Sleeping Through a Revolution

Jonathan TaplinJonathan Taplin is a professor at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California, and Director of the USC Annenberg Innovation Lab. He began his entertainment career in 1969 as tour manager for Bob Dylan and The Band. In 1973, he produced Martin Scorsese’s first feature film, Mean Streets, which was selected for the Cannes Film Festival.

Taplin is a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and sits on the International Advisory Board of the Singapore Media Authority. He was appointed by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to the California Broadband Task Force in January of 2007. He was also named one of the 50 most social media savvy professors in America by Online College, and one of the 100 American Digerati by Deloitte’s Edge Institute.

Digital Book World recently released a white paper titled “Viewpoints on Publishing’s Digital Transformation,” which you can download here. The report offers an insider’s look at both the current state and the future of digital publishing, and is filled with interviews and articles.

Below is an excerpt from an essay Taplin wrote on how the Internet and certain companies have transformed book publishing. To read the entire essay, please download the white paper.

The phrase comes from a sermon by Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered at the National Cathedral two weeks before his assassination in 1968. King asserted that we were embarking on a technological revolution, but that many were asleep to the changes it would bring; and without some sort of moral framework, we would have “guided missiles and misguided men.”

If we explore the unexamined history of the Internet, we will see that the digital revolution, begun in the late 1960s by a very counter-cultural group of scientists led by Tim Berners-Lee, had the utopian purpose of (in the words of Nicholas Negroponte) “decentralizing power and harmonizing people.” For creative artists, the prospects of a democratized distribution network indeed seemed to generate endless possibilities.

But by the late 1980s, a small group of radical libertarians based at Stanford University and led by Peter Thiel began to hijack the original vision of the Internet and to create instead a set of monopoly firms (Google, Amazon, Facebook) that destroyed the original vision of decentralization and harmony. These firms, whose business model is based on deep customer surveillance in order to sell products and advertising, is so far removed from the original ideas of Berners-Lee and his colleagues as to be unrecognizable.

As MIT’s Ethan Zuckerman stated, “It’s obvious now that what we did was a fiasco, so let me remind you that what we wanted to do was something brave and noble.”

For artists, the dreams of digital democracy have turned into nightmares; the music, movie, book and journalism businesses have been decimated by the rise of digital monopoly platforms. A massive reallocation of revenue, on the order of $50 billion a year, has taken place, with economic value moving from creators and owners of content to monopoly platforms.

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