Tuesday, 16 November 2010

The information age: What happens next

Well it has been a very long time since I posted anything up here, but the other day, I realised what the future held for society and so I figured it might be a good idea to share that with others. It can be useful from time to time to stop and take stock of the rapid changes around us and see where we are heading; this post is that reflection.

Efforts are currently underway to digitise all books. They started years ago with Google and Microsoft but Microsoft pulled out of the endeavor citing costs. The idea is to create a digital archive of all books, works of art and so on so that future generations may enjoy them. A noble effort, to be sure.

There has recently been a change in the concept of ownership to licensing. Digital Rights Management has allowed middlemen who run store fronts to restrict the use of the goods that they sell, moving away from citizens owning the items they pay for and instead replacing it with a model where they are licensing it. This actually began much earlier, with software end user license agreements, but was originally unenforcable except through the law. Now, there is a direct mechanism in place that allows the very thing that transferred from the store to the citizen to disable itself if the company running the store orders it. An example of this is sort of arrangement occurs with the Apple iTunes store and with Sky and its HD boxes (if you cancel your account, they disable everything you recorded on the box so you can no longer watch it - thats because you never owned it only a right to watch it, as part of the subscription model).

Once all works have been digitised, which will take a long time yet, digitised versions and physical (real) versions will exist side by side for quite a while. Perhaps fifty years later, or maybe a hundred, the physical versions will be destroyed.

They'll be destroyed in two ways. The top down approach to their destruction will likely occur in secret, as big swatches of physical media are selected by those in power and incinerated, without anybody really noticing. There may be a few that voice complaints but it will be too late by then to recover them, but because electronic versions will exist, there will not be a strong argument to prevent this from happening.

The second way that physical media will be destroyed is via the bottom up approach, in other words, by the comman man. Books will become so cheap they will become worthless. People will no longer desire them a few generations after everything is digital and the publishers have figured out how to hook people into the new formats. Think about how the iPad today has convinced so many that it is a must buy with its flashy interface, the same goal being applied to electronic books. They'll eventually crack it and then the newer generations will only desire the newer electronic formats. Today, as I write this, selling videos is very much like this scenario that I am decribing. You can take video casettes to a second hand store and they'll give you a penny each. A penny! It's not worth the bother any more. So, instead of trying to sell them, people are simply thrown away into landfills. This is the second way that physical media will be destroyed; a natural process, if you will, caused by simple economics.

Once all physical works are destroyed and nobody owns hard copies of the words that are in these books, and merely rents them instead, the books themselves will be changed at the source to suit the needs of those in power. Being centralised, they will be able to be update them at will in order to censor, to subtly change meanings or even to insert new meanings. Who will know any different? Scientists will come out and talk about the fallibility of the human memory based on the latest research into psychology for anyone that swears that, for example, Darwin's origins of species did not say evolution through war is inevitable no matter what his eReader is telling him. The vast majority will believe the scientists especially when they rent their copy and their reader tells them it /does/ say that.

So, to summarise, once an entire civilisation's culture is digitised, it's hard copies will be destroyed and its culture edited at will by those in power. Perhaps its culture will even be deleted and replaced with something else; or simply deleted altogether by a hostile, foreign power as part of a future step by step genocidal process.

Welcome to what happens next, after the information age...