Netflix, Strategy, and the First Sale Doctrine

When I was a younger man, I used to fancy strategy wargames. I thought I was pretty good at them too, until I played Stea. Stea was a hacker's hacker, the man who first taught me Unix, a person for whom logical forms of abstraction and analysis were as natural as breathing. By the time I started my second turn of our game, I had already lost. There were better moves I could make, and worse moves, but all the moves I could make lead to me losing. That, I learned, was what the art of strategy was: the practice of giving your opponent only losing moves.

To me, that's what Netflix announcing it will be spinning off its DVD-by-mail service looks like, a losing move made by a desperate player. The best analysis I've seen as to why Netflix would take this seemingly counter-intuitive move argues that Netflix is intentionally throwing by mail DVD distribution overboard, ridding itself of the expensive baggage of distribution centers, warehouses and (paging Nicholas Carr) workers to move forward into a future dominated by digital streaming. Discs are dead. Burn the boats.

This logic makes sense, but can Netflix survive on the ground it is moving forward onto? As a distributor of physical discs, Netflix enjoyed the protection of the first sale doctrine, which holds that purchasers of books, video cassettes, DVDs, Blu-ray discs, or other tangible copies of media, have the right to do as they please with that particular copy. The first sale doctrine meant that Netflix was free to rent the same discs sold to consumers, and that publishers couldn't easily stop them from running a rental business without withholding content from the general public. In a sense, Netflix got its start by being a bit of a clever hack, leveraging the first sale doctrine and business reply mail rules to build an innovative and inexpensive way for consumers to access a vast library of video recordings.

In the streaming environment, things are different. Netflix must obtain permission from publishers to stream movies to consumers. If it wants, say access to NBC Universal content, it has to deal with Comcast. Why should a vertically-integrated entity like Comcast allow Netflix to take a piece of the action for streaming content it owns across a network it also owns large pieces of (and which it has already attempted to limit Netflix's access to)? I don't see how that equation works. All Netflix has to bring to the table here is the good will of its customers, good will it hasn't exactly been cultivating of late.

That said, they may retain me, at least, as a customer for a little while longer. The reason? They are keeping the envelopes red. The other thing I learned, all those years ago, watching Stea march his armies toward me across the game board in impeccable order, is that I am a hopeless romantic. I was too busy building beautiful bomber formations to bother with actually winning the game. As long as I can get red envelopes in the mail, I'll probably stick with Netflix (or qwickster, or whatever) until the end of their losing game.

Computer Generated News

An article in yesterday's New York Times reports on recent advances in using software to automatically generate sports reporting. The software, created by a firm called Narrative Science, reportedly generates human-like text, and has already had one big operational success:

“Last fall, the Big Ten Network began using Narrative Science for updates of football and basketball games. Those reports helped drive a surge in referrals to the Web site from Google’s search algorithm, which highly ranks new content on popular subjects, Mr. Calderon says.”

The role of Google here cannot be stressed enough. Once again, the preferences of the search engine giant are shaping our contemporary media environment in profound ways, perhaps without much conscious reflection on our part.

My biggest anxiety in cases like this is always the one expressed by Norbert Wiener at the close of his 1947 volume Cybernetics:

“The modern industrial revolution is similarly bound to devalue the human brain at least in its simpler and more routine decisions. Of course, just as the skilled carpenter, the skilled mechanic, the skilled dressmaker have in some degree survived the first industrial revolution, so the skilled scientist and the skilled administrator may survive the second. However, taking the second revolution as accomplished, the average human being of mediocre attainments or less has nothing to sell that is worth anyone’s money to buy.”

What should the humanities be?

A while ago I wrote a blog post expressing my frustrations with the available definitions for the collection of disciplines known as “the humanities.” You can read it on TechStyle, the group blog for Georgia Tech's Brittain Fellows, here. I explained how I didn't think defining the humanities in terms of the canon of “literature,” the method of “reading,” or the advancement of “values” could adequately provide a framework for an academic discipline. Today, briefly and humbly, I would like to propose a definition I think could serve as a framework for the humanities.

The definition I propose is quite simple: the humanities are the disciplines concerned with the production, distribution, and interpretation of human readable texts.

I'm borrowing my use of the term human readable from the Creative Commons project. Creative Commons builds on the distinction, likely familiar to digital humanists and computer scientists alike, between machine readable codes, which are designed to be interpreted by a computer, and human readable codes, which are designed to be interpreted by a person. Creative Commons, for example, creates a machine readable version of their licenses, designed to permit search engines to automatically discover works that have been released with particular re-use rights, and a human readable version of their license, designed to permit “ordinary people” to understand the terms of a particular license and what these terms mean. However, Creative Commons further distinguishes the human readable version of the license from the technical legal code of the license itself. This legal code has sometimes been dubbed the “lawyer readable version.” To fully appreciate the difference between human readable and lawyer readable, you can compare the human readable version of the Creative Commons Attribution license to the full legal code of the same license.

My suggestion then, is that the humanities should focus on texts that are human readable in the sense that Creative Commons human readable licenses are intended to be. That is to say, texts that are written to be read by a varied audience, rather than a narrow group of professionals with intensive and explicit training in interpreting these texts. Texts that are meant to serve as contact zones, where a variety of constituencies might negotiate common understandings of shared issues.

I propose that we focus on the human readable, but not that we limit ourselves to it. Clearly the human readable is always deeply interlinked with a wide variety of other actors: legal and machine codes, media technologies, economic entities, human biology. I only suggest that we make the human readable our point of entry. I believe it is an important point of entry. After all, for all of the specialized knowledge produced by our highly technical and segmented culture, we still rely on human readable texts to build political and economic coalitions that span these specialized forms of knowledge. The science of climate change, for example, cannot impact the political and economic processes that shape the human influence on the climate without the production of human readable texts that explain the significance of the science. Furthermore, these texts do not operate in a vacuum, rather their reception is shaped by earlier texts.

So, that is my modest proposal. The humanities as the study of human readable texts. What do people think?