There’s a brilliant film from the 1950s called The Man in the White Suit. It’s a satire on capitalism, the power of the unions, and the story of how the two sides find themselves working together to oppose a new invention that threatens to make several industries redundant.
I wonder if there’s a tenuous resemblance between the film’s new wonder-fabric and the invention of digital audio? I hesitate to say that it’s exactly the same, because someone will point out that in the end, the wonder-fabric isn’t all it seems and falls apart, but I think they do have these similarities:
- The new invention is, for all practical purposes, ‘perfect’, and is immediately superior to everything that has gone before.
- It is cheap – very cheap – and can be mass-produced in large quantities.
- It has the properties of infinite lifespan, zero maintenance and non-obsolescence
- It threatens the profits not only of the industry that invented it, but other related industries.
In the film it all turns a bit dark, with mobs on the streets and violence imminent. Only the invention’s catastrophic failure saves the day.
In the smaller worlds of audio and music, things are a little different. Digital audio shows no signs of failing, and it has taken quite a few years for someone to finally come up with a comprehensive, feasible strategy for monopolising the invention while also shutting the Pandora’s box that was opened when it was initially released without restrictions.
The new strategy is this:
- Spread rumours that the original invention was flawed
- Re-package the invention as something brand new, with a vagueness that allows people to believe whatever they want about it
- Deviate from the rigid mathematical conditions of the original invention, opening up possibilities for future innovations in filtering and “de-blurring”. The audiophile imagination is a potent force, so this may not be the last time you can persuade them to re-purchase their record collections, after all.
- Offer to protect the other, affected industries – for a fee
- Appear to maintain compatibility with the original invention – for now – while substituting a more inconvenient version with inferior quality for unlicensed users
- Through positive enticements, nudge users into voluntarily phasing out the original invention over several years.
- Introduce stronger protection once the window has been closed.
It’s a very clever strategy, I think. Point (2) is the master stroke.