Uncertainty about Digital Futures

These are some thoughts based on a discussion over at Deadline Hollywood Daily on the uncertainties over the digital future. The film and TV people - above and below the line - are at odds over what will happen once the distribution model for their work is expected to completely shift to online. In the current strike, a complaint - as explained in this United Hollywood video - has been that studio executives claim not to make any money (or not knowing what will happen), while in the same breath explaining to reporters or investors that their businesses online will generate billions. Lots of uncertainty about digital futures, for sure.

It seems that all parties in this conflict are certain about one thing: the future is online. So lets ignore the fact that below-the-line labor suffers most from this strike, and that paying writers for scripts and not for repurposing the products based on those scripts perhaps might be valid if you put writers on a payroll with benefits and so on.

Regarding the promises of the digital age, several industry observers have made reference to the importance of the "pipes" (you know, broadband bandwidth). That seems to be true - but I think may be ultimately misleading. The studios have gradually retreated from producing movies (just like the labels have almost stopped investing in artists and bands), instead focusing their business model predominantly on marketing and distribution (and some boutique creative work).

As internet is basically an open P2P communications infrastructure, it completely disrupts the gatekeeper model in journalism (hence the panic in the news industry), or the bottleneck model in, for example, film and music.

In the short term, fighting off anyone who wants to share in online revenue is a solid business purpose (to please stock market analysists). but in the long run, it seems - and I may sound too hopeful here - that talent, creativity and innovation may be a more promising investment.

Assuming for a moment that Google, Yahoo, Microsoft and AOL (the "Fab Four") will win the fight for Net neutrality, they and companies like them will be in control of distribution and access. producers and consumers of content - whether professional or amateur - will have to go through them. but they do not operate on the premise of gatekeeping - more on the level of forwarding, "gatewatching", annotating, aggregating, and so on.

In other words: what will have lasting value, is compelling content. How it will get to whoever wants to consume it, is in the short term hugely important but in the long term tremendously irrelevant.

Thoughts in progress...