TCS Daily

Media Feudalism Under Siege

By Glenn Harlan Reynolds - December 11, 2002 12:00 AM

One of the reasons that feudalism thrived during the Middle Ages is that it was expensive to be a knight. The cost of a horse and armor exceeded what most peasants made in several years. Add to that the extensive training required to fight from horseback, and the superior diet required to put on enough muscle to do so, and you had a style of warfare that could only be engaged in by a chosen (well, self-chosen) few, who themselves could afford it only because of the support, voluntary or otherwise, of many, many others.

This gave the nobility a huge advantage over the peasantry - and not just a military advantage, but a social and moral advantage. Anyone so superior in such an important line of endeavor, after all, must be generally superior. Nobler, even.

The advantage started to break down, though, when the technology for killing people improved. Longbows made armored horsemen vulnerable, but though they were much cheaper than armor and horses, they still required many years of training to be effective. Firearms, when they came around, put paid to the traditional nobility and ushered in the age of the bourgeoisie. Guns were cheap, and one could become effective with one after only a few weeks' training.

Now, of course, the imbalance has become absurd. A dirt-cheap Chinese-made SKS rifle (which I've seen on sale for as little as $99 - a couple of days' pay at minimum wage) would enable anyone, with only a few hours of training, to put paid to the flower of medieval chivalry, at little risk to himself (or herself - another consequence of technological improvement). Feudalism is dead, as a result, and titled nobility is scarce, and politically unimportant.

The same kind of technological change is happening in the media world, of course. Not long ago, making a movie required a lot of very expensive and specialized equipment, extensive training, and - most significantly - a lot of money. So did making a record album. Now that's changing, too.

In the past couple of weeks I've mastered one record album, released another, and captured still images from digital videotape to be put on the website that will soon promote a documentary on teenaged killers that my wife is making. A project like hers would have cost upwards of a quarter of a million dollars not long ago (in fact, that's the actual price tag of one project much like hers from the early 1990s). Now, with video instead of film, and digital editing on a computer, you can make a documentary for a price measured in thousands, rather than hundreds of thousands, of dollars.

I may be more of a media geek than most people, but I'm not alone. The teenage boys across the street from me are busily churning out their own CDs and putting their work on the Internet, as are a horde of other people of all ages and skill levels. Individually they're no threat to Big Media, but as a group, they're producing huge amounts of new content that competes, to some degree, with the latest offerings from Christina Aguilera or Avril Lavigne.

Some people think that old media folks just don't get this. In response to a speech at Comdex by Fox's CEO Peter Chernin, Jonathan Peterson writes:

At a very fundamental level, the Big Content companies don't understand the revolution that is happening in the digital media realm. They still see us as consumers only capable of digesting their offerings and handing over money. They really don't seem to understand that the reason we are buying PCs, video cameras, digital cameras, broadband connections and the like is that we want to create and share our creations. The quality of "amateur" content is exploding at the same time that Big Media companies are going through one of their all-time lows in music and television creativity. No wonder we're spending more time with our PCs than we are with our TVs.

I wonder, though, if the Big Media people do understand it. Like the armored knights of the Middle Ages, their position has been a function not of their own inherent virtues, but of a particular economic and technological confluence that is now passing away. And I believe that much of what's being marketed as "digital rights management" to prevent "stealing" of big-media works is in fact intended to serve as "digital restrictions management" to protect big-media operations from competition by making life harder on potential competitors.

I think they're doomed, technologically. But if Big Media let their position go without a fight to keep it by fair means or foul, they'll be the first example of a privileged group that did so. So beware.

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