Tuesday, January 3, 2012

How much longer are atoms important?

We need atoms to power out laptops and cars and HVAC systems. We need atoms to nourish and rebuild our corporeal selfs. But how much longer will atoms be used to deliver information and information goods?

I’ve written about newspapers dying, but apparently the end is quicker than we thought. The journalism program at USC predicts only four major dailies will be in print in five years — nearly a decade earlier than expected. (I’m not sure why the Washington Post will survive, so perhaps it will be only three.) The only other survivors will be (they predict) hyperlocal papers, those serving communities of 20,000 or more. (The former dailies may survive a little longer as weekly newsprint magazine wrapped around department store ads.)

We know that most teens and young adults have never bought a CD — at best, having received one as a gift or used an iTunes gift card to buy a song. Now they don’t even have to rent videos, with online streaming by Netflix and its many rivals. After more than a century, Blu-ray is probably the last physical form of recorded entertainment our civilization will see.

Amazon is doing their best to kill physical books without (as Netflix did) cannibalizing its core business in the name of cost reduction. Unfortunately, citizens and policymakers have not confronted the desire of content owners to eliminate sale of content and replace it with DRM-infested rental. The established “first sale” doctrine (along with markets for used books, movies and records) will be moot if nothing is ever sold again.

What really surprised me was film cameras. When I gave my UCI MBA students a homework assignment on convergence devices a decade ago, we could see that video-still cameras and PDA phones would converge. But we didn’t see that phones would replace cameras

Over the Christmas break, I was prompted to consider how much longer the annual holiday letter will survive. This year we sent about 110 cards and received about 60. (The older generation no longer can send letters and the younger generation never got into it). We also got three electronic holiday letter-cards and one electronic greeting card. Will we be emailing a PDF in three years?

Even so, there must be some limits to this transformation? Between Christmas and New Year’s, someone mentioned a young man who e-mailed virtual flowers. (No one volunteered how effective this was in achieving his romantic goals.) Call me old school, but that seems like a bridge too far: the first young man who comes to escort my daughter better be bringing actual dead flora.

1 comment:

Doug Klein said...

Using atoms to deliver intellectual property is clearly dead. The whole idea of buying the package instead of the actual product will quickly be replaced; it is completely illogical in a world where it is unnecessary. There will be holdovers (consider beautifully done hardbound books over paperbacks - content, i.e., the intellectual value, is the same, but the price is far different), but in volume the game is over.

But I think we need to also continue to consider how important atoms are to the rest of our life and existence. Unless we foresee a world in which we truly become brains in bottles that live out entirely virtual lives, physical (=>atom based) things will remain crucially important. As you point out, virtual flowers are just not the same as the real thing (although I can imagine some truly amazing virtual presentations that could be uniquely presented such that flowers for our daughters become passé over time :).