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Knock, knock, it’s the future (Building 59)

January 19, 2012
by seth godin

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Why not ban digital cameras?

Kodak declared bankruptcy this week. Legislation to ban digital cameras could have saved this company, a “jobs creator,” pillar of the community and long-time wonderful brand. One wonders why they didn’t make the effort? Would you have lobbied for that bill?

A friend tells a story about Kodak. Apparently, they had 59 buildings on the site that made film. As the film business started to shrink, the obvious thing for Kodak to do was to shrink as well, to reduce overhead, to become more nimble. The CEO said, “look out at those buildings and answer this question for me: How many steps are involved in making film?”

The answer, of course, was 59. Slowly shrinking wasn’t an option. The overhang was too large, it was going to take a leap, not a gradual series of steps. And that’s why the future is uncomfortable for most successful industrialists, including those in the media business.

It’s interesting to note that the only people who are in favor of SOPA and PIPA are people who are paid to be in favor of it. And creators (authors like me and Clay Shirky and Scott Adams) aren’t. While the folks at the “Copyright Alliance” pretend to be looking out for the interests of independent filmmakers and authors, the fact is that the only paying members of their lobbying group seem to be big corporations, corporations that aren’t worried about creators, they’re worried about profits. Given a choice between a great film and a profitable one, they’d pick the profitable one every time. Given the choice between paying net profits to creators and adjusting the accounting…

Anyway, back to the future:

The leap to a new structure is painful for successful industries precisely because they’re successful. In book publishing, the carefully constructed system of agents, advances, copyeditors, printers, scarcity, distributors, sales calls, bestseller lists, returns and lunches is threatened by the new regime of the long tail, zero marginal cost and ebook readers with a central choke point. The problem with getting from one place to another is that you need to shut down building 59, and it’s hard to do that while the old model is still working, at least a little bit.

Just about all the people who lost their jobs in Rochester meant well and worked hard and did their jobs well. They need to blame the senior management of Kodak, the ones who were afraid of the future and hoped it would go away. There are more pictures being taken more often by more people than ever before–Kodak leadership couldn’t deal with their overhang and was so in love with their success that they insisted the world change in their favor, as opposed to embracing the future that was sure to arrive.

Please understand that the destruction of the music business had no impact at all on the amount of music available, and little that I can see on the quality of that music either. Musicians just want to make music, thanks very much, and they’ll find a way to make a living gigging in order to do so. The destruction of the film business in Rochester is going to have very little impact on people’s ability to take photos. The destruction of the New York publishing establishment will make me sad, and they/we should hustle, but it’s not going to have much impact on the number of books that are written.

Before we rush to the most draconian solution we can think of to save the status quo, I think it’s worth considering what the function of the threatened industry is, and whether we can achieve that function more directly now that the future is arriving.

Check out this short TED video from Clay Shirky. Especially the first minute, the middle 90 seconds and the last one as well.

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