“It’s impossible to compete with free.” says interim president of the MPAA Bob Pisano in an article on Ars Technica.
This statement, while punchy and beneficial to the cause of anti-piracy groups worldwide, implies an identical product or service is being provided. Is the experience of Netflix the same as the experience of uTorrent?
Let’s start at the beginning. Tribes and early civilizations had very particular diets, depending on where they settled (or roamed). Some diets were heavier in gamey meat, others stronger in fruits and nuts, and this lack of variety marked the differences between cultures in a profound way.
As caravans gave way to wagons and people started being able to traverse the seas in search of strange and foreign wonders, the luxury of goods unseen by local folks became big business. In fact, it became political. If you think the West’s meddling in the Middle East over oil is a trivial cause for war, consider that the entire Minoan civilization was wiped out over its primary international trade good: olives.
This demand people had for the strange and new was marked as a status symbol. The wealthiest were always the first to receive the exotic and adventurous travellers and explorers of their time, with the likes of Sir Walter Raleigh and Marco Polo lavishing the crown with the strangest of treasures. The quantity of cultural artifacts possessed, food consumed and phenomena observed (directly or indirectly) from foreign lands dictated one’s status. As such, the kings and queens were the first and most lavishly endowed icons upon any worthy travellers’ return.
What exactly is different today?
In 2008, Brewster Kahle gave a talk at TED describing the cost of his effort to create a digital library along the same lines as the Great Library of Alexandria with one key difference: its storage facility being duplicable and ephemeral prevented its being able to be physically destroyed.
“We really need to put the best we have to offer in reach of our children.” begins Kahle. “If we don’t do that, we’re gonna get the generation we deserve. They’re going to learn from whatever it is they have around them.” At first thought, this final statement that children will learn from their environment seems like it may be anachronistic in an age where the internet provides access to almost any information one seeks (and especially given the nature of Kahle’s project). What it points to, however, is a truth Kahle isn’t attempting to describe: that our age of acquisition is being enveloped by an age of taste.
Consider for a moment, the wealth of information readily available to each person sitting and reading this blog right now. From learning a new language to virtual tours of the most exquisite museums, from every classic film ever made (you can stream them legally here) to surprise masturbation on Chatroulette. (I’m perhaps not at my most imaginative today) The mobility of people, the transmission of information and the multicultural nature of societies all combine to prove the point that anything we are curious about, we can find a way to consume.
The ability to consume is no longer our primary driver. The ability to consume endlessly is within the grasp of almost all of the developed world. Now the ability is a given and the specifics of a person’s consumption are on trial, rather than mere proof that they have consumed. Passing someone on the street who is sporting a gold necklace to indicate their ability to generate wealth is less of a gesture than the ridiculously pompous garments worn by the aristocracy during the Elizabethan era. The reason for the mellowing out of aesthetic displays is that the assumption of general wealth can be made more easily and confidently today than it could then. The person you pass in the street needn’t wear their status on their sleeve, as survival is no longer a luxury and proof positive that you are able to survive is accordingly no longer a matter of necessity.
Today, how one showcases their cultural appetites and tastes must be revealed in the more subtle art of conversation. Appearing wealthy (and being wealthy) does not automatically grant one taste. The battlefield of good taste we all find ourselves on has flattened somewhat, with the ‘wealth’ of variety no longer being exclusively possessed by the wealthy. (Although I concede that access to variety of culture doesn’t automatically create a drive to experience culturally rich things, hence Big Mommas: Like Father Like Son.)
The drive to consume specific items and to proudly be able to discuss your enjoyment of them renders small libraries of ‘big’ films redundant for those wanting to exercise their cultural appetites a little and seek out obscure films. The gift of duplication and transmission of culture leaves those with the desire to consume little choice other than to break whatever rules they have to in order to consume the culture they desire. Why would a person wait for Waking Life to come out in region 4 on DVD when they could download it? Why would anyone pay $8.95 for a copy of Double Indemnity on DVD when it’s free and legal to consume it online? Why would a person wait for the latest episode of Boardwalk Empire to air in their country when it becomes available immediately after airing in the US (especially when it costs money to buy TiVo so you don’t have to be at home at a specific time for the ‘privilege’ of viewing the desired programming which is littered with ads)? Why would anyone pay to stream a film when their internet has been playing up a little when piracy offers the ability to buffer the entire thing and store it on the hard drive before watching?
The downloaded film offers the consumer complete control. The ability to duplicate it, watch it as many times as desired, pause and rewind it, edit it if they so desired, to get it almost instantly, and most importantly for ‘it’ to be almost anything they could possibly ask for (rather than a selection of Hollywood being dictated by a quagmire of copyright laws and red tape) gives the self-respecting consumer little choice. To be competitive in this world you need to be culturally savvy, and faster than ever.
Should the consumer care that there was a hold-up in getting the legal rights for a film to be uploaded to Netflix when its already out on uTorrent? Perhaps not.
The idea that the film industry (and others) are ‘competing with free’ implies that the services offered by them and by piracy are identical. The differences between the two are many and varied. NetFlix has a poorer range, longer waiting times, costs more, is reliant on a high-speed streaming internet connection at all times to work, offers no consumer control and gives a limited number of plays (based on time). Torrenting, on the other hand, not only beats out Netflix as a service in all those departments, but also is the same service which offers music and books (and porn, which shouldn’t be discounted as a huge factor here).
Netflix and any other service providers along similar lines (iTunes etc) must realise that what is happening online isn’t a perfect mirror of their service but minus the strings of payment. It makes no difference to a culture-hungry consumer whether the reasons behind them not getting M*A*S*H on Netflix are legal or financial or whatever else – if one service offers it and another doesn’t, the legality or payment becomes moot.
By way of illustration, I have seen hours of discussion between prominent philosophers, indulged in more 1940s film noir than I could possibly think to list, seen Kseniya Simonova’s live sand painting performances and read the most obscure of ancient poets. And I’ve done all of it via YouTube and a few minutes on Google. The barriers to experience are coming down. Netflix must find ways to offer something its billions of competitors (they being each and every one of us) don’t or can’t. Until then, the MPAA will just have to continue to post record profits year-on-year when its not too busy hypocritically blaming piracy for its demise.
Parents now need to teach their children to acquire a taste for culture, rather than merely teaching them survival, dictating their culture and showing them how to attain it. The how is less important now than the why.