We are very lucky to have Clay Shirky amongst us as he brings an incredible knack for being able to explain, very simply, seemingly complex problems in the digital arena. His latest post, The Collapse of Complex Business Models, covers his thoughts on the transition to the web for TV companies and producers. Before addressing their concerns he takes a moment to reflect upon Joseph Tainter‘s book, The Collapse of Complex Societies where Tainter looked at several ancient, sophisticated societies that suddenly collapsed. As it turns out, it was bureaucracy that ruined those societies – “In such systems, there is no way to make things a little bit simpler – the whole edifice becomes a huge, interlocking system not readily amenable to change.”
He then turns to the TV producers, news content providers and their issues with the web:
About 15 years ago, the supply part of media’s supply-and-demand curve went parabolic, with a predictably inverse effect on price. Since then, a battalion of media elites have lined up to declare that exactly the opposite thing will start happening any day now.
To pick a couple of examples more or less at random, last year Barry Diller of IAC said, of content available on the web, “It is not free, and is not going to be,” Steve Brill of Journalism Online said that users “just need to get back into the habit of doing so [paying for content] online”, and Rupert Murdoch of News Corp said “Web users will have to pay for what they watch and use.” Diller, Brill, and Murdoch seem be stating a simple fact—we will have to pay them—but this fact is not in fact a fact. Instead, it is a choice, one its proponents often decline to spell out in full, because, spelled out in full, it would read something like this:
“Web users will have to pay for what they watch and use, or else we will have to stop making content in the costly and complex way we have grown accustomed to making it. And we don’t know how to do that.”