’s got access to the goods). But Hollywood is not invulnerable. The basic fact is that box office numbers are down, budgets are down, movie star salaries are down, and it now seems obvious that other revenue streams must be sought.


Or maybe not. Maybe the stream was found long ago and the tap just needs to be opened a bit wider, once the time is right. Maybe the data mining and tracking is not a cynical bonus feature at all; maybe it’s the actual end goal itself - the very lattice upon which the internet has been hung - and maybe the personalized content that results from the tracking is nothing more than a palliative designed to calm our atavistic doubt. And if the ads are really just a clever front, isn’t it ridiculous to think that we could ever opt out?


Because maybe it’s not just Facebook that’s waiting for us to get more open, more comfortable, more resigned. Maybe the business model for the entire internet has been founded on this faith. Maybe our personal data really can be turned into near infinite revenue. And maybe the architects have known this all along. Maybe they are just biding their time. Maybe the only piece still missing is our total apathy. And maybe that piece is almost in place. Maybe the game was over before it even began.


There’s a great letter that Huxley wrote to Orwell. He spends a sentence congratulating him on the success of 1984—and then he spends a page explaining why Brave New World is the more likely future. Both visions have their charms, of course, but to me Huxley’s always felt the more authentic. Ultimately, we are cheap and easy, Huxley seems to argue, and you probably don’t need all the technical fuss of Big Brother if you have enough soma to anesthetize the masses. After all, there’s no such thing as a stoned revolutionary, and most of us choose pleasant stupor over iconoclastic agitation every single day of our lives. It’s just…nicer. But the efficient genius of the Internet is that it has already gone ahead and fused these two visions, so really there’s no need to argue over their relative merits: Simply put, our precious soma is now being doled out by Big Brother himself.


But on the other hand, maybe we’re a bit paranoid. Maybe there is no game, no architects, no sinister plot, no one watching, and no one trying to hurt anyone. Maybe it’s only evolution, intrinsically organic.


And the craziest thing of all, is that it probably doesn’t matter either way. In reality, this is just what’s next. It’s the new law, and we will obey it just like we have obeyed the other laws (because we like not being killed). The social contract is fundamentally a cage, and these are merely the newest bars being installed. So rattle away, broken monkey, but don’t act like you didn’t sign up for this fun.


J. Tanner Cusick has worked in and around the tech world for the past five years.


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