This post is different from my usual material. Despite the name, I’m not going to talk about actual coding all that much. This post might be classified under “lament”, or maybe “rant”. I talk about problems, reflect on them, and ultimately offer no solutions. As always, opinions are entirely my own, but are definitely influenced by my employer, my friends, my social status, and whatever ad campaign I saw last week, because that’s how opinions work. Please enjoy.
In May of 2016, a small section of the internet was chasing after a mystery. Someone noticed a mysterious symbol had appeared in two different games, of an eye inside a hand. Both of them had been there, lying in plain sight, for half a year. It’s known as an “Alternate Reality Game”, or “ARG”. A sort of invented Da Vinci’s Code, where mysteries and puzzles unlock clues, blurring the lines between fiction and reality. The game usually ends in a marketing message for something else, nothing more than a “be sure to drink your ovaltine”. The allure of a random symbol being placed in a bunch of games, in secret, and having such a long time before being noticed at all is really cool. So, once discovered, off the “game detectives” went, cracking the code and solving the puzzles that lay before them.
Most games were beaten quickly, by simply cracking open the .exe files and the game’s data, often long before the “proper” method of solving it was done. With the exception of one game. It was the earliest of these symbols placed, in fact. The online game Kingdom of Loathing added the symbol in late 2014. It was the last puzzle in the ARG to be solved. Nobody could crack the code, through datamining or otherwise. The correct answer involved noticing certain items in the game could spell out a secret code: “nlry9htdotgif”. It referred to a file on their servers.
Before the community managed to figure it out, the developers hinted at the solution through their podcast. Their choice of words was, to my ears at the time, interesting.
The other games that are involved in this ARG, almost all of them, the thing that people were looking for, just got datamined out of them because they were just Steam games, and we had the advantage of like, well, “this is a web game, so we have always online DRM!” that makes it so you actually have to solve the puzzle.
I don’t use Spotify. I download MP3 files and buy the albums. I wasn’t always like this. I was super excited when Spotify first came to America. I signed up, explored a lot of music, and found an artist I really enjoyed. The next week, the artist was wiped from the service. I canceled my subscription. Paradoxically, as Netflix and Spotify and Steam grow in popularity, there’s less and less content on it. Artist rates are declining, and everybody wants the 30% cut that the platform owners take. Everybody’s launching their own streaming service, and so, this month, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia is leaving Netflix. FOX doesn’t need Netflix anymore, since they have Hulu, and they want your money through Hulu Plus. Want to watch Game of Thrones? HBO NOW will cost you $14.99. Crunchyroll, $11.95. YouTube Red, $9.99. Twitch Prime, $10.99. The dangers of a la carte cable TV seem very real.
Several of my more tech-savvy friends are with me. The guys that waited in line for the first iPhone, and were using Netflix when it sent you DVDs through the mail. There’s a gap in their Blu-Ray collection, starting around 2008. But last year, they’re starting to buy things again. It’s nice to actually own media that won’t expire. Yes, it has DRM — the shitty, encrypted kind. But it doesn’t have web DRM. The disc won’t physically expire because the servers don’t want to send you the file anymore. Programmers can always crack the encryption keys with enough exerted effort. While everybody was afraid of Encrypted Media Extensions in the web browser, Netflix and Spotify were off building something far more ridiculous. Cracking an RSA key feels a lot less intimidating to me now.
Netflix is choosing to continue House of Cards without Kevin Spacey. However, it feels entirely plausible that after the massive wave of recent sexual assault scandals in Hollywood, Netflix might reverse its course and delete the show from their servers forever. It’s now forever “out of print.” After all, the Cosby 77 special was never released. This isn’t a new problem: a lot of TV shows have never seen the light of day after their original broadcast date, except maybe on giant tape reels in old storage rooms somewhere. Every old TV show famously has “the lost episode”. Plenty of old movies are missing forever. But those feel to me like matters of negligent archiving. Netflix scorching an entire show, perhaps even because of public pressure from us, the people, feels a lot more deliberate. And maybe you’re OK with that. Separation of the artist and the work is something that’s becoming more and more difficult to grapple with in today’s society, and perhaps we should just light everything by Bill Cosby and Kevin Spacey up in flames. But the only place left to find anything lost through that will be on the hard drives of people that torrented it.
It feels entirely plausible that after sexual assault allegations about Kevin Spacey, House of Cards might just disappear from the world entirely. Netflix pulls the video files from their app, and that’s that.
And of course I can’t write about this without mentioning subscription software. As we transition from desktop software to web services, it’s very rare to find a “pay-once” kind of deal like you used to. Adobe’s Creative Cloud started that trend by pushing their entire suite of apps, including Photoshop, to a monthly subscription, and it was quickly followed up by Autodesk and QuickBooks. If you cancel your subscription, you lose the ability to use the apps entirely. Web DRM was so successful that we’re now using it for standard industry tools.
Gadgets are having the same issues. Companies releasing internet-enabled devices rarely think about the longevity of any of it. Logitech had no empathy for bricking customers’ devices until they were called out. And Sony TVs from five ago can’t run the YouTube app; Google broke their devices. YouTube doesn’t need Sony. It’s more effective for them to move fast and break things, leaving a pile of consumer angst in the wake.
There’s a common saying: “nothing ever gets lost on the internet”. Digital culture is supposed to be the prime time for extremely nitpicky nerds. Everything is recorded, analyzed, copied. As storage, hosting, bandwidth costs go down, more and more things are supposed to be preserved. But this couldn’t be further from the truth. The fundamental idea of the web is that anything can link to anything — people can explore and share and copy with nothing but a URL. But the average “half-life” of a link is two years. This post has 49 links. If you’re reading this in 2019, it’s likely only around 24 of them will actually point where I wanted them to point.
“How much knowledge has been lost because it only exists in a now-reaped imageshack upload embedded in a forum post?”. By 2019, I expect this user’s Twitter profile to have gone private, or deleted entirely, or Twitter changing their URL structure and breaking links everywhere.
Publishing a movie on YouTube is no longer as expensive as publishing a DVD in your local FYE. Costs have gone down. This has enabled an explosive level of amazing creativity and enabled so many projects and endeavors it hasn’t before. Being a musician doesn’t require signing to a label. Upload anything to SoundCloud, YouTube, and Bandcamp and you’re now a musician. Web 2.0, as corny as the term is, is primarily about so-called “user-generated content”.
As a creator, this can be a blessing and a curse. I probably wouldn’t have had a voice 30 years ago, since I barely have anything interesting or original to say. Today, I have a voice, but so do 20,000 other people. Some say we’re in an attention economy: that there’s so much being created, that people are overwhelmed. Yes, there’s now 20,000 more musicians, but the number of people listening stays the same. Your struggle isn’t necessarily to be heard, it’s to be heard for more than five seconds. Google Analytics tells me that the average time reading any one of my posts, the so-called “time on page”, is 37 seconds. 90% of my readers have clicked Back in their browser long before reading this sentence.
I don’t believe in Idiocracy. The population isn’t getting dumber. The population’s IQ (whatever you think about it as a metric for measuring intelligence), has been going up. Plenty of people are still reading and learning — Wikipedia is the fifth most popular site in the world, after all.
What I believe is happening is that our reading is getting less expensive. All of the links I’ve posted here are to free sources, except for one. Do you have a Wall Street Journal account? I don’t. I used one weird trick to bypass it. It’s horrible, and I don’t like that I did it. As a society, we’re not paying for the things we used to. Stuff we totally should be paying for. Prices for entertainment, for news, for media, have nosedived in the past 20 years. Why pay for the Wall Street Journal when someone from Bloomberg or the Huffington Post will summarize the article for me, for free?
Some people are disappointed by the fact BuzzFeed now has a seat at the White House. But perhaps BuzzFeed’s more attention-grabby parts are simply the price we pay to fund its Pulitzer-prize winning journalism.
30 years ago, this article might have been published as an article in a newspaper, its grammar and style thoroughly edited by someone whose job it was to do nothing but that, and we’d both get paid for it. Today, this blog costs me money to host and I don’t make any money from it. Music albums that used to cost $20 now cost $5.99. But in terms of large-scale productions, they cost more than ever. TV shows take millions more than they once did to make: as expectations and fidelity go up, so do production costs. Sets, props, and visual effects need to be crafted more carefully than ever to appeal to high definition TV screens. Gamers seeking thrills demand higher frame rates, bigger polygons, and more pixels. YouTube beats this by offering lower-budget productions. iOS beats this by offering cheaper, “indie” titles.
I now work for a company that makes mobile applications. The price of a mobile application is $0.99. And you can still expect 90% of Android users to pirate it. This is, to say the least, unsustainable. Mobile games need to make money not from app sales, but from in-app purchases fueled by psychology.
Nintendo, the top dog of “triple-A” video games studios, was recently skewered by investors for daring to release a mobile game featuring Mario… for $10. It did not meet their sales predictions. Their newest mobile game, which is free-to-play and features in-app purchases, seems to be fairing a bit better.
On closer inspection though, there’s something funky about those numbers.
Atul Goyal, a senior analyst at Jefferies, told CNBC’s “Squawkbox” that he expected 500 million downloads of the Super Mario Run app on the Apple app store by March 2017.”
But according to analyst Tom Long of BMO Capital Markets, there are 715 million iPhones in use. That gives us two answers: either Tom Long is wrong, or Atul Goyal is. Two out of every three iPhone users is an unreasonable target for a Nintendo game.
A total of 1 billion downloads of the app are expected across operating systems, he added.
I don’t claim to be a senior analyst. But I also don’t claim that 13% of the world’s population will have downloaded a Mario game. This feels to me like an unrealistic growth target. As people pay less and less individually for games, you need to make things up in volume.
The low cost of production, the low cost of consumption, the attention economy, web DRM aren’t new ideas or new problems. We’re going to need to find a way out of this. Cracked.com published a fairly influential article (warning: might be unsuitable for work) on this subject back in 2010. David Wong’s term is “Forced ARTifical Scarcity” (“FARTS” for short. Har har. The article did come out in 2010, after all). His main argument is that we’ve switched mediums: things that were previously paid for by the cost of shipping a physical disk or pieces of paper are now effectively free. Business models built on ratios of supply and demand failed to take into account what would happen when supply is now infinite.
But there’s a crucial mistake hiding in there.
Remember the debut of Sony’s futuristic Matrix-style virtual world, PlayStation Home? There was a striking moment when the guys at Penny Arcade logged in and found themselves in a virtual bowling alley… standing in line. Waiting for a lane to open up. In a virtual world where the bowling alley didn’t actually exist. It’s all just ones and zeros on a server–the bowling lanes should be effectively infinite, but where there should have been thousands of lanes for anybody who wanted one, there was only FARTS.
Servers aren’t free, David. They’re physical things, hooked into a physical wire. They only have so much power and so much capacity. They go down, they overheat, they break, just like any other machine. There’s electricity to pay. This scarcity might be forced, but probably isn’t. Left to their own devices, people will hack and cheat. A badly programmed server might allow you to bowl on someone else’s lane. The same ingenuity that cracks open DRM also shatters fair play. Fixing bugs, applying security updates all take programmers, and money.
The servers go down when the money coming in doesn’t match the money going out.
People tend to think the internet is free and fair, but it’s anything but. I’m not talking simply about net neutrality rules, which do worry me, but about peering and transit. In 2014, this culminated in a public explosion between Netflix, Cogent, and Verizon, and the details are a lot more interesting and subtle than originally meet the eye. Bandwidth is expensive and there are unwritten, long-standing de facto rules about who pays for it. Fiber optic cable is expensive and fragile, costing upwards of $80,000 per mile. The hacker community can dream of a free internet, but unless someone eats that cost it’s not happening.
The Right to Read feels more and more realistic every day. It’s troubling. But I think the reason it feels realistic is because of everything I just described. When free digital copying upends 200 years of economic ideas and stability, the first impulse would be to stop it, or delay it until we can figure out what all of this means. DRM, to me, is an evil, but it’s a necessary and hopefully temporary one. It feels like there’s a growing deluge of water held back by a rickety dam. The people with the money go and rebuild it every 5 years, but it’s not going to hold that much longer. The pressure keeps building until the DRM can’t sustain the raw torrent of mayhem that will break it open. You’re now flooded and half the world’s underwater. Better hope you have a boat.
No, I don’t know what the boat is in this metaphor either.
People look to crowdfunding as a way to solve these problems, but I think people massively underestimate how much money at a raw level it takes to build an actual production. Kickstarter’s own lists of the most funded projects lists three campaigns for the Pebble watch, a company that got bought out by Fitbit this year after running out of money, the COOLEST COOLER, which appears to have gone south, and the OUYA, a games console which is probably best described to a link to the Crappy Games Wiki. OUYA, Inc. was later bought out by RAZER after, well, running out of money. Even the $8 million raised through Kickstarter had to be followed up with $25 million more dollars of private investor money.
$8 million might seem like a lot of money, but it quickly dries up when running an actual production. Next time you see a movie, or play a game, stare closely at the credits. Think about each one of those people there, their salary, and how much they worked on the final product. And then think about the countless uncredited cast and crew, and subcontractors of subcontractors who barely get so much as a Special Thanks.
Upload anything to SoundCloud, YouTube, and Bandcamp and you’re now a musician.
Funny story, that. SoundCloud takes servers and electricity, too. SoundCloud almost went out of business this year, but it was kept alive by investors trying to save the company. In two years, SoundCloud will likely die, because it couldn’t make money to keep the servers running. Or maybe it will get bought by Google as part of an “acqui-hire”. Your prize is your songs, your followers, your playlists all go away, replaced with an email thanking you for taking part in their incredible journey.
Apple’s iTunes Music Store, according to rumors, likely won’t be a music store in the near future. Even Spotify… let me repeat that, Spotify, everyone’s darling music service, can’t figure out how to make money. Hell, YouTube still isn’t profitable, but Google runs it at a loss anyway. The hope is eventually it will pay off.
Bandcamp, which offers premium album downloads and DRM-free content, is profitable.
Perhaps Web DRM isn’t as lucrative as we thought.