Monday, April 21, 2003

Distributed Production, User Enablement

This story in the New York Times caught my eye: "3,000 Amateurs Offer NASA Photos of Columbia's Demise"

"In the video nation, almost no moment goes untaped... The nearly ubiquitous cameras grab images of mothers slapping their children in parking lots and Rodney King being beaten — and, as it turns out, the space shuttle Columbia during its descent. Some 3,000 people contacted NASA in the days after the shuttle disaster to offer their firsthand reports, still photographs and videos of the shuttle's entry into the atmosphere. Ultimately, some 12,000 videos and images streamed in... And it has paid off: the images have provided a trove of data that has helped investigators piece together what happened in the final minutes of the flight... The imagery has helped NASA guide debris searchers, and has helped to show that the shuttle was shedding parts before the signs of serious trouble appeared on sensors that could be read by mission control on the ground."

So let's get this straight. NASA spends hundreds of millions of dollars on each and every shuttle launch. The Space Shuttle has cost billions. The U.S. Air Force also has spend billions of dollars on spy satellites. But NASA's centralized bureaucracy has failed to create any form of sensors which captured the information of the shuttle breakup as well as the amateurs; and its centralized bureaucracy countermanded a request to the Air Force to turn its extremely powerful imaging satellites onto the Shuttle.

If we assume that each of those 3,000 people spent an egregious $10,000 each on their equipment (amateur astronomers can be obsessive!) we are talking a grand whopping total of $30 million, and a bunch of users, to beat the pants off the best efforts of the cubic-dollar-enabled federal government. Realistically, $3 million is probably more like it.

So "pecked to death by ducks" triumphs again.

This is more than a metaphor for the future -- this IS the future. Even the large, centralized bureaucracies are moving towards networks of smaller, cheaper stuff -- from Predator drones to sensors that you can sprinkle from airplanes. Certainly, the almost ubiquitous presence of people with video cameras has changed the world. What happened on Sept. 11th? A cheap parking-lot camera captured the best video of an airliner smashing into the Pentagon.

This is all about a future of user-created content; because the means of production are increasingly in all our hands. Technology compresses and expands, centralizes and distributes, in waves decades in length; in 1909, England had one piano per 10 people; but I would be shocked if one American in 100 plays a piano today, much less owns one. The music of the last century was purchased from highly centralized record companies; now new technologies of production and re-production allow people to make music, or to steal it, with nearly equal ease.

Distributed music production (1909)
Centralized music production (1959)
Distributed music production ( 2009).

Open Source is yet another example of this trend -- from a computer world controlled by the "high priests of mainframes" in the 1950s, we've moved on to such a distributed future that foreign 22-year-olds who speak Urgo-Finnic languages can rock the foundations of the corporate world. How'd that happen? Putting a highly distributed, cheap means of production (a cheap PC plus free coding software) in the hands of lots of clever people, stand back and watch what happens! User-created code, that's what.

User-created content...
Here I blog. Yet another cheap means of production.

So what does this mean? Well, if we look at the clothing and fashion industry (where production has been cheap for between 50 and 150 years, depending on how you measure it) we can predict a few things;

1) Fashion will become more important than "real" factors such as quality or durability;
2) The people who will become rich will be those who can set fashion;
3) Owning the means of distribution will be a more anonymous, but highly effective, way of making money;
4) Producers will get squashed.

We can already see the fashion/distribution trend emerging in blogging. "Names" like Instapundit and Drudge have a powerful position; and thousands, or tens of thousands, of toiling strivers work feverishly to get an all important link/break from the big boyz.

Luckily, I don't give a crap if anyone reads this. Striving is such hard work...

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