What Really Lies Beneath the SOPA Debate?
By Chris Dorr
The battle raging around the SOPA bill these past several weeks has been fascinating to watch. There have been a lot of blog posts and interviews full of bluster, confrontation, some sanctimonious, others nasty and yes, also informative. It is worth spending the time to read them all to get a feel for the complete picture of this epic battle.
We are reminded yet again that a great gulf exists between mass media (companies in the movie, TV and music industries) and the tech industry as broadly defined. This gulf has many features ranging from the psychological, the economic, to the political and the cultural.
However, beneath this debate lies something much more fundamental and rarely discussed. This dispute is really between two types of network architecture and the unique belief system each creates.
I know this may sound a little esoteric, but please bear with me.
A Brief Origin Story
In the 50’s and early 60’s the US Defense Department thought the United States might be bombed at any moment by the Soviet Union.
They were particularly worried because all of the major communications systems in the United States were centralized networks. Everything was controlled and broadcast through or from a few places in the center of each network.
This meant that the Soviet Union could knock out all internal communications within the US by launching a few guided missiles aimed at each network’s center. The Defense Department went to the RAND Corporation and asked them to create a solution for this problem.
RAND came back with the idea of a distributed network equipped with multiple “centers“ or nodes spread throughout the network so that if one node within the network was knocked out by a missile, information could be rerouted through many other nodes and still get to its final destination. With this new network architecture the Soviet Union would have too many nodes to hit and would be unable to knock out the country’s communication capabilities.
The Defense Department’s research arm financed this new distributed network. It was originally called ARPANET. A few years later it was renamed the Internet.
These early planners within the US Defense Department and RAND had no idea what this early project would unleash. We can be reasonably sure that they were not contemplating YouTube, Facebook or Twitter.
But here we are in the land of unintended consequences!
These Networks Generate Their Own Belief Systems
Since the 60’s centralized networks and distributed networks have grown by leaps and bounds, with mass media companies continuing to build on a centralized model, while Internet companies were building on a distributed model. And every year, the tension between these types of networks has become more and more acute, especially with the rise of the World Wide Web and its next incarnation, the social web.
Why is this? I think it is because each of these network models generates belief systems that are deeply at odds with each other. And these belief systems are built into the network architecture itself.
Here are a few of the differences between them.
A centralized network holds all its power in the center. A distributed network pushes its power to the edges. A centralized network holds all its intelligence in the center. A distributed network relies on intelligence that is disbursed throughout the network. A centralized network requires a gatekeeper. A distributed network does not. A centralized network is unidirectional. A distributed network is multidirectional.
You can imagine that if your company operates under a belief system that is based on a centralized network you find it very hard to understand companies that are based on a distributed network and vice versa.
And the most fascinating thing about these belief systems is that the individual has a very different role to play in each of them. And when we understand that role, we will understand why mass media companies find it very difficult to understand the Internet, let alone accept it.
A mass media company spends money to create a product—say a movie, for example, which it then spends a lot more money to market to the individual consumer. The movie studio hopes the consumer will spend money to buy the movie in some form. That money then flows back to the center of the network.
A mass media company believes that individuals are passive recipients of a product. This view is generated by the architecture of its centralized network model.
The consumer is expected to pay the money and view the movie. She is not asked to share, comment, contribute or recommend. The relationship is unidirectional.
The movie company hopes that if enough people do this across all the movies released in a given year, the hits make up for the failures. The mass media company is happy and so are the consumers—passive but happy. And most important, as this is a key belief within the centralized network model—the company remains in control.
The distributed network (aka the Internet) takes the control model of mass media and flips it on its head.
A distributed network pushes intelligence, power, and gate keeping functions to the edge of the network. It enables the user to communicate with others within the network. By doing so, it pushes more control to the individual. The rapid rise of social media directly results from this fundamental design. It enables services that encourage the “end user”(the new word that has replaced the more passive word “consumer”) to be active, to jump in, to express herself, to publish, to create and to share. In other words:
The design of the distributed network itself shifts more control to the individual. Individuals are encouraged to become active participants.
If you build an Internet company you will be successful only if you obey the design dictates of the distributed network. Active and engaged users will determine the fate of your company, not passive viewers. Therefore, everything you do is designed to get people to engage, respond and share what your company provides.
A mass media company that wants to use the Internet to advance its business must obey these same network rules. But to do so successfully it must also abandon the fundamental belief system that is embedded in its centralized network model.
Today the centralized network and the distributed network models support many powerful companies and each reach billions of consumers. But the distributed model is becoming larger and more powerful every day and the centralized model is being severely challenged.
Mass media companies have to face a fundamental truth. As the Internet increases its reach and engages everyone on the planet, the distributed network will likely become the dominant model for entertainment.
Mass media companies and their network model will not disappear overnight. They may not disappear at all. No one can say how fast this will occur or over what specific time frame it will unfold. But the pace of change is accelerating.
We can see that the passive viewer is rapidly becoming the consumer of the past. Any business that solely relies on passive viewers to make money will find it more and more difficult to actually make money.
Will the mass media companies take advantage of this transformation? They can if they choose. But it requires them to embrace a new belief system that runs counter to what they currently hold dear.
When it comes to your fundamental beliefs, change is tough.
And when that change involves giving up a kind of control that you regard as solely your own, it is even tougher.
Chris Dorr is a digital media consultant. His clients include MTV Networks, Samsung Electronics of America and the Tribeca Film Festival. He can be followed on Twitter @chrisdorr.