Content without a container – information and the quality of packaging in a digital world

Companies creating value from content – be it text, music or film – are struggling with the concept of digital media. Did rip-mix-burn really kill the appeal of haptics in distributing content?

As a testimonial let me quote John Perry Barlow (co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation) from the foreword to Cory Doctorow’s book „Content“: „Perhaps these words appear to you on the pages of a book, a physical object that might be said to have „contained“ the thoughts of my friend and co-conspirator Cory Doctorow as they were transported in boxes and trucks all the way from his marvelous mind into yours. If that is so, I will concede that you might be encountering „content“. […] But the chances are excellent that you’re reading these liquid words as bit-states of light on a computer screen, having taken advantage of his willingness to let you have them in that form for free. In such an instance, what „contains“ them? Your hard disk? His? The Internet and all the servers and routers in whose caches the ghosts of their passage might still remain? Your mind? Cory’s?“[1]

Precious content escapes the tangible assets we had it safely pinned onto and becomes what? Free floating ideas? Volatile ideograms on networking hardware? Ghosts of thought in browser caches? Intangible memories in oral traditions? Linked Likes on facebook? Again, John Perry Barlow: „Information is not a thing. It isn’t an object. It isn’t something that, when you sell it or have it stolen, ceases to remain in your possession.“[2]

The upside of John Perry Barlows view on information formerly known as content ist that information is becoming increasingly free. Information you had to unearth from moldy libraries in the pre digital era is now at your fingertips. You can download it from online stores, peer-to peer networks, Google Books or your friends‘ laptops. You can read it on any device you like, quote it and redistribute it without any boundaries. Copyright regulations apply …

Copyright regulations? Wait a second – if I can copy and redistribute freely, what about Copyright regulations? This is the downside of Barlow’s concept of information. Content without a container is content without control. Information in medieval times was subject to a lot of control: “Broadly speaking, there was a time when books were hand-printed on rare leather by monks. The only people who could read them were priests, who got a regular eyeful of the really cool cartoons the monks drew in the margins. The priests read the books aloud, in Latin (to a predominantly non-Latin-speaking audience) in cathedrals, wreathed in pricey incense that rose from censers swung by altar boys. Then Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press. Martin Luther turned that press into a revolution. He printed Bibles in languages that non-priests could read, and distributed them to normal people who got to read the word of God all on their own. The rest, as they say, is history.”[3]

Each democratisation of information brings loss of control to the authors and distributors of said information. Printing presses brought freedom of expression for secular authors and loss of control for clergy and nobility. Audio recordings brought freedom to listeners and loss of control for opera houses and concert halls. Audio CDs and DVDs did the same to music companies and film theaters respectively.

So we are at a preliminary endpoint of a development that started with the invention of the printing press – content has lost its container. It is no longer possible to control content distribution via the scarcity of tangible assets such as rare leather, paper, 32mm film rolls or vinyl discs.

The results are starting to show. Publishing houses have their incertainties about current and future business models on broad display in front of a worldwide audience. New Business companies such as MySpace and other social media companies sell shares for astronomical sums to desperate investors becoming even more desperate when users start to flock to the next and much more hip social media portal.

Nearly 100% of information comes for free, nobody dares to charge for news or small bits of information anymore. Not even for valuable information for fear their main competitor will start to give theirs away tomorrow. Return of investment for information providers approximates zero or worse a negative value. Will that be the end for the publishing industry?

Lately I encountered an interesting idea in a book about the fall of advertising: “Poetry may be just as popular today as ist was in Homer’s time. The difference is that today poetry is an art form. Its communication function has been lost. Most authors do not use poetry these days to pass along information in verbal form. They use prose because printed books allow text to be easily passed to future generations.”[4]

If you look at the contemporary usage of obsolete media, the term “art form” might not only be an intelligent guess, but exactly the right approach:

  • Vinyl disc packaging is getting a lot more attention, than in the days when vinyl was the only container used to transport music. If you want to sell things instead of downloads, the things better ought to be pretty …
  • Books and their covers become increasingly beautiful and artsy, since haptics have become the only quality distinguishing text-porn in the disguise of an e-book from the romantics of wooing for a book in a bookstore and having foreplay with liner notes, title pages, graphics and micro typography …
  • And then there will always remain niche markets – or have you ever succeeded in quoting scientifically correct from an epub file?

The criteria differentiating a commodity from a valuable companion to your daily life will always be the haptics, the usability, the packaging and last but not least distinction. Think iPad vs. desktop computers, BMW-Mini vs. Dacia Logan, Printed and bound folio vs. e-book, Filofax™ vs. a pile of loose paper etc.

As information increasingly steps out of its necessity to travel in containers, containers get a new life reincarnated in objets d’art. You might force read the latest fad on a Kindle, but to show off as a Bourgeois Bohemien, you will have to place the printed and bound first edition on your coffee-table, the library in your office or your jacket …


[1] Barlow, John Perry; Foreword to Content by Cory Doctorow, P XV, Tachyon Publications, San Francisco 2008, respectively http://craphound.com/content/intro-by-john-perry-barlow/ (read on 2011-06-24)

[2] Barlow, John Perry, ib.

[3] Doctorow, Cory; Ebooks: Neither E, Nor Books in Content, P123, Tachyon Publications, San Francisco 2008

[4] Al Ries, Al, The Fall of Advertising & The Rise of PR / Al Ries & Laura Ries, Harper Collins, New York, 2004

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