The Little Black Box

This is a bit of a rant. I may edit it a little over the next day or so.

In the last year or so, I’ve been thinking we’re both in a golden age of TV drama and a serious pig trough in film.

HBO has put out a tremendous amount of great serialized stuff in the last decade – The Sopranos, Carnivale, Deadwood, Rome, Big Love, etc – that is unequalled in quality. And as for my more esoteric needs, SciFi has brought back Battlestar Galactica in a vastly improved form, and the BBC has even resurrected (well, regenerated) the venerable Doctor Who. And there’s always Lost. It is a happy time for tube addicts. Not if they would only bring back Equalizer, I’d be set.

I can’t think of a really great recent film, though, in the same period. I’ve come to view the silver screen as shtock. Admittedly, I do have a preference for long, serialized stories, and I carry the heavy bias of a ex-film student who knows the classics, but the only movie that I can think of post-2000 that’s an absolute must-see would be Shaun of the Dead.

And that’s really unusual. I have tons of great movies on hand to watch, but when I think of modern quality cinema, I think HBO.

This leads me to the following conclusion; when I see Apple bantering with Hollywood to offer movies for $9.99 downloads, I wonder if films are in trouble.

Now Marconi’s radio has survived the advance of TV, VCRs, cable, and the internet, so I don’t think theaters are in any immediate danger – huge box offices are still quite doable. In particular, the new Superman flick looks like it’s going to print its own money.

But I think there’s going to be an inevtiable moment of critical mass with digitized media when it all escapes the control of not only its creators, but its distributors. This moment will occur when two conditions are satisfied: 1) the divide between speed/bandwidth and anonymity is resolved in P2P networking; and 2) when filesharing becomes user-friendly to the point that anyone can do it (in other words, when it filters out the good files from the bad sufficiently).

Those are really the only roadblocks. Forget legal issues. If everyone had a little black box in their den where they could browse for whatever media they wanted and have it delivered lightning-fast, with complete anonymity, no cost, and with a robust software and hardware package that could handle any file type and media known to man without exploding in typical Windows fashion, then all the copyright issues and debates I’ve heard and read in the last six or seven years would become completely moot, because no copyright law would be enforceable without making digital communication illegal.

That little black box is what filesharing (and to a certain extent, Google and Microsoft) is slowly and logically moving toward. Content by itself would become essentially worthless, as all creative content – film, TV, music, books, whatnot – would be created, stored, distributed through this one system.

Indeed, all content would be eventually be accessible, the good and the bad. You could watch every movie from 1920 on, but also view every bit of porn ever shot since the same year. And the little black boxes’ owners would be unable to tell what you were watching on an individual basis – though they could get a good measure of the popularity of any given bit of media, just as you could.

Alas, the people physically controlling the network would be the only people capable of making money, by charging for access. And they wouldn’t be able to keep up a profit on just a dream archive – they would need fresh content, constantly – the kind of big budget stuff we’re used to seeing coming out of capitalism. Plenty of small independent stuff would appear, like it does on the web these days, but big projects, like with Hollywood and the networks today, could come only the little black box’s masters – an even more consolidated power structure than entertainment is today.

Only a super-corporation could really pull it off running such an arrangement; an organization capable of contracting any kind of fresh content needed. Chain bookstores, theatres, and music stores, would all be swept into its gaping maw. It might develop into a set of channels, as a lot of people like pre-structured entertainment delivered to them in neat chunks. This is how the web works much of the time, with its portals, but it can also be surfed footloose – a talent that the little black box would need, one way or other…

..because a free, unrestricted, anonymous P2P system in the form of a household appliance would need the most elaborate filtering imaginable. It would more or less need a sentient A.I. to run decently. Think of the amount of data it would have to sort. While some people are good at searching – Google has helped the handicapped – most aren’t, and the system would have to either dumb the results down or offer a poor selection.

Whether we end up in copyright’s version of Blade Runner or not, however, I’m mostly interested in the research aspects. I hate hunting down sources for my research papers. I’m reasonably good at finding even obscure references, but I’d prefer a ironclad system that could tell me, accurately, of every scrap of paper that ever mentioned a certain subject or concept – and if they said anything interesting or original about it. The various scholarly databases are wonderful, but they’re all tightly guarded provinces like Dante’s circles of hell, with demons guarding the passages between. I have to search them all, wondering at the quality of each search, instead of just going to one reliable place. It’s no wonder JSTOR is so popular.

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