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6/11/2007
03:58 PM
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How Hollywood, Congress, And DRM Are Beating Up The American Economy

The United States traded its manufacturing sector's health for its entertainment industry, hoping that Police Academy sequels could take the place of the rust belt. The United States bet wrong. America needs new, realistic trade policies, columnist Cory Doctorow says.

Not too long ago, back in 1985, the Senate was ready to clobber the music industry for exposing America's impressionable youngsters to sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll. For America, that was nothing new. Through most of its history, the U.S. government has been at odds with the entertainment giants, treating them as purveyors of filth.

Not anymore. The relationship between the entertainment industry and the U.S. government today is pretty cozy. Entertainment is using America's clout to force Russia to institute police inspections of its CD presses, apparently oblivious to the irony of post-Soviet Russia forgoing its hard-won freedom of the press to protect Disney and Universal. The U.S. attorney general is proposing to expand the array of legal tools at the RIAA's disposal, giving the organization the ability to attack people who simply attempt infringement.

How did entertainment go from trenchcoat pervert to top trade priority? I blame the "Information Economy."

No one really knows what "Information Economy" means, but by the early '90s, we knew it was coming. America deployed the futurists -- her least-reliable strategic resource -- to puzzle out what an "information economy" was and to figure out how to ensure that America stayed atop the "new economy."

We make the future in much the same way as we make the past. We weave our memories together on demand, filling in any empty spaces with elements of the present, which are lying around in great abundance. In Stumbling on Happiness, Harvard psych prof Daniel Gilbert describes an experiment in which people with lunch in front of them are asked to remember their breakfast: Overwhelmingly, the people with good lunches have more positive memories of breakfast than those who have bad lunches. We don't remember breakfast -- we look at lunch and superimpose it on breakfast.

We make the future in the same way: We extrapolate as much as we can, and whenever we run out of imagination, we just shovel the present into the holes. That's why our pictures of the future always seem to resemble the present, only more so.

So when the futurists told us about the Information Economy, they took all the "information-based" businesses -- which Neal Stephenson, in his 1992 novel Snow Crash, described as (music, movies, and microcode -- and projected a future in which these would grow to dominate the world's economies.

There was only one fly in the ointment: Most of the world's economies consist of poor people who have more time than money, and if there's any lesson to learn from American college kids, it's that people with more time than money would rather copy information for free than pay for it.

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