The Future Of News (part 3)

In this new supersaturated digital universe of infinite free digital duplication, copies are so ubiquitous, so cheap, free in fact, that the only things truly valuable are those that cannot be copied. The technology is telling us that copies don’t count anymore. To put it simply: When copies are superabundant, they become worthless.

This is an extract from “The Inevitable: Understanding the 12 Technological Forces That Will Shape Our Future” by Kevin Kelly. It’s from Chapter 3, “Flowing”. It continues…

Instead, stuff that can’t be copied becomes scarce and valuable. When copies are free, you need to sell things that cannot be copied. Well, what can’t be copied? Trust, for instance. Trust cannot be reproduced in bulk. You can’t purchase trust wholesale. You can’t download trust and store it in a database or warehouse it. You can’t simply duplicate someone’s else’s trust. Trust must be earned, over time. It cannot be faked. Or counterfeited (at least for long).

Since we prefer to deal with someone we can trust, we will often pay a premium for that privilege. We call that branding. Brand companies can command higher prices for similar products and services from companies without brands because they are trusted for what they promise. So trust is an intangible that has increasing value in a copy-saturated world.

There are a number of other qualities similar to trust that are difficult to copy and thus become valuable in this cloud economy. The best way to see them is to start with a simple question: Why would anyone ever pay for something they could get for free? And when they pay for something they could get for free, what are they purchasing? In a real sense, these uncopyable values are things that are “better than free.” Free is good, but these are better since you’ll pay for them.

I call these qualities “generatives.” A generative value is a quality or attribute that must be generated at the time of the transaction. A generative thing cannot be copied, cloned, stored, and warehoused. A generative cannot be faked or replicated. It is generated uniquely, for that particular exchange, in real time. Generative qualities add value to free copies and therefore are something that can be sold. Here are eight generatives that are “better than free.” …


A generic version of a concert recording may be free, but if you want a copy that has been tweaked to sound acoustically perfect in your particular living room—as if it were being performed in your room—you may be willing to pay a lot. You are then not paying for the copy of the concert; you are paying for the generative personalization.

The free copy of a book can be custom edited by the publishers to reflect your own previous reading background. A free movie you buy may be cut to reflect the rating you desire for family viewing (no sex, kid safe). In both of these examples, you get the copy free and pay for personalization.

Aspirin is basically free today, but an aspirin-based drug tailored to your DNA could be very valuable, and expensive.

Personalization requires an ongoing conversation between the creator and consumer, artist and fan, producer and user. It is deeply generative because it is iterative and time-consuming. Marketers call that “stickiness” because it means both sides of the relationship are stuck (invested) in this generative asset and will be reluctant to switch and start over. You can’t cut and paste this kind of depth…


You might be able to grab a popular software application for free on the dark net, but even if you don’t need a manual, you might want to be sure it comes without bugs, malware, or spam. In that case you’ll be happy to pay for an authentic copy. You get the same “free” software, but with an intangible peace of mind. You are not paying for the copy; you are paying for the authenticity. There are nearly an infinite number of variations of Grateful Dead jams around; buying an authentic version from the band itself will ensure you get the one you wanted. Or that it was indeed actually performed by the Dead.

Artists have dealt with this problem for a long time. Graphic reproductions such as photographs and lithographs often come with the artist’s stamp of authenticity—a signature—to raise the price of the copy. Digital watermarks and other signature technology will not work as copy protection schemes (copies are superconducting liquids, remember?), but they can serve up the generative quality of authenticity for those who care…


Deep down, avid audiences and fans want to pay creators. Fans love to reward artists, musicians, authors, actors, and other creators with the tokens of their appreciation, because it allows them to connect with people they admire. But they will pay only under four conditions that are not often met: 1) It must be extremely easy to do; 2) The amount must be reasonable; 3) There’s clear benefit to them for paying; and 4) It’s clear the money will directly benefit the creators.

Every now and then a band or artist will experiment in letting fans pay them whatever they wish for a free copy. This scheme basically works. It’s an excellent illustration of the power of patronage. The elusive connection that flows between appreciative fans and the artist is definitely worth something.

One of the first bands to offer the option of pay-what-you-want was Radiohead. They discovered they made about $2.26 per download of their 2007 In Rainbows album, earning the band more money than all previous albums released on labels combined and spurring several million sales of CDs. There are many other examples of the audience paying simply because they gain an intangible pleasure from it.


The previous generatives resided within creative works. Discoverability, however, is an asset that applies to an aggregate of many works. No matter what its price, a work has no value unless it is seen. Unfound masterpieces are worthless. When there are millions of books, millions of songs, millions of films, millions of applications, millions of everything requesting our attention—and most of it free—being found is valuable. And given the exploding numbers of works created each day, being found is increasingly unlikely.

Fans use many ways to discover worthy works out of the zillions produced. They use critics, reviewers, brands (of publishers, labels, and studios), and increasingly they rely on other fans and friends to recommend the good stuff. Increasingly they are willing to pay for guidance. Not too long ago TV Guide had a million subscribers who paid the magazine to point them to the best shows on TV. These shows, it is worth noting, were free to the viewers. TV Guide allegedly made more money than all three major TV networks it “guided” combined.

Amazon’s greatest asset is not its Prime delivery service but the millions of reader reviews it has accumulated over decades. Readers will pay for Amazon’s all-you-can-read ebook service, Kindle Unlimited, even though they will be able to find ebooks for free elsewhere, because Amazon’s reviews will guide them to books they want to read. Ditto for Netflix. Movie fans will pay Netflix because their recommendation engine finds gems they would not otherwise discover. They may be free somewhere else, but they are essentially lost and buried. In these examples, you are not paying for the copies, you are paying for the findability…


What counts are not the number of copies but the number of ways a copy can be linked, manipulated, annotated, tagged, highlighted, bookmarked, translated and enlivened by other media. Value has shifted away from a copy toward the many ways to recall, annotate, personalize, edit, authenticate, display, mark, transfer, and engage a work. What counts is how well the work flows.

Previous chapter | The next chapter is titled “Screening”.

Leave a Reply