Friday, 23 October 2009

The idiocy of the system

At the height of its early-70s success, with millions tuning in every week to watch first Jon Pertwee and then Tom Baker at the hexagonal console, Doctor Who was nonetheless facing a budget squeeze. At the time, a BBC executive was rolled out sometime between lunch and the cocktail hour to explain that, although Doctor Who was a drama series, it was paid for by the Light Entertainment department, don't you see, so really it's a bit of a drain on resources and all that. Oh go on, then, just a small one.

I remember thinking, “Why don’t you just pay for it out of the drama budget, then?” How na├»ve I was. As if that simple solution wouldn’t have occurred to the big swinging dickheads at the Beeb. The problem was that nobody actually had the ability or the will to make it so. The system had defeated them, the BBC corporate structure itself, like one of those huge computers from old sci-fi pictures that takes over the world and nobody can shut it down.

Prof Thomas Schatz wrote a book, The Genius of the System, in which he argued that Hollywood in its heyday benefited from a structure that allowed commercial creativity to thrive. And it makes sense. Corporations are like artificial intelligences. They have directives, criteria for selecting goals, and protocols for how to achieve them.

More often than genius, though, we get to experience the idiocy of the system. A petrochemicals company dumps waste into the ocean despite a daily fine of $1 million, and everybody says that’s stupid, that’s evil. Well, the company is just an AI. It calculates the cost of refining the waste and weighs that against the fine. $1m is small change, so sploosh.

Paul Mason (whose wife Keiko is currently preparing the Japanese version of Mirabilis episode one; thank you, Keiko) mentioned something in an email that gives a perfect illustration of the idiocy of a system:
“Our television is network-capable, but I can't see any point in connecting as all the technological effort seems to have gone into the DRM preventing the network connection being used to show free content. Which is easy to show by simply connecting a computer up to the TV.”
Likewise, book publishers are expending effort on DRM and going to expensive junkets – er, conferences - on “the digital future” and they aren’t getting the point either. It’s not a digital future, it’s a digital now. They are trying to figure out ways to slot electronic publishing alongside print, or use it as a kind of lead-in to print. Bzz – WRONG. Now, okay, print isn’t dead, whatever you’ve heard to the contrary, but it’s just one part of the whole and it’s going to be at the prestige end at that. The publishers need to get to grips with electronic “books” (in many forms) as the broad and overwhelming majority of what their business will be - and to understand that any attempt you make at imposing artificial controls on content will simply drive the market elsewhere.

The media are changing. But the systems are all old and stupid. They were built for a different world – the world of bookshops and DVD stores and broadcast television. They don’t know how to cope when content can be delivered digitally across an international network. The necessary change cannot come at the lower levels: the individual nationally-based networks or publishers. It has to come right from the top, from the media conglomerates that bought up all these pieces and now need to break them down and rebuild them into a completely new structure.

Oh for a Tardis to show them all this. But would it make a difference? There are plenty of clever people in TV and book publishing and games. They all know about the meteor that’s about to hit the media industries. But the companies themselves only have dinosaur brains. Can they adapt, or will they have to undergo the most drastic motor of evolution we know of: extinction?


  1. You mentioned Joss Whedon a while back. There's a good line in one of the episodes of Dollhouse he wrote, where an internet billionaire says: "The biggest hurdle in my business is the people who will not accept the change that's already happened." Says it all, really.

  2. In this case I was actually thinking of when companies aren't equipped for change even if the people working there get it. But of course Joss is right, there are plenty of people causing the problem too.