Unenvisaged consequences

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Over on Boing Boing, Cory Doctorow posted a 1981 TV report on early downloadable newspapers. But the post is more interesting for Cory’s conclusion:

This is pretty much the epitome of what’s wrong with corporate futurism: it assumes that things will change in a way that enhances the corporation’s ability to get the job done (which, of course, it does), but without changing things in ways that enhance the world’s ability to clobber the corporation’s bottom line.

Other examples:

  • The Internet will enable us to deliver pay-on-demand movies to our viewers’ homes (but it won’t let them get those movies without paying for them)

  • The Internet will enable us to save money on our long-distance trunks (but it won’t let callers bypass the tariff-based telephone system altogether)

  • The Internet will enable the police to coordinate international investigations (but it won’t let criminals coordinate their activities to evade the police)

There are a few more suggestions in the comments. I’m fascinated by unintended consequences but these are more like unenvisaged consequences, the kinds of things futurists might overlook because their world view blinkers them into thinking of only one kind of future. It’s good to have reminders of these kinds of faults with some forecasting.

(I feel a little bad, especially given the limited rate of posting these days, when I repeat something from a widely-read source. But when I don’t have much time for blogging or reading then I don’t get as far as the murky deep obscure sources. And besides, I shouldn’t assume you all read exactly the same things as me.)

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The thing is, corporate futurism might well have turned out to be right. After all, just as information wants to be free, it also wants to be paid for (the less-often repeated half of the classic saying), and in Ted Nelson's vision of hypertext, micropayments would have been baked in.

(Of course, for micropayments to work, there would probably have to be copying restrictions, and I'm sure Cory Doctorow would argue that no matter what, the DRM would be broken somehow. I'm sure that technically he's right, and that in theory it could, but I see examples of DRM in the wild - Apple's FairPlay and DAAP signing, and Microsoft's DRM - that have either remained unbroken or been patched to remove vulnerabilities.)

As Kellan put it in his delicious comment on the recent New York Times story about redesiging the internet, "the odds that we would ever get as lucky again as we got with the TCP/IP/HTTP/DNS/blind routing, the really true original openstack, are blindingly small". I don't find it hard to imagine an alternative future where every country has its own version of Minitel, with limited (and limiting) connections between them, and content providers happily charging for each nugget of content.

Mind you, this is more about a past - or an alternative present - than a future, so perhaps I should stop rambling.

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