28 April 2007

The real digital divide

The “digital divide” is supposedly a socio-economic division that is propelling young, rich and middle class kids into a wonderful, new, technology-based economy, while leaving behind lower classes—especially those growing up in the developing world. Earnest crusaders are bridging this gap by setting up computer labs in schools and community centers for disadvantaged youths, and even building $100 laptops for kids in the 3rd world. This is admirable, and I appreciate anyone giving their time and money to help disadvantaged kids, however I wonder: what is this really helping? Now these kids can create their own Facebook page and copy and paste from Wikipedia for their school projects like their more affluent peers—is this really a step in the right direction? By virtue of the fact you are sitting here reading my ramblings (and I have spent time writing them for this forum) we know that the Internet is more often just a time waster. The cynic in me (and I am probably not alone) looks at the picture below, and braces for an onslaught of even more 419-style email spam.

No, the real digital divide is a generational divide; its victims are often otherwise successful and affluent professionals, business leaders, “old-economy” corporations, and even entire sectors that just don’t get it. The most obvious example is the music and film industries; as entertainment is increasingly being distributed and delivered digitally, traditional distributors and retailers of these goods are becoming increasingly irrelevant. Instead of finding sensible ways of delivering this content to consumers (meaning cheaper and more convenient,) they have balked—either by ignoring the reality of how music is being “consumed,” or by proposing ridiculous schemes whereby consumers are locked into a particular technology, yet given no significant discount for buying this crippled product. Let’s face it, it is technologically impossible to create a format that can be played on a variety of players from different manufactures and—at the same time—be hacker-proof.

Therefore, I predict that the traditional distribution channels for music will shrivel up and eventually die, as the industry continues to push for more onerous restrictions (namely Digital Rights Management [DRM] schemes, constraints on the types and number of playback devices an individual can use, and limitations on sharing music among friends,) all of which will drive consumers to “pirating.” What will eventually replace the current “music labels,” will be an E-bay like marketplace where consumers buy music directly from the musicians—cutting out the middle man—at a fraction of the current retail price. Musicians will gladly allow consumers to freely share their music with friends, as this will grow their audience.

Likewise, the sale of movies will have to radically change as the general population will have access to ever increasing bandwidth, meaning high-resolution movies will be able to be delivered via the Internet. Certainly movie theaters/cinema will continue thrive as they have through the advent of TV, VCR, and DVD. But if the movie studios think they can retail movies for the same prices as they do DVDs—which is what they are trying to do now—then they are kidding themselves. A downloaded movie has to priced at least half of what a DVD costs since you are providing your own storage, and no longer have access to a real, physical backup copy of the movie. [2016 Update: It looks like I didn't see the streaming revolution coming.]

I’ve actually gone out on a tangent with this rant on the entertainment industry. What I really wanted to say is that I have had the experience of helping people with their websites both at home and abroad, and I’ve noticed that otherwise successful business people of a certain age want their websites to look like a slick brochure. The result is a lot of websites with text in graphics, 100% Adobe Flash sites, and other obvious self-sabotage. On the Internet, content almost always trumps presentation: just look at the minimalist design of ultra-successful sites like Google and Craig's List.

Furthermore, what is more important nowadays is to be part of the Internet community rather than an “island” website unconnected to the rest of the net. In fact, it turns out that many individuals and small organizations simply don’t need their own website. An individual or artist/band will find that a MySpace profile is more useful and easier to create & maintain. Likewise, a professional will find LinkedIn to be more useful for networking, and even small net-based retailers would find Cafe Press, Yahoo! Store, or even Ebay to be a more efficient way to list and sell their merchandise. Hmm, Joel.Froese.com is up for renewal in May; I wonder if I really want to renew it now. [2016 Update: Indeed, I couldn't justify the $35/year price, and have let my original website expire.]
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