Reflections on what might have been
Let me say at the start that I have never owned a Linn hifi. Nor have I, for that matter ever owned a Naim, Accoustic Research, Roksan or any other esoteric brand of equipment. I do own a Quad / Kef combination but it’s quite old and it’s currently in boxes because my current home is just not that big and the Other Half is just not that understanding. I do love music, all sorts of music, Jazz: folk rock, classical, rock and roll. I love it all, and I love it live from the Nantwich Jazz Festival to what’s on at the pub I just love it.
Now, I hear you say, what’s all this got to do with digital anything?
There was a brief item on the BBC News web site this week about CD player production ending at Linn. They have recognised that the future lies in streamed digital media and they are focussing their efforts on Studio Master Quality material for download. If you’ve ever heard a high end Linn system (they can cost up to £100,000) you will understand what they mean by Studio Master Quality. I’ve often bemoaned the success of the iPod. I’ve often bemoaned the success of a lot of MP3. It’s not that it isn’t good, it’s very good but we have sacrificed a lot of quality in our pursuit of cheap, easy to access music. Compressed dynamics, loss of spatial information, over hanging bass lines, screeching vocals that waft about the sound stage, in short, we’ve given up on real quality. I know that’s a Grumpy Old Man thing and it’s the music that counts, but if you’ve never heard a full spec Linn in all of its glory recreating a 3D sound stage with as near to full dynamic range as you can get, then you probably won’t know what I’m on about anyway. Back to my point; the Studio Master Quality material, like video, will use up a lot of bandwidth. People have stopped buying CDs because they can get music cheaply through existing bandwidth and its okay because they’re not concerned about the quality. Music is, almost, disposable. Here today, gone tomorrow and to some extent we’ve lost out emotional attachment to it – it’s become like static – we hear, we like, we buy (or steal, because the Internet is free, isn’t it) and then we throw it away. If we want Studio Quality Material, we will have to have bandwidth which means that it will only be available to people with bandwidth. Storage is cheap; bandwidth is only for those in the Cities.
Now, I hear you say, where’s he going with this? Surely not a rural rant.
Well, I could, but no, this is more about selective markets. I was very grateful for the excellent commentary that came out of the My Public Services Conference on Thursday. I couldn’t go, way too much on, but it was almost as good as being there. What came across strongly, to me at least, was the message that WE are the future of government services. That’s true but nobody seemed to pick up on the point that WE are a very select little group. On the global scale of things we are a self selecting Neteratti, well educated, committed, digitally literate, middle class select little group. We are no different to the people who can afford to buy a full spec Lynn and enjoy the experience.
What was that? Grow the group?
Well yes we could grow the group but that’s not the point. There was a very good piece this week by Stephen Collins from the Centre for Policy Development in Australia. called “Culture in the New Order “. His view resonated with my own views about the necessity of culture change in government organisations.
One of the things that people tend to ignore is that government organisations are not designed to be transformational. They are designed to be process oriented, reliable, auditable and while they serve all of us they are responsible for delivering services to the most vulnerable people in our society. With that as your key driver you don’t suddenly start transforming things just because a load of middle class Neteratti start shouting about it. The implication of this is that the core functions of local government will not change quickly or significantly over a short timescale. What will happen is that certain functions will move outside of government, and we see this happening already, and it will move into the realm of the Neteratti.
Well, that’s good, isn’t it? Yes and no.
The trouble is, as I see it, the Neteratti are a selective little group, privileged like the full spec Linn owners. Their literacy is like the city’s bandwidth and their knowledge is the Studio Quality Master Material. There were a couple of other things this week that caught my eye. One was a Guardian Article “The Dark Side of the Internet” by Andy Beckett, which was an excellent précis of Freenet and the implications of its wider use. I noted that someone in the Twitter stream commented that if the Government’s Digital Economy Bill goes through unchanged – and it will – more of us will become Freenet users.
Can you see where I’m going with this?
The non statutory government functions in the hands of a small select group navigating its way around the Internet unseen, non accountable and as for the rest? Excluded? Baileyhillmedia signposted an article by Joe Marchese “Why Facebook Applications will soon be History”. In it he wrote about the use of Facebook Connect APIs to enable applications to run outside of Facebook but using the Facebook Identity. Similar plans are in play for MySpace ID, and Google’s Friend Connect. In a sense it’s not unlike the E-Bay API which enables you to buy on E-Bay when you’re really buying from somebody’s on line catalogue. Brian Solis wrote about this a couple of weeks ago the impact of portable identity on marketing. In short, when we access services we will do so in an invisible way. For many that might sound like a good thing: Seamless access to services using portable identity and delivered in a personalised, martini fashion. I believe we run the risk that the people who control those services will also be invisible. For me it’s Gibsonesque! I’ve used that term twice this week and that’s what brought me to this place I suppose. William Gibson wrote a series of books in the 70’s which predicted the Internet of today: Neuromancer, Mona Lisa Overdrive, Count Zero, Johnny Mnemonic, The Difference Engine. In his books there was always a ghost in the machine that was the real control, insidious, hidden and self interested. When we shout loudly “WE are the future of government” I think we might take a little time out to understand who WE are and who isn’t there who ought to be and perhaps spend some time getting everybody there so that Gibson’s prophesy doesn’t become self fulfilling.