TOC Hinged on information. Janus's the god for our age Your Turn

Some gods get no respect. Take Janus (1) for example. Janitors, named after him, make an indispensable contribution to our urban society but we tend to take them for granted. Today belongs to Venus and to Mars, her lover, and nobody pays attention to the god of doors and hinges. Big mistake as, come to think of it, the whole world revolves on hinges.

In our Information Age, the most crucial of those hinges is information itself. Stop it and almost all human activity will grind to a halt. Remember the colossal expense to fix the so-called Year 2000 bug before it could just do that. Funny then that information happens to share with Janus the uncanny feature of having two or even four faces depending on how you look at it.

First and quite appropriately since we are dealing in doors as well as hinges, information can be either in or out, either secret or public.

Wait, this is no truism worthy of La Palice (2) as the French would say. For the publishing industry is for ever fighting rear guard actions to recapture a magical third state. To its glory the Industrial Age had found a way to bind information to some physical medium, mass-produced and sold at a profit on every unit. In this convenient guise, information, hardly a secret anymore, still was not entirely public since circulation size was tightly controlled by media manufacturers. Today music and movie companies wield Digital Right Management, DRM for short, as a bludgeon to simulate the past. John Gapper's latest analysis (*) shows us the limits of such a plan.

Beyond the current brouhaha of their self-interested declarations, business leaders should rather focus on reality. Once communicated, secret information becomes public, point. This process is not instantaneous however and the correct question to ask is, given the finite speed at which the corresponding information is bound to propagate, how to design economic models to be profitable in the meantime. How fascinating to observe that in this matter user convenience, as John Gapper illustrates, is both a major factor and a little understood one. Publishers should reflect on two facts. Nothing is more convenient than to click on a link to a title in a catalog. Fortunes have been built on such "click machines", Google's for one.

The same inconvenient truth, information inevitable leakage (see 1/23/07 fillip), explains why I am wont to pour out scorn on so-called privacy policies (see 1/02/07 fillip). By recording consumer confidential information and despite any declaration to the contrary companies make it public, point. The real question is how one's information shelf life compares to the rate at which it is released, whether voluntarily or not (see 5/30/06 fillip). The easier remedy would be to shorten its shelf life by planned obsolescence but I must be dreaming.

Second information can be either true or false.

Granted, a true tautology this time. And a point I have belabored (see 8/22/06 and 12/05/06 fillips). We know that on the Internet information is bound to be manipulated, if not entirely fictional as Sara Ivry timely reminds us (**). But here again is a key question to focus on. Who is the source responsible for providing a particular piece of information ? Given its identity, then how far do I trust its authority on the topic at hand and how can I get redress for errors ? This is what I call a recommendation mechanism, accreditation in Yochai Benkler's words (see 8/01/06 fillip).

Third information can come from an individual or a collective.

Another tautology behind which lies the dilemma of creativity versus ownership. As a witness to its importance, I need only call the Creative Commons (3), Lawrence Lessig's progeny. Whether it deals with patent rights and copyrights (see 6/13/06 fillip) or with the analysis of collective behavior (see 8/15/06 fillip), this dilemma deserves my further analysis.

Fourth and final face, information can be held by an individual or an organization.

My very innocent question is why it should matter. Faithful readers will not be surprised that in this distinction I find the root of all evil (see 5/23/06 fillip). For how can one hope to achieve a sustainable answer to the questions raised by the first three faces of information if this answer is vitiated by original discrimination? As I have already dealt at length with this distortion of privacy, let John Leland and Saul Hansell, who just reported about ID theft (***) and movie copyright infringement (****) respectively, forgive me for a little remixing of my own.

Were Saul Hansell to have written: "An Electronic Frontier Foundation spokesman [...] said [...]. "The privacy law doesn't give companies the right to engage in the massive violation of our privacy to build a thriving business and then, after the fact, avoid exposure by saying they will prospectively start to protect our confidential data"". And John Leland: "The survey was conducted by [...] a data research firm, and was sponsored by Creative Commons. The findings contradict publishers perceptions that content piracy is proliferating out of control, said the president of the data research firm. "For years content piracy has been reported as the nation's fastest growing crime, with the assumption that the numbers would keep going up. We find it's not the case. The trend is going down.""

My slight manipulation will hardly confuse the reader, who knows that bombastic bluster comes from blue-blooded companies while soothing sentences are intended for the rabble of mere individuals. Indeed take John Gapper's advice that "if abandoning DRM is too much for the [music] industry, it could watermark digital content so it is able to trace pirated material, rather than blocking all file-sharing." While I agree with such a position, which enables responsible behavior (see 11/28/06 fillip), it reminds me of two recent articles, one by Julia Preston (*****) about a US-sponsored DNA sampling program and by Barnaby Feder (******) about human implantable, machine readable chips to hold the bearer's medical data. Rather than to enable individuals to watermark their private data as publishers their content, our brave new world wants to watermark the individuals themselves.

By custom my sources focus on the several skirmishes of the information war. We here attempt to present the whole, multi-faced Janus it really is.

Philippe Coueignoux

  • (*) ................. Why digital music should be set free, by John Gapper (Financial Times) - February 12, 2007
  • (**) .............. 'Monkey Fishing' Author Admits to Falsehood, by Sara Ivry (New-York Times) - February 12, 2007
  • (***) ............ Identity Fraud has dropped Since 2003, Survey Shows, by John Leland (New-York Times) - February 7, 2007
  • (****) ......... Universal Near Deal With Video Site on Royalties, by Saul Hansell (New-York Times) - February 12, 2007
  • (*****) ....... U.S. Officials Preparing To Expand DNA Sampling, by Julia Preston (New-York Times) - February 5, 2007
  • (******) ... A Medical ID Business, Much Criticized, Plans a Stock Offering, by Barnaby Feder (New-York Times) - February 5, 2007
  • (1) see Janus in the Wikipedia
  • (2) see La Palice in the Wikipedia
  • (3) see Creative Commons in the Wikipedia
February 2007
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