Monday, November 19, 2001

I have spent the last several days pawing through the Web, linking to all manner of strange and portentous sites Bell Labs, NIH, NASA and curious little startups doing truly wacky things to get up to speed on what laboratories are doing. If you sell an editor on a column, next thing you know he expects you to write it. It’s a law of nature.
Anyway, I keep stumbling over something that fascinates me the moral and social effects of technology.
For example, the changing morality regarding intellectual property. What once was stealing barely is any longer. Kids of course copy music CDs around at a high rate, passing them around for the purpose. This has become absolutely normal down to junior high. CD burners i.e., copiers now ship with perhaps most new computers, and probably all computers sold to teen-agers. Copyright?Kids aren’t interested. They see nothing at all wrong with what they are doing.
Intriguingly, “parents” are doing it too. Respectable professionals of my acquaintance, and probably of yours, routinely take CDs out of libraries, or borrow them from friends, and copy them. They would never steal a book from a library, wouldn’t dream of shoplifting but copy Credence Clearwater Revival? Or software costing $600? Without a thought.
As a society we seem to be adopting the once-anarchistic view that intellectual property isn’t property: It doesn’t belong to anyone. Sure, everyone says that the musicians whose music is being stolen should get paid. Then they copy it anyway. A few people refuse to steal software by copying it. Others do and lie about it. But it’s massively common.
Why are decent people stealing music and software (and DVDs the minute it becomes truly practical)? Because they can. Impelling this moral upset is the digitization of everything. Once something a movie, music, a book has been reduced to zeros and ones, it is extremely difficult to control. Transmission is simple: The Internet doesn’t care whether the ohs and ones are a telephone conversation, stolen music or software. A CD burner can’t tell software from digital photos of your picnic. And everything is so cheap.
How do corporations control theft that is common as potatoes, that requires little expenditure and almost no technical savvy? Theft that can be done with equipment that every white-collar home has? Arresting the 15-year-old daughters of America would not be a PR coup for a record company. Bursting through doors with warrants and drawn guns won’t fly well in election years.
Which is why the music industry lobbies furiously for legislation, which usually doesn’t get much ink, to put copy-control devices in your hard drives. It’s a legal and technical war that doesn’t make headlines, but it’s important. We’ll keep an eye on it.
Other unexplored effects of digitization loom. As television moves toward being digital, people have been working on what amount to souped-up digital VCRs: Boxes that sit on your television and record any show you want in digital form. The idea itself isn’t either new or staggering. The November issue of Technology Review, from MIT, put the subject on its cover, for example.
If you want to watch a show that comes on while you have other things to do, you just record it and watch when you want. In principle you could do that now, except that nobody on the planet knows how to program a VCR.
Big deal, you say skeptically. The idea sounds like just more ways of seeing lousy programming. Actually, though, a bit more is at stake. Lots of money, for example.
First, if people widely use the boxes to watch what they want when they want, the notion of prime time will disappear. Today the television industry charges advertisers higher rates during prime time because more people will be watching. On the principle that people will watch any television in preference to no television, the industry assumes that anything on during prime time will be watched. What if it isn’t?
If the box allows people easily to record shows automatically, and then easily the crucial word play them back any time, prime ceases to exist.
Second, and fascinating, such a box can be designed to skip commercials. Because the program is stored as a digital file you can, if the box is so designed, simply omit advertising. In trials, according to Michael Lewis in his book “Next,” nearly everyone did.
The larger question is this: “Can the television industry force people to watch advertising once the signal becomes digital?” If not, then what?
Worth keeping an eye on.
Fred Reed now writes a weekly technology column for The Washington Times Business Times. He can be reached at

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