Living In The Future

By | Monday, September 03, 2007 Leave a Comment
I've been giving some thought to some of what Warren Ellis has been discussing in Transmetropolitan and Doktor Sleepless. This whole idea of living life now in what for all intents and purposes IS the future. The question, "Where's my jetpack?" McCluhan's "global village." Toffler's Future Shock. Arthur Clarke. It's all here and most people don't really even realize it.

I can (and often do) leave the house for work in the morning and know that by the time I get home, the dishes will have been cleaned, the clothes will have been washed and the floor will have been swept. I drive to and from work in a car that has no gears and uses the energy usually lost in braking to recharge the battery. I check my mail when I get home through a PDA that I wear on my hip -- a device which doubles as a datebook, address book, notepad, calculator, alarm clock, photo album, music player, video player, universal remote control, video game console, audio recorder, and a couple dozen other things. I let the dog out to go to the bathroom, secure in the knowledge that he won't run out into the street because of what is effectively a force field penning him the yard.

I understood all of that well before I started reading Ellis. The technology we have at our disposal is the stuff of science fiction. But the aspect I've only recently started to grasp is this sociological impact of all this.

The computer from which I'm writing this has around 800 comics loaded onto it legally. Most of which I haven't read because it takes longer to read them than to download them. And all of them were free. Why were they free? Because the owners/publisher/creators realized that it was actually financially better for them to give the content itself away, and then realize profits on tangible, ancillary items. Like t-shirts, coffee mugs, and comics.

"Wait -- 'comics'? I thought you said they were giving them away."

There's the curious distinction: separating the content from the object. The content, in this case, is the sequence of illustrations depicting a story of some sort. The comic book itself -- the 32 page pamphlet or whatever -- is just a distribution method, the object.

Let's look at Alice in Wonderland as a non-comics example. The story itself is in the public domain. Anybody can take the text of the story, do whatever they want to it, and resell it in whatever packaging they like. Some folks took the text, printed and bound it on cheap paper, and sell it as an inexpensive paperback that you can read on a airplane. Another set of folks might take it, annotate the whole thing with their research, and sell it as a study guide. Another group printed it on high quality paper, bound it in leather, and sold it as a collector's edition. The originality -- the reason for buying for one version over another -- is strictly in the packaging, the presentation. If you just want to read the story, and don't care about what form it comes in, you can download it for free from any of a number of web sites.

People these days pay for delivery, not for content. TV is another example. How many TV programs can you watch for free? You pay the cable company (or whomever) for the delivery package, but you could just as easily pay iTunes to download specific programs. Or you could hit Amazon and buy a DVD of the entire series. The content is free, you're paying for the presentation.

So it seems to be going for comics as well. (Albiet much more slowly; the comics industry is a decidedly conservative lot at the publisher level.) You can download most of Heroic Publishing's comics via Wowio at no charge, but if you want a tangible book you can read on anywhere, you've got to pay them for a 32 page pamphlet or, if you prefer another option, for 112 page trade paperback. And, of course, you still have the options of buying tote bags and mouse pads and whatnot.

The question isn't "where's my jetpack" -- that future is effectively here, and people are just blind to it because it doesn't look like the far-flung science fiction adventures people have been dreaming up for decades. The question is "where're my free comics" -- that's the future that SHOULD be here, but is being held back by the big publishers.
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