Friday, February 13, 2009

The embarrassment near excruciating . . .

I think I've said that before, but I did make a kind of pledge to myself to see it through.  And it's been an interesting journey, finding that my particular thoughts on this particular day, apparently every time, presage what it is that I'm going to dig out and post from my past. It's a peculiar thing. It's not particularly fun, and I'm not getting much of a charge out of it.  More like discharging an obligation I've been carrying around for many many years, testing my thoughts against what I learn and observe.  That journey is almost over.

I wish I could say that I've grown wiser and more mature, and have lots more detail and elaboration to add to what I knew so young. But the fact is that I've become older is all, and a lot fatter and less healthy. I've struggled and bumbled my way through life, not quite a surfer dude, but not too far removed either (except that I never had so much fun as surfer dudes know how to have). I'm mostly earnest. Some call me cynical. I have a pretty good sense of humor, but am lousy at telling jokes since I hardly ever remember them. I'm one in the crowd of the middling folk so celebrated by Franklin, and so betrayed very lately. A Flatlander, for sure, without any irony to be understood.

But there has been nothing in my vast or half-vast life's experience to lead me in any other direction than the conclusions I arrived at so long ago, at that twenty something age of canonical discovery which never will return, alas. And I have almost no confidence in my ability to say it better. I'm not even sure that words are the way to do it. But I have almost no talent, surely, for anything other than words.

Meanwhile, there are other things to preoccupy me, in this post-capitalistic awakening. I did read an interesting article in Time Magazine, by the same fellow who authored two wonderful biographies I recently finished.  The one lovingly given me on my birthday by my daughter, and which propelled me so strongly forward toward this blogging. Walter Isaacson, who is I guess the former editor of Time, was writing about how to save our dying newspapers. He reminded the reader that hyperlinks were first conceived as a kind of medium for transacting micropayments.


Now, we somehow think that our present arrrangement is more free, since we all know how to avoid the adsense intrusions off, vaguely, to the side. But the important paid content-creative positions, argues Isaacson, are disappearing. It's cheaper to follow the sensations, and way more difficult to investigate the tricky matters, like how our government is working, or the economy, or wars. We have C-Span. We have lots of bloggers to reveal the plots. But we're losing our newspapers, as they all get replaced by the wash of too much information - what we're losing is the newspaper as an operation, not as a thing, urges Isaacson.

What is missed by the Time article is that the thing most lost is the time to read the newspaper. This might be the real reason they are disappearing.  We pay happily for cable or satellite TV, and access to the World Wide Potential for entertainment, information, and breaking news. Clearly, if we had the time and it was that much better than these others, we'd pay for an operation to get the important stuff in front of us. 

And speaking of time, and Time as well, they are about due for another in a long series of articles on the general theme of  "why, after the washing machine, don't we seem to have any more leisure?"  Well, I may be extreme, but the time I have to keep informed is behind the wheel of my car.  So, I gladly pay for NPR, but feel a kind of squandering in two dimensions  First is the waste of my limited high adrenalin attention in the act of driving.  It's still fun, but there is no question that it drains me. Second is that were I to have an actual newspaper in front of me, I could be much more efficient than the linear and precomposed presentation which is all the radio can possibly provide. Nor do I have time or interest to compose my own from podcasts among the available proliferation.  Something vicious about the cycles of rat race, post-technology. The effort of searching exceeds the returns by far.

There is a point after which the do-it-yourselfism of navigating the WalMart lots and aisles no longer feels productive. The question is plainly begged about who should be paying whom, and how much time is worth. Not to mention what is getting destroyed. I'm set scrambling because I want, and yet the margin for fulfilment is perpetually squeezed, and so, in precisely the same manner that my hours at work go up in obedient service to those who need my help, the one thing I can easily devalue is my self. Which WalMart shopping has essentially proven to be substantially value-free.

I had the endure a work colleague practically beg not to be given any "raise" (like "patriot act" is code for sacrificing what should be most precious, this is code for cost of living allowance) and to be allowed enslavement rather than to be let among the poor unwashed unemployed.  There is a crossroads here for sure, and on the one side is a losing chase after a receding goal.  There is indeed a red shift upwards in income distribution. Without a middle, there is, pun intended, no heart. 

Anyhow, when shopping is our main leisure activity, and when price is the only thing to drive us such that we prefer a systematic grinding down by the machinery of price reduction to the upstanding member of the community who made his honest living by profit from our provisioning, if not our want, and when the margins of our own lives are so thin that these stores must stay open 24/7, and when our consumption exceeds our digestion not to mention our capacity for chewing (or are those two not interrelated), and when this whole vicious cycle seems so readily relatable to what used to be called Madison Avenue's want generation, then surely the last thing we want to do is get the machine back to "normal."

I just started the latest Tom Friedman book, which rehearses the usual cutting edge metroWired post-everything thinking. Sorry Tom, but it's one of those books where reading the cover might exhaust the content. The trouble with it is (I've only just begun, so indulge my sour grapesism, hung over from Flatland) that it doesn't, and he can't seem to, challenge any of the really basic givens.  It and he is way smarter than the rest of us at putting together very enlightened summaries of what every intelligent person basically knows. I mean, you can fly through this writing the same way you can drink down a plate of pasta.  You're cheering what you already know, and just hoping a guy this smart and this well placed will have lots of influence on the people in power, who you just know in your guts are too venal or troglodyte to act in enlightened fashion.

But a piece of wisdom from the book which I should insert here is that I shouldn't be talking about post- anything, and perhaps especially post-capitalism.  Let's say instead, pre-new-age-economy. And the new age will not make prominent the classy globe trotting thinking of those who rub shoulders with the important and rich. Don't get me wrong. I like this guy, and enjoy his analysis. But it's just about one step short of what really needs to be said (I favor the tree huggers who stopped the WTO meeting in Seattle).

Micro-markets could do this.  

Here's how it could work: First you have to recognize the click as a kind of transaction, perhaps analogous to the collapse of a deBroglie wave in the understanding of quantum physics (self referential plug here, on the model of the way CBS/Katie Couric now constructs its news programs - always making news of something you can learn more about by watching their other programming).  An actual choice has been made in the click.  This choice also has a context, in that the person making the click is doing it from some particular page. 

Now what if the click had some minuscule consequence, sort of in the way that ticking minutes do on a cell phone, or used to with a landline? What if a thousand random clicks might cost what a text message does, as one of Isaacson's for instances.  Surely that would be no inhibition. Especially if it were traded for the current cost of access, which maybe should be free and ubiquitous, or maybe should be metered like electricity. We surely understand that volume of data is no measure of its value, any more than number of words can be a measure of their quality.

But clicking might make a good measure of the value taken from Internet's availability. Especially as context might reveal, ever faster upon clicking in, the increasing value of what comes up. Right until some consummate click, where price is negotiated and content purchased or things delivered or services rendered. 

Now the person putting the link on the page should be taking some responsibility for this link, by which I mean that he should pay the page owner to which the link is made, if that page owner has content to sell. I should say that the person should take some responsibility to the extent that he is getting paid in the first place for the privilege of looking at his own site.

The deal might be that the referred page would offer some multiple of the outlay back, provided that the clicker desired to see more than the particular page linked to, up to and including a purchase or a subscription, forcing a cut back to the person providing the referral.

You could easily limit your exposure, by offering links up to some limit, after which the reader would have to pony up their own micropayments, since your referrals weren't paying off to yourself.  This could easily be tied, proportionately, to the income/outgo ratios of your page, just as the link cost would be tied to the economics of that host.

Right now, we have a threshold, in effect, beyond which you have to buy the book, or get the print version, or buy a subscription.  Sometimes the threshold has to do with how far back into the archives you want to look. Sometimes it has to do with premium content. Mostly, it has to do with how well known the brand name is.  There's generic information, and then there's the really good stuff.  There's the stuff someone else wants you to know, and then there's the stuff you want to know.

And right now, the economy of the Internet is supported by companies large enough and well enough capitalised to be able to get into the game of advertising. Or to put it another way, there has to be some payoff for the expenditure of micropayments per view, which is how advertising works. Ideally, the Internet offers better targeting than other kinds of advertisement, since the context can be so narrowly defined. But in practice, this seems only possible by letting malware onto your computer to track your context - your personal browsing history - or by letting Google keep your history by accepting the lure to log onto their search page. After all they're "not evil."

That's because a single page view doesn't give nearly enough information about how likely you are to purchase what's advertised there. But there are certain things that everyone wants, even if not openly. Ringtones. Contest winnings. Love. Pretty naked pictures. The rest of the stuff engenders our mistrust for the very reason of the techniques which put it in front of our face. I'll do my own searching, thank you very much, before I "buy" the claim being thrust in front of me based on how gamely you put it in front of my face. Either you have so much money that I already know who you are, in which case putting the ad in front of me purchases just about nil in your favor. Or you have mastered the tricks of getting in my face, in which case you're probably trying to trick me. Or I'm an idiot and actually pay money for ringtones or look for dates on the Internet. Or, I'm actually looking for slime, in which case the slimier the source the better so long as I have the proper protection and wariness.

But in any case, the web has generated its own monetization Catch-22 by the counter intuitive assumption that links must be free.  What's counter-intuitive is that free links are the same as free information. And that ads, which are fundamentally embedded in the old dead economy, are the best or only way to monetize the distribution of information. The ads have lost all value as we blow past them looking for something to believe.

Let's try this again. Subscriptions were how Ben Franklin got rich. But ads instantly followed, since the disseminated information was such an obvious vehicle to get the word out about a particular product, or to slam or slander a political opponent. The attention was caught first by the information slung, and second by the riders thereon.

Now we have a medium where the information can be slung with only tiny increments expended for increased exposure (Isaacson seems unaware or declined to say that the cost for subscriptions has traditionally covered the cost of the media - when paper was a significant cost, the subscription would cover the paper, and the ads would cover the editorial production.).  At the same time as coverage has gone global for even the most local production, therefore the number of productions available per eyeball has exponentially increased.

An ecology of subscription versus link cost would generate a system of virtual boundaries around communities.  Payments per production could and should be incremented up by virtue of invitation by some more prominent host. But ownership, that trademark patent thing, could stay with the individual producer.

There is a clear direction toward this type of ecology. First is the possibilty for centralized identity caches, as opposed, say, to the need for usernames and passwords for every site on the web. Next is a virtual wallet, including detailed statements of income/outgo and a metered realtime reading of what it's costing to surf and buy. Third is a graphical interface to locate oneself in each of the many dimensions which get created. 

The obvious first dimension is geography. This helps to find information, goods, friends and services of local relevance, in the literal sense of that term. Another dimension might be affinity of interest, relative to which each of us owns multiple identities, rendering less than useful the tracking of my browsing activity in a single dimension only. I don't care to be distracted by links of relevance to cat lovers when I'm wanting to understand the territorial predations of lions and tigers. Boundaries here, in the right dimensions, are a good thing.

Now, just imagine the value of advertising real estate if the neighborhood can be precisely defined.  Imagine it, just for a moment, because my goal is utterly to transform what advertising means, at just the same moment when coinage is made obsolete. Hang on.

So, let's say that I actually want to purchase some particular thing.  Let's say, in other words, that I still live in the old capitalist universe, where I remain motivated by acquistions which somehow turn me on, and am willing to trade a little of the production of my no-longer-sweaty labor for your talent for anticipating or creating or otherwise meeting my desires. I want to go where I can see enough of all such productions, so that I can establish the going cost to meet my desires, make some comparison among the population of the field, and easily transact business.

If it's a physical thing I want, depending on its size and cost to transport, I may care about geographic locality. If I want it now, I may care about time to ship or delivery method, or I may even want to run out and pick it up. If the item is mass produced, I'll want to cost compare, or if it's not, I'll want testimonials before making the effort of a personal meeting. 

And I'll surely still enjoy the serendipity of browsing bazaars, bookshelves, and meeting actual people. But remember, as the medium is the message, the goal here is to liberate our polity from the destruction wrought by over-ripening capitalism (you can read Friedman for the details), and for the moment this once so-called new medium is as much in service to the continued destruction as it is an object for the hope of its users. 

Now the nature of this multi-dimensional webspace "map" is that things which want to be found will have to locate themselves in (however blurriedly) bounded spaces beyond which no one is looking. They will accomplish this location by transactional history, which just means clicks. "Where" business is transacted becomes the main currency, and so the domain naming system, overlayed now by a "domain mapping system," must be transparently maintained in the same was that money used to be. Transparency in this case simply means that you, the clicker, must always know where you are, and that transactions beyond this mapping are at least as impossible as touch beyond the skin.

Remember, this is no longer naming in the sense of DNS, which simply locates hosts for the purpose of making the routing infrastructure work.  That type of hierarchal ordering is at the level of fluid mechanics, and not economics. Transactional history, which arguably is what money means anymore, is what has to be vaulted, not, surely, at Google Inc, but rather at, but that it has corrupted so completely, something more like the Federal Reserve. Because a person's transactional history is identity combined with monetary values. What I am willing to spend my time on. What I am willing to spend my labor on. And what I am worth, which is the value of my labor that I am willing to place out there on the web. 

Actually, what is to be hoped for, by the likes of me, is that there may be no further need to market oneself. To sell oneself. To advertise oneself. And this in turn stems from a deep conviction that the better selves of the world have almost no voice as things are construed right now. That there is far more wisdom among those who hold themselves back, from shyness, rather than to hazard making a fool in public. This, indeed so far as I can tell after the first few pages, is what Tom Friedman sets out to delineate - the disjuncture between what is plainly to be preferred in the decisions of our government and what we are getting. 

The function of newspapers is part of what is missing. The ability to hold accountable those making the decisions for some intelligence instead of Madison Avenue gamings of the wants, fears, and desires of the media consuming public. A voice as well for those who would not sell themselves, but who would in any community properly so constituted, be called upon to lead because they would be known as the leaders and not because they have put themselves forward as such, in a system which rewards the gamers.

There is so much work to be done. I am nearly ready to start that more considered thinking, which will take the form of a book which you, gentle reader, might have to buy. Not quite. But almost.

No comments: