Monday, October 01, 2007

how the internet could save us

This post isn't going to start off sounding like it has anything to do with peak oil, climate change, resources depletion or any of the other topics I use to organize my thoughts here. It's going to be about technology, about communication, about music and about just how handy the dang 'ole Internet might turn out to be post peak carbon. Of course anyone reading these words knows how different life is today because of the Internet. Without it maybe I'd be writing these words in a diary or more likely I wouldn't be writing them at all, but rest assured several hundred people wouldn't read them over the next few days. Largely the thoughts I'm about to type out would have resided, pre-Internet, only in my head for me to ponder or perhaps share with a few friends or with family over dinner this evening. My ability to communicate with other people all over the globe has been magnified by a factor thought impossible only a few decades ago. How has that got anything to do with the problems facing us in the post carbon era? I'll get to that but first a revelation of enormous proportions.

This morning I read an article that I think heralds the biggest change in music since radio began broadcasting it back in the very early part of the 20th century. If you didn't think the band Radiohead was the best band in the world when you woke up this morning I urge you to reconsider. They are about to release their latest album entitled In Rainbows but you won't be able to buy it in stores. In fact, you won't have to buy it at all.

The band has decided to shun not only the traditional music industry that sucks the majority of the profits out of the recording industry (currently artists make only a fraction of what you pay for their album at the mall) but also to deny online distributors like i-tunes. If you want their new album all you'll have to do is go to their website and download it. The price? You decide. That's right, you pay whatever you want for the album. The music industry is, to put it mildly, shocked.

Now if you don't know who Radiohead is there's no reason to feel bad. Their music isn't exactly mainstream Americana, but they are one of the most popular bands in the world. They aren't my favorite band but after seeing them live in 2006 I can say from my perspective that they are the best band in the world. Plenty of other people agree but let's just suffice it to say that this is a really, really big band with a huge following. So that makes this morning's announcement border on outrageous.

When lead singer Thom Yorke was asked about the move he had this to say. "I like the people at our record company, but the time is at hand when you have to ask why anyone needs one. And, yes, it probably would give us some perverse pleasure to say 'F___ you' to this decaying business model."

And he's right. Personally I've been waiting for this day for a long time, when I could stop paying a bunch of suits somewhere to package my music up for me in an age when any kid in his kitchen can record he and his friends banging on pots and pans and offer it up to anyone with an Internet connection.

Now for the moment I want to focus on the access issue not the fact that you can download Radiohead's new album for free if you'd like. We'll get to that in a minute. With one slice this band has cut the rot out of the process and has accessed the freedom to deal directly with its fans. What a wonderful business model! Anyone arguing that we should still be paying $1 per song like we were in the 80's is arguing that we should be wasting a lot of money on people other than those who create the music. Artist plays great music- Artist sells great music to fan. It has become that simple. But I think this is a big deal because it's shows us how free we've truly become from all the information containers. We don't have to pay special people for special boxes to hold our information any more. Want a recipe for pumpkin soup? You don't have to get in your car and drive to the bookstore and buy a book of recipes, with all its paper and glue and energy costs in terms of printing and shippings and heating the bookstore. You can simply download one of a thousand recipes for pumpkin soup from the Internet. If you like it you can write it down on one of those neat little 3X5 cards my mother used to keep good recipes on, ready for next time.

A few weeks ago I went to the Triple Threat Teach-in sponsored by the IFG at George Washington University in part because I was looking forward to meeting Rob Hopkins in person. The schedule said Rob was presenting but he lives in the UK and I knew he had decided a while back not to fly any more. He made the decision because of the amount of carbon airplanes produce- a personal choice of his. When I saw his name on the list of speakers I thought maybe he was making an exception. I found out before going to the conference that he was not. He was presenting in absentia. He sent his prerecorded video presentation which was played for all of us in attendance. While I would have like to have gotten a beer with Rob at day's end, he was able to present his thoughts without having to travel all the way from the UK. What a marvelous use of technology to spread information.

And this is what I meant by the title of this post, 'how the internet could save us'. It's safe to say that we have never faced the kind of systematic change approaching the human race. It appears we will have to address our issue of population and come to terms with the decline of our impact on this planet least we destroy its capacity to offer us life. In every way this appears a truly monumental undertaking. But one of the bright spots is that we are at a point in human history when sharing information with millions of other humans has never been easier. I was listening to Tim Winton of The Permaforest Trust Centre for Sustainability Education, give a presentation on permaculture the other day. (The presentation was prerecorded and available to me over the Internet by the way.) He was mentioning the fact that permaculture, a system of thinking that envisions a symbiotic relationship between man and nature that is truly sustainable, is happy to present its mistakes. It is a relatively new way of thinking for most modern Westerners and so the people practicing permaculture are making some mistakes. But by sharing them, Tim said he hopes those mistakes can help others avoid making similar ones. And of course they are having all sorts of successes that are quite worth sharing too. In fact, there is so much information available on the Internet about permaculture that you can learn a lot about it without buying a book or taking a class or ever leaving your office chair. In fact you can learn a lot about a great many things from in front of your 'puter. I have developed a fairly significant understanding of resource depletion and energy descent without ever earning a degree. MIT is offers a dizzying amount of its curriculum online- over 1700 courses. You won't get a piece of paper that says you graduated from MIT but you can still have plenty of the knowledge they offer there. Of course there are plenty of great books for sale or for borrow but those are increasingly available for download or for sale used on the Internet. You can and should attend conferences on topics you're interested in but as I pointed out, those too are beginning to utilize "distance shortening" technologies that will allow all of us to share from far away. I have listened to hundreds of interviews, almost all of them over the Internet. So much information is available online.

Let me stop and say that reading an article on permaculture, or any other skill, is no substitute for practicing it on your own or with the help of others. You can only learn so much mentally before getting your hands dirty. In fact I would argue that is where most of the learning actually takes place, in the muscles. But where to begin? Where to start to make the changes we are going to have to make to respond to peak energy and climate change? There is a cry of despair among peak oil activists that most of us in the modern world have become so specialized that we don't know how to do for ourselves anymore. There is a great loss of knowledge that has taken place over the past few centuries (which has accelerated over the past few decades) that has made most of us the opposite of a renaissance man. Most of us under 30 are lucky if we know how to cook without a microwave. But this lack of knowledge, or at least this lack of a starting place on the road to knowledge, is what the Internet can help us with. It is a huge repository of pornography. This much is true. It is also a growing market place where people buy and sell everything from carbon credits to "green" wristwatches. But it is also doing an excellent job of linking people together from all over the world who can share their post carbon successes and failures, joys and sorrows, hopes and fears about a future that is bound to be much more different than the recent past we've known.

But can it all be free? No. Probably not; at least not in its current form. Radiohead is able to offer their latest album online for $0 (If you decide that's what you want to pay) because they are very wealthy and because they will make an insane amount of money playing to soldout shows to promote the album. Smaller bands won't be able to follow suit. But since smaller bands are already only making a few bucks per album, they could feasibly offer their albums online for $5 and still make more than they are making right now. And it would be cheaper for us the consumers. Ultimately we'll find out just what people are willing to pay for music. Not for all the trappings that go along with the traditional music industry, just for the songs. And that's a good thing. Commerce isn't going to fade away just because the biggest band in the world started giving music away for free. And perhaps someone will make money by helping people sort through all of the kitchen pot and pan banging bands that are beginning to flood the Internet. I am not signaling the end of economy in general, just a new twist that is bound to affect someone. But who will take the blow? Who will get the pink slip as this change takes place?

As our energy resources inevitably decrease, so will our economy in the terms in which we think of it now. Peak oil will mean peak GDP. Count on it. But where will the first fat get trimmed as we transition to what's coming next? It'll come from the middle, from the middlemen taking something from a producer and selling it to a consumer. Ultimately I think we'll all be doing a lot more producing and a lot less consuming. Not necessarily a happy prospect if you make widgets, distribute them or sell them in your store. But I think the first to feel the pinch will be the middlemen. And the sooner they see it coming the sooner they can transition into a position of more value in the post carbon world. The music industry is reeling this morning because it failed to realize its day has come. It thought it could sell us songs for $1 online just the same way it sold us songs for $1 in a store, even though everything about producing those song has change. Music consumers like me are happy to see that middle man go but where will he go to? What is going on in the world and how can he adapt? How is someone to make sense of a world in such flux?

I think the answer lands us back on the Internet. As I mentioned before it is no substitute for hard work or face-to-face relationships or making mistakes while trying something new. And somethings might not change that much at all. I think the pleasure of holding a book while you read it just before falling asleep is not in danger of being replaced by sitting in front of an LCD screen just before you fall asleep. Books might be here to stay but if one examines the traditional method for sharing books, the library, one discovers the original Internet; a public repository of information for all of us to use and share. The difference between the Internet and a traditional library is that now much more information is available at incredibly increased speeds making it much more available to many more people.

I do not think the Internet alone will 'Save Us' from the shocks and pains of entering a post carbon world. I think we're in for a rough ride over the next few decades. And the Internet has its share of weaknesses. It is not currently available to everyone because computers cost money. It relies on quite a few technically complex components. It also requires electricity. There's the real possibility that it will be regulated into unhelpfulness by businesses or governments jealous or fearful of its freedom of information. The reliability of the Internet in an age of depletion is not for sure. It does however represent a democratization of information the likes of which the human race has never seen. And it holds in it the possibility that individuals and their communities might have access to the information necessary to make appropriate changes in a changing world. The internet has the potential to offer us a sea chart of knowledge as we set sail in a new direction. Long live knowledge.

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