Monday, March 13, 2006

The 20th Century Blip

Matt Corwine, a musician and writer, said to me the other day that the last hundred years will probably be seen as a blip in the music industry. The current decentralization of production and distribution is returning us to a time when making and listening to music is often a personal affair, much like it was before the big media companies came to power in the early 20th Century.

The news business may also be emerging from a bubble. “Authoritative news” was an artifact of the post-War social consensus. The Big Three US TV networks had their heyday in the Fifties and Sixties, and the period since then has also been a time of consolidation of print and radio. Yellow journalism and flaming polemic is the default mode for the media, and we’re returning to it. It’s not the end of the world; given the choice, I’d take Fox News over Fifties Conformism any day.

I shared this insight with Peter Rinearson, who then asked a great question: Were the last fifty years an aberration in other ways, too? We kicked some ideas around, and came up with this list:

  1. A centralized music industry
  2. Authoritative news
  3. Unquestioned support for intellectual property rights
  4. Peace and stability
  5. Rapid innovation
  6. Being overwhelmed by technological change
  7. No global epidemics

Not all of these bubbles were the same length – and my confidence that they’re temporary phenomena varies.

Intellectual property rights

The rise in the enforcement of intellectual property rights is relatively recent. The Economist’s Oct 2005 survey of patents and technology reports that immediately after America's declaration of independence, its government made it official policy to steal inventions from Europe, expediting the country's rise as an industrial power in the 19th century. Poor countries are increasingly combative about the intellectual property demands being made on them by rich countries, and the sharing of digital media is forcing a reexamination of the social contract embodied in copyright law. We could end up back in a world where intellectual property rights are only a secondary method for protecting investments. As Corwine said to me, “[I’m] selling things that can’t be digitized.”

Peace and stability

If one discounts the US wars in Korea and Vietnam, and other terrible local conflicts, the last fifty years has been a remarkably peaceful time. In the preceding half-century there were two world wars. In the 19th Century there were many clashes of empire: the Napoleonic Wars (1799 – 1815), the Crimean War (1853-56), the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71) and the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905).

Rapid Innovation

Innovation has been accelerating since the 1850s. Some scholars claim that the innovation of the computer age isn’t in the same league as that of earlier periods (eg Robert Gordon - PDF), or that innovation per capita is slowing (eg Jonathan Heubner - article). I’d guess that innovation will continue to accelerate since new innovation feeds on old in a cumulative way. However, society’s ability to absorb innovation has human limits (see my post The long wobble from idea to implementation), and it’s possible that we may start bumping up against them sooner rather than later.

Response to Change

All this innovation has lead to constant change, people have felt overwhelmed by new technology for the last 150 years. I think we’ve now got used to it; change is now so institutionalized that a slow-down in innovation is probably a greater social and economic risk than a continuation of the current rate. And if innovation flattens out, such a wrench is in the offing.

Global Epidemics

We’ve been lucky with pandemics – last big one was the flu of 1918 which killed 50-100 million people. (About 20 million people died of AIDS in the first 20 years of the epidemic.) But rise of the rapid international movement of both food and people means that infectious diseases are much harder to localize than they used to be. On the other hand, biochemistry is now a very advanced science, and our understanding of diseases and ability to respond is unprecedented. Your position on this issue boils down to this: Who can innovate more rapidly, viruses under evolutionary pressure or scientists? In other words: Are You Willing To Bet Against The Bug?

1 comment:

Suze Woolf said...

I have been reading Non Zero in which Robert Wright argues that increasing complexity is an aspect of all life, indicating history in fact has a direction. I haven't finished it yet and it may turn out to be proselytizing, but it is surprisingly entertaining. I suspect he would argue these blips will turn out to be noise in the trend line.