Blogs. Digital photo and video sharing. Podcasts. Rip/Mix/Burn. Tagging. Vlogs. Wikis. These buzzwords point to a fundamental social change fueled by cheap PCs and servers, the Internet and its local wired/wireless feeder networks, and powerful, low-cost software: citizens have morphed from passive media consumers to digital media producers and publishers.
Libraries and scholars have their own set of buzz words: digital libraries, digital presses, e-prints, institutional repositories, and open access journals to name a few. They connote the same kind of change: a democratization of publishing and media production using digital technology.
It appears that we are on the brink of an exciting new era of Internet innovation: a kind of digital utopia. Dr. Gary Flake of Microsoft has provided one striking vision of what could be (with a commercial twist) in a presentation entitled "How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Imminent Internet Singularity," and there are many other visions of possible future Internet advances.
When did this metamorphosis begin? It depends on who you ask. Let’s say the late 1980’s, when the Internet began to get serious traction and an early flowering of noncommercial digital publishing occurred.
In the subsequent twenty-odd years, publishing and media production went from being highly centralized, capital-intensive analog activities with limited and well-defined distribution channels to being diffuse, relatively low-cost digital activities with the global Internet as their distribution medium. Not to say that print and conventional media are dead, of course, but it is clear that their era of dominance is waning. The future is digital.
Nor is it to say that entertainment companies (e.g., film, music, radio, and television companies) and information companies (e.g., book, database, and serial publishers) have ceded the digital content battlefield to the upstarts. Quite the contrary.
High-quality thousand-page-per-volume scientific journals and Hollywood blockbusters cannot be produced for pennies, even with digital wizardry. Information and entertainment companies still have an important role to play, and, even if they didn’t, they hold the copyrights to a significant chunk of our cultural heritage.
Entertainment and information companies have understood for some time that they must adopt to the digital environment or die, but this change has not always been easy, especially when it involves concocting and embracing new business models. Nonetheless, they intend to thrive and prosper—and to do whatever it takes to succeed. As they should, since they have an obligation to their shareholders to do so.
The thing about the future is that it is rooted in the past. Culture, even digital culture, builds on what has gone before. Unconstrained access to past works helps determine the richness of future works. Inversely, when past works are inaccessible except to a privileged minority, it impoverishes future works.
This brings us to a second trend that stands in opposition to the first. Put simply, it is the view that intellectual works are "property"; that this property should be protected with the full force of civil and criminal law; that creators have perpetual, transferable property rights; and that contracts, rather than copyright law, should govern the use of intellectual works.
A third trend is also at play: the growing use of Digital Rights Management (DRM) technologies. When intellectual works were in paper form (or other tangible forms), they could only be controlled at the object-ownership or object-access levels (a library controlling the circulation of a copy of a book is an example of the second case). Physical possession of a work, such as a book, meant that the user had full use of it (e.g., the user could read the entire book and photocopy pages from it). When works are in digital form and they are protected by some types of DRM, this may no longer true. For example, a user may only be able to view a single chapter from a DRM-protected e-book and may not be able to print it.
The fourth and final trend deals with how the Internet functions at its most fundamental level. The Internet was designed to be content, application, and hardware "neutral." As long as certain standards were met, the network did not discriminate. One type of content was not given preferential delivery speed over another. One type of content was not charged for delivery while another wasn’t. One type of content was not blocked (at least by the network) while another wasn’t. In recent years, "network neutrality" has come under attack.
The collision of these trends has begun in courts, legislatures, and the marketplace. It is far from over. As we shall see, it’s outcome will determine what the future of digital culture looks like.