If you haven’t already, I strongly encourage everyone to go read Clay Shirky’s The Collapse of Complex Business Models. I just read it while finishing up this piece and it articulates much of what underpins it in the usual brilliant Shirky manner.
I’ve been reflecting a lot on Canada 3.0 (think SXSWi meets government and big business) since the conference’s end. I want to open by saying there were a number of positive highlights. I came away with renewed respect and confidence in the CRTC. My sense is net neutrality and other core internet issues are well understood and respected by the people I spoke with. Moreover, I was encouraged by what some public servants had to say regarding their vision for Canada’s digital economy. In many corners there were some key people who seemed to understand what policy, legal and physical infrastructure needs to be in place to ensure Canada’s future success.
But these moments aside, the more I reflect on the conference the more troubled I feel. I can’t claim to have attended every session but I did attend a number and my main conclusion is striking: Canada 3.0 was not a conference primarily about Canada’s digital future. Canada 3.0 was a conference about Canada’s digital commercial future. Worse, this meant the conference failed on two levels. Firstly, it failed because people weren’t trying to imagine a digital future that would serve Canadians as creators, citizens and contributors to the internet and what this would mean to commerce, democracy and technology. Instead, my sense was that the digital future largely being contemplated was one where Canadians consumed services over the internet. This, frankly, is the least important and interesting part of the internet. Designing a digital strategy for companies is very different than designing one for Canadians.
But, secondly, even when judged in commercial terms, the conference, in my mind, failed. This is not because the wrong people were there, or that the organizers and participants were not well-intentioned. Far from it. Many good and many necessary people were in attendance (at least as one could expect when hosting it in Stratford).
No, the conference’s main problem was that, at the core of many conversations lay an untested assumption: That we can manage the transition of broadcast media (by this I mean movies, books, newspaper & magazines, television) as well as other industries from an (a) broadcast economy to a (b) networked/digital economy. Consequently, the central business and policy challenge is how do we help these businesses survive this transitionary period and get “b” happening asap so that the new business models work.
But the key assumption is that the institutions – private and public – that were relevant in the broadcast economy can transition. Or that the future will allow for a media industry that we could even recognize. While I’m open to the possibility that some entities may make it, I’m more convinced that most will not. Indeed, it isn’t even clear that a single traditional business model, even radically adapted, can adjust to a network world.
What no one wants to suggest is that we may not be managing a transition. We may be managing death.
The result: a conference that doesn’t let those who have let go of the past roam freely. Instead they must lug around all the old modes like a ball and chain.
Indeed, one case in point was listening to managers of the Government of Canada’s multimedia fund share how, to get funding, a creator would need to partner with a traditional broadcaster. To be clear, if you want to kill content, give it to a broadcaster, they’ll play it once or twice, then put it in a vault and one will ever see it again. Furthermore, a broadcaster has all the infrastructure, processes and overhead that make them unworkable and unprofitable in the online era. Why saddle someone new with all this? Ultimately this is a program designed to create failures and worse, pollute the minds of emerging multimedia artists with all sorts of broadcast baggage. All in the belief that it will help bridge the transition. It won’t.
The ugly truth is that just like the big horse buggy makers didn’t survive the transition to the automobile, or that many of the creators of large complex mainframe computers didn’t survive the arrival of the personal computer, our traditional media environment is loaded with the walking dead. Letting them control the conversation, influence policy and shape the agenda is akin to asking horse drawn carriage makers write the rules for the automobile era. But this is exactly what we are doing. The copyright law, the pillar of this next economy, is being written not by the PMO, but by the losers of the last economy. Expect it to slow our development down dramatically.
And that’s why Canada 3.0 isn’t about planning for 3.0 at all. More like trying to save 1.0.