Spoiler alert! Neo is the One.
I still get goosebumps watching the climax to The Matrix. Love heals. Right makes might. A baddie gets his comeuppance. It’s also the moment that Neo sees the world for all its details. People like Tank and Cypher can look at a screen of ones and zeros and see the world the code is meant to approximate. Neo goes one further and can see how the code constructs the world he used to live in and thought he once knew.
Once you see the code, you see it everywhere. What seems baffling makes sense in its totality. The digital revolution is hitting in all quarters at once, and while those in the trenches of any one field have a view like Tank and Dozer, it’s possible to step back and see the effects all around you. In fact, it all boils down to those very same ones and zeros.
The twin costs of manufacturing and shipping have enjoyed primacy in the economics of retail and entertainment for centuries. You have to produce things and you have to deliver them. Both have traditionally been quite expensive. The means to do either one efficiently rested in the hands of those with immense capital. The day the internet was born, this began to change. It wasn’t immediate, of course. It required bandwidth. Widespread adoption. Delivery hardware.
We can probably point to 2010 as ground zero, with an error rate of plus or minus five years. In 2009, you have Minecraft, a video game for the PC developed by a solitary programmer, Markus Persson. Minecraft has had over 100 million registered users play the free downloaded version. It has sold over 35 million copies across all platforms. In 2011, Netflix made the controversial decision to separate its DVD rental business from its streaming operation. In 2007, Steam picked up . . . momentum with the inclusion of software from giants like ID, and what became niche has now disrupted how video games are purchased. The Second Generation Kindle came out in 2009. In 2010, the price of the Kindle dropped below $200, a target seen as necessary for the widespread adoption of new technology.
Apple released the iPad in 2010, a watershed moment. At the time, only a handful of magazines like Wired were pushing hard into digital. Soon, you had to have a digital version or you were dead. Print journalism and newspapers began to see the ones and zeros in their trenches. This was the same year Newsweek merged with The Daily Beast. Within two years, Newsweek would cease print publication before being bought out and re-launched in what is considered a risky venture at best. The tremors were everywhere.
Sometime between 2003 and 2005, digital cameras overtook film cameras. The former now trounces the latter in sales and both personal and commercial use. In 2009, 1 out of 4 homes went without a landline, converting from that analog mainstay to the new digital cell phone. In 2011, comedian Louis CK self-produced a hit comedy special, selling millions directly through his website and bypassing the standard means of production and distribution. In 2008, Apple launched the App Store, which allowed solitary programmers (or small-teams of them) to publish alongside established giants. Stories swirled of the overnight success stories (along with stories lamenting the crowded field and difficulty in getting noticed).
Just last week, my wife and I laughed about how much Twitter shows up everywhere. On ESPN, a news story is followed with a quote from JimBean2783’s Twitter feed. Everyone is now a pundit. The cost of putting makeup on a talking head, lighting it appropriately, and broadcasting its yammering are now reduced to 140 characters, made up of ones and zeros and sent across the globe. In 2010, the NYT ran an article on the “problem” with website commenting. Popular Science shut off their comments last year. If this seems disconnected—more of an issue of anonymity and controversy—I beg to differ. It has to do with access. It has to do with the cost of production and distribution. How many people could or would write in to an editor in the days of print? How much space was there for commenting? Or the back and forth replies and comments-on-comments we see today? Now, the space and access are practically limitless. And the cost is almost zero.
These twin forces, the cost of production going to zero and the power of distribution expanding exponentially, are changing anything that can be converted to digital. Those twin costs were once the purview of middlemen who had enormous coffers, complex technical know-how, and a monopoly on access. None of these are any longer a concern. Last year’s best rap album, The Heist by Macklemore and Lewis, was self-produced and self-published. Over 6 billion hours of video are watched each month on YouTube. Compare that to the $10 billion the film industry took in for 2013, which translates to roughly 2 billion viewing hours for the entire year.
Walk around your mall. There are no music stores. There are no 1-hour photo developers. No places to buy those once-ubiquitous yellow boxes of 100/200/400 speed film. Waldenbooks is gone. Radioshack is shuttering over 1,000 stores, as almost no one buys and builds analog radio gear anymore. We all have smartphones and iPods in our pockets. We rush from one WiFi hotspot to another like thirsting desert nomads dying for a digital sip. Bending and aiming rabbit ear antennas has been replaced with moving toward a window and holding a phone aloft to catch a whiff of 4G.
Where once I had a blinking 12:00 on a VCR I couldn’t figure out how to program, I now use my phone to set my DVR to record a basketball game while I’m out of town. I skip the commercials. I’m more likely to buy something based on a recommendation from a Facebook friend or based on a collection of reviews on Amazon, all written by regular folks like myself. How does Consumer Reports hope to compete with thousands of hours of real-world use from thousands of real-world people? All of these disruptions are related.
Whatever field you are in, the chances are that you are being impacted by these forces. They are real and incredibly powerful. The people who think small tweaks here and there will allow them to adapt are out of their minds. Kodak likely thought this was true. Many people think their field will be immune because it’s special. The only thing that’s special is the content. In many cases, that content can be reduced to ones and zeros. The purists will claim that digital is inferior to analog. This was the argument in the camera industry. It was the argument in the music industry. But access, availability, flexibility, cost, immediacy, all trump nostalgia for the vast majority of users. And an influx of new experiences continues to delight consumers—new experiences that are only had when rules are broken and small independent developers have equal access to markets.
In today’s NYT (March 31st, 2014), you have a story about the WWE’s new digital streaming network, which grants subscribers full access to programming without the need for a cable or dish feed. This is stoking anger among traditional distribution partners, but the WWE’s stock has has tripled since the product was launched. On the same page, you have a story about the film industry’s ongoing battle with piracy. Turn to page 7 and read about the producers of the venerable American Life program considering a move to self-distribution.
The best book I’ve read lately about all of this is Clive Thompson’s Smarter Than You Think. This is an absolutely amazing page-turner, a book that should be required reading for all bipedal mammals with opposable thumbs. I read it in two sittings while on vacation a few weeks ago. If any of these trends interest you, I can’t recommend this book highly enough. You’ll read quotes about the downfall of publication going back two thousand years that sounds identical to what we’re hearing today. You’ll hear how warnings about technology destroying culture date back just as far, and again, the ancient jeremiads are identical to what you hear today (and are just as likely to be wrong).
The picture that emerges from this book and daily observations is that our digital revolution is unique, but our responses to it are predictable. They are the common responses to anything new and anything that disrupts. By the end of Clive’s book, you’ll begin to see the code all around you. It’s there, in ones and zeros, zipping through the air. It is the digital ether, a great equalizer. We are awash in it. Some feel that they are drowning. Some are hoping the weather will change. The rest of us are going for a swim.
In my industry, the product is story. Stories are made of words. If we get attached to how those words are transmitted, we run the risk of drowning. Words can be audiobooks. They can be e-books. They can be parents reading aloud or spouses reading to one another. They can come from our phones, our tablets, our laptops, our e-readers, our printed books. But they’re just words, no matter our individual preferences for a particular medium. And words can be broken down into ones and zeros and be transmitted for practically nothing to anywhere in the world.
When you step back and see this, it should make you a little dizzy. And a lot of things should make complete sense. Like how the climax of The Matrix is this unkempt cubicle worker named Neo, who pounds on his keyboard all night and has no social life, suddenly changes the world by saying a single word, “No”, to a handful of gatekeepers.