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Slaves of a New Machine: Exploring the For-Free/For-Pay Conundrum

by Laura Fillmore

Part 2

Presented at the Fifth Conference on Organizational Computing, Coordination, and Collaboration: Making Money on the Internet
Austin, Texas
May 10, 1994

Copyright © 1994 by Laura Fillmore; written permission required to reprint.

This same combination of for-free/for pay can be seen in the sponsorship model, the third commercial model after the per-copy and the site license where, in the same way that Mobil Oil brings you Masterpiece Theatre, a company might sponsor a particular publication distributed for free on the Net. The familiar economy of having the book buyer, the purchaser of information, pay for the information, is reversed in sponsored publishing. The sponsor wins by having his name, his product, associated with the freely distributed text. A discreet screen of product information, a company logo attached to a file is all it takes. The money then flows thus: the sponsor pays a certain amount, probably pennies, each time someone picks up a file by anonymous FTP. The taker pays nothing at all. What is being sold here is not the information, but the *attention* of the reader; the information or the ideas function as a conduit for marketing, again. Sponsorship is an easy and risk-free model, for the sponsor. What is at risk, of course, is the objective sponsorship of truth. Which company might have sponsored the students in Tianamen Square, for example?

We see this sponsorship model in frequent practice around the Net today, vast electronic for-free Internet sandboxes such as SUNsite, funded by Sun Microsystems and Cisco Systems and others. The sponsors gain by providing their equipment to people making creative use of it, so others will come and see what they are doing, the sponsors equipment or products. So, as the freely available ASCII files for the Internet Companion fueled the sales of the printed book, so too the freely available playground sandbox at SUNsite spurs the sales of the sponsors' wares. It is kinetic advertising at its best, and it capitalizes on the fundamental shift in economics which fuels the new machine, the shift from the economy of scarcity, of buying and selling things, ideas incarnated as physical things, to the economics of abundance, where what is for sale isn't a thing at all, but the minds, the attention, of those paying attention to the ideas and information. Such an apparently "free" online environment makes for a welcome change, away from our common human penchant for owning and hoarding things with price tags on them. In the economy of abundance, the status of having shifts to the status of having access.

The notion of having access points to a fourth possible business model of publishing on the Net: subscription-based publishing. In the globally distributed multimedia hypertext environment--that's a mouthful, but how else do you say it?--an environment where the traffic increases in the hundreds of thousands of percent annually, and nothing is but what it not, a subscription seems like another logical approach. Think of the digital stream analogy--does one want to buy a piece of the stream in a bottle, or does one want to subscribe to the stream and with that monthly subscription fee get all the fish, the pollywogs, the flowing water in which to bathe--as well as the flotsam and the jetsam from the guys upstream.

But even the subscription model comes up wanting in the Mosaic environment. Mosaic is, at this point, a free multimedia "browser" on the World Wide Web of interconnected computers. Widely hailed as the "killer app" for online publishing, Mosaic enables the users to navigate around the computers of the world, accessing, picking up, customizing anything that can be digitized--for free. But even were there tollgates firmly in place on every server in the world, still, I think the traditional subscription model would at least need adaptation from what we think of today when we think of a subscription to, say, cable TV or "The New Yorker," because Mosaic epitomizes the three defining aspects of the online publishing environment which are not found together in other broadcast and print media: its distributed, interactive, and recorded nature.

A year ago, in the pre-Mosaic boom days, it seemed to the point to say that "Content is King," and to think that successful online publishing meant offering easy and commercially viable access to content. It only takes a short journey with Mosaic, which has a learning curve of under half an hour for the beginning user, to realize that content is everywhere, and more is available every day. Content alone fast becomes irrelevant in the absence of context. What good are a hundred novels online, if the Net, the means of access, is not exploited to create a context, a way of thinking about and reading these novels? Might we not learn from the above for-free experiences, and consider a publishing model where readers are allowed free access to those novels, in return for the readers allowing a publisher to record and study their thought paths, the links they make while reading, thinking, and studying online? One may not want to pay $5 for an online "contained" or finite, static, linear text of James Michener's Chesapeake, but one might pay considerably more if one could follow the electronically generated thought path resulting from a course taught by the author himself about factual fiction, a course where one could navigate the links students make in their critical thinking about the novel, navigate and link to related documents, graphics, videos, sounds, experiences, and the author himself--all in real time. How does one charge for such a contextual experience? What is in fact being published, and what is for sale? In the kinetic publishing environment, apparently the static text, the words, become subsidiary to their context as determined by each individual user.

The idea of publishers or other entities electronically tracking people's thought brings to mind George Orwell's 1984: "The telescreen received and transmitted simultaneously. Any sound Winston made, above the level of a very low whisper, would be picked up by it; moreover, so long as he remained within the field of vision which the metal plaque commanded, he could be seen as well as heard. There was of course no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment. How often, or on what system, the Thought Police plugged in on any individual wire was guesswork. It was even conceivable that they watched everybody all the time. But at any rate they could plug in your wire whenever they wanted to. You had to live--did live, from habit that became instinct--in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and, except in darkness, every movement scrutinized..."

In the new field of kinetic publishing, the currency becomes thought itself, organized thought generated both individually and collectively, done so in a reciprocal environment. One can envision an environment then where, like the big corporations funding places like SUNsite, individuals might segment their own computers, their own servers, into public and private sites. Given this scenario, publishing loses its luster as an exclusive glamour industry, ceases to be an organized corporate activity and becomes, rather, a way of reciprocal interaction among minds, a community of thought where one pays for access to people and ideas in varying states of organization.

Online publishing is commercially successful today in the marketing sense, successful for those of us who still try to own and hoard, owning things as a bastion against mortality perhaps--such marketeers are successfully protecting their back end business by doling out carefully controlled portions in obvious marketing efforts: a chapter here, a blurb there--and then selling the printed book or the manufactured product. Publishing on the individual level, however, might be more spontaneous, more complete, a freer marketplace of ideas that will enable the testing of the concept that time and attention can indeed prove valuable currency--currency which may not be defined in dollars--online. Such an individual as a publisher might make a living on the Net, make his own Home Page, turn his "E" drive into a fast food joint or a used book shop along the Infobahn, into a public sandbox for people to link to and peruse, while maintaining a private segment to which real time access is licensed or sold, like having "This Space For Rent" (point to head).

Charging for thought, kinetic, real time thought, combined with recorded thought, what we used to call publications, might make money on the Internet. Again, as with the first Internet Companion example, this model is a hybrid, between what is living, real-time thought, and what is dead, that which is already recorded. We think by association, and associations are links. By thinking about something or someone, we give it value. The World Wide Web of computers, where traffic in 1993 increased 341,000%, is a hypertext environment allowing for the globalization of associative thought, the accessing and weaving together of chunks of information into customized sets. Anything that can be digitized can be linked to: texts, graphics, videos, sounds, experiences such as online museum exhibits and libraries. People, as well, can be linked to texts in real time via email. What is for sale in this hyperlife environment is the naming and pointing to resources, either live or dead, kinetic or static. If I were a net architect tasked with building an Ethernet and my boss wanted it done by tomorrow morning, I would pay dearly for the name of and online access to Bud Spurgeon, an Ethernet expert here at UT, and pointers to his online documents, and I would pay most of all for access to him in real time to help me solve my problem. This problem might be worth a thousand dollars tonight, and nothing tomorrow, if I lose my job because I couldn't get the network up and running. If the online publisher offering this access to Bud, access which travels right up the chain of the hierarchy of intimacy from email to phone and even face-to-face, that publisher would be capitalizing on the multimedia capabilities of the webbed environment.

We are talking about buying and selling people in real time. This gets me back to the topic at hand: slavery. But no longer are we simply talking about typesetting a janitor's manual in Haiti, of tying people to keyboards so they can make the machines spit out pages in a highly regulated format. We are talking about selling the digitized mind of a human being who chooses to sell access to his own real-time interactive original thought. It would be prudent to strike a note of caution, a note given sonority by Orwell's words quoted earlier, and in light of the marketing lessons repeatedly learned from the commercial publishing models mentioned earlier: per copy, subscription, site license, and, importantly, sponsored publishing. It might prove worthwhile to identify two obvious routes we can follow at this juncture: the new field of transcendental computing, or the digitized slave route.

In a Webbed hyperlinked universe where pointing and naming is the way we know and make ourselves known, the latter route seems a distinct possibility, given the path blazed by our marketing and advertising folks on Madison Avenue. Think of athletes who function as flesh masked in a blaze of corporate insignias, logos and endorsements. In the online recorded environment, words matter: If I were really a savvy businessperson, I could charge companies for the spontaneous words I utter in support of their efforts. Bunyip programmers are brilliant. Texas Internet Consulting corners the market on Net demographics. WAIS defines the standard for searching information on the Net. The Internet functions thanks to Cisco routers. Aldea Communications. Cyberspace Development Corporation. American Airlines. NEARNET. EUNET. Addison-Wesley. Milliman & Robertson. M&Q Plastics Company. Patterson Public Schools. It would be fair business practice for me to charge entities for my verbal endorsements because I have an audience, whether in real-time reality or virtuality. So my value as a pointer to others depends on the current value of my state of thought, and this whole models splits into two options: either the corporate slave model where people and their online incarnations are bought and sold, or to the new field of transcendental computing where creative Muse is supported. The second, and less commercially viable model, is the transcendental computing model, where the individual publisher is egoless in the distributed environment and functions independently of supporters to think objectively and deliberately, rather than thinking for the purpose of advancing either himself or his sponsor. Commercializing this model would be tantamount to marrying the transcendental eyeball with the OCR scanner, hardly an appealing prospect. It seems realistic to suppose that we are headed in the sponsorship direction, supplemented perhaps, ideally, by transcendental computing on the academic side.

If we look around us now, we can see lots of other people making money from the Internet. People selling hardware, connectivity, and software, they are making money. They are the means-makers. But once acceptable means are in place for, say, W3, what then? Will we see trading in the form of link brokers and URL futures? Will humans be bought and sold for their minds rather than for their ability to wash dishes or pick cotton? The Internet today is a multimedia environment, and it might be useful to consider the record industry for a final thought about where all this is going, for the conundrum before us involves assigning value to both recorded and live information. Recorded thought, ideas, or music, is in a sense dead. It is live when it is reciprocal, as a concert is reciprocal, or as, in a way, karaoke is reciprocal. As soon as the Rock band The Doors recorded "Break on Through," it became posterity, static, a commodity to be bought and sold, a commodity which increased in value after Jim Morrison himself was dead at a young age. In the New Machine, the recording of "Break on Through To The Other Side" might be available for free, while access to Morrison would cost dearly, and access to karaoke interaction with the Doors would cost as well. These are the living, interactive links I am referring to, the links that bind us to our new online environment and enrich us, rather than the links that fetter us in servitude to the Great Records machine we are in the process of creating.

Copyright © 1994 by Laura Fillmore; written permission required to reprint.

OBS White Papers Part 1