I have not had the slightest piece of time, opportunity or reason this last year to revive the Kaplak Blog – or the Kaplak Log, as I think I’ll soon rename it – until now.
For one thing, Kaplak doesn’t exist as a proper company any longer, and for another I have a new job and position as a teacher of history and media. I’ve had my hands full, and I’ve still got a lot of new things to learn.
And there’s the thing, that in a company blog like this, every post always seemed like it was building up expectations for the next, even longer and more insightful piece, and it became impossible to live up to. Eventually the blog simply lost it’s pace, along with the energy and ideas which went down with the company and it’s troubled work relationships.
Yet, I have never quite stopped thinking about the problems that we worked to solve in Kaplak. If I have, it has been only briefly and because I’ve been preoccupied with other thoughts and work. But I’ve watched and used the web and tools of the web just as intensively in my new position, yet with the major difference that I no longer has to study them, just because I have to find a way to make a living out of them. I use and study them because I find them interesting, and actually find myself in the position of someone looking for obscure niche products (such as documentary films, for instance). And I’ve realized over the past year, that we’re nowhere near solutions to the problems we set out to solve – connecting products on the slim end of the long tail with their distant markets.
And this in spite of the widespread use of Twitter and Facebook, the improvements and new products of Google (Google Wave being the most interesting), lots of affiliate networks and business models (Amazon’s model still in a prominent position), experiments with paying web contributors (Knol, Mahalo, Squidoo and others). In many ways, the web seems a lot more like in a standstill today than when we started out with Kaplak in 2007. Or when I first started out working with the web in 2003 and 2004. Back then Wikipedia was still a young experiment, and YouTube was a daring startup, not yet consolidated by Google. Peer-to-peer services were alive and well – and bittorrent was looking very promising. It still is promising, but has failed to expand into popular use, despite the efforts of startups such as Bittorrent.com and Joost (which was never a true p2p service, after all) and lots of free publicity for services such as The Pirate Bay. And despite the widespread sharing practices on services such as Facebook. Facebook never became a great place for sharing torrents, as the company was very quick to ban and remove users’ links to torrent sites such as The Pirate Bay. Lots of startups have died trying, and Google and Facebook looks even more dominating in the webspace today than 5 years ago.
Noone talks much (or just as energetically) about Chris Anderson’s ideas about ‘the long tail’ as many did just a few years ago, yet I still see the same opportunities in it for transcending core aspects of western, industrial society. While the economics (one can earn more in the tail than in the head) may or may not be true for particular types of businesses and product categories, the long tail helps demonstrate (and helped demonstrate at the time), that there is much more out there today than previously, and that there is a demand for it (however slight). Whether a business model is feasible in the long tail (with or without the head to support it), however, remains, in my humble opinion, a matter of finding the right business model and cutting costs appropriately. The vital component of both these priorities is an architecture which supports them, i.e. makes products accessible to their precise markets at the right time, and at very low cost. Now, what makes this difficult is that one has to build such an architecture in a totally convergent and converging field, where concepts such as producer, product and ownership to information changes rapidly.
Connecting niche producers and niche markets much more precisely and efficiently might and would transcend our dependencies on time – just as the industrial revolution transcended our dependencies on land to our present dependencies on time. The last turned out to be a much more flexible arrangement for western societies. The workforce was no longer tied to the land, but could earn their livelihoods manning the machines. No longer could one harvest and produce only in one season of the year, production could be kept up, as long as there were hours in the day, energy provided by steam engines and electricity and a sufficiently large workforce to man the machines. Welcome to the world of economic growth as we know it.
Now, what we can do, and what we have the technology to do, is loosen our dependencies on time. We already do it, we already have it. We can work everywhere, thanks to wireless networks, we can meet and arrange to meet each other up until the last minute, thanks to mobile phones. We can keep ourselves informed and filter our incoming information streams, thanks to RSS and services such as Twitter or Google Reader, and countless other web services. We can construct our own information architectures, in our own webspaces, using free software such as WordPress and MediaWiki. We can sell our own homegrown products with everything from eBay to osCommerce. We can buy home-delivered groceries over the net, which meets our needs precisely. We can produce and sell our own soap and beer thanks to recipes found online and our own experiments. We can write, print and sell books-on-demand, more cheaply than ever, without the wasteful mass printing of big publishing houses. We don’t have to rely on schedules, workhours, heftily regulated industrial workplaces – and we don’t have to rely on the editorial filters of others.
But, and there’s a big but, many of our laws, courts and workplaces still not recognize what’s going on. Our lives and businesses are regulated nationally, even though we operate nascently internationally via the internet. We predominantly receive our salaries dependent on how much time we spend doing something, or based on how high up in the command-chain we are – not so much dependent on how useful it is what we do. We pay taxes to local institutions and obey local laws, despite the fact that the problems we have to deal with are increasingly of a global nature, from terrorism (which is, in this context, a very small problem) to the threat of environmental disasters. We may add information to radically open and globally reaching information systems such as wikis, yet our educational systems (broadly speaking) are hopelessly medieval in their narrow focus on classes, professors and courses.
The final blow will come the day, if/when the ‘old’ economic system breaks. I’m not sure the present crisis is just it – I expect a transition to a ‘new’ economic system to take longer and be more painful. There may not even be a ‘visible break’. If you can’t see or feel it now, I wonder if you will at a later stage. Many of these changes are not clearly documented or reported by our mass media-based news system, and our networks-based information filtering still needs a lot of work – it is still polluted by much noise.
The question is how deep these changes will go politically? Can our political institutions handle radically big transitions of our economies and property-based systems? One area is patents and copyright, for example. Can our political parties and institutions reform this? Is it possible? A lot of things leaves the impression it isn’t possible, yet some of us has to insist that it is. If it isn’t possible, p2p will be driven underground, reserved as an outlet for the few privileged, who knows how to circumvent the official pathways. If it is, what new institutions may emerge from the battlefield, what new types of infrastructure will we need, and what should they be like?
Lawrence Lessig once referred to himself as the ‘Gorbachev of this movement’, in the sense that he didn’t want to tear down the copyright system, but to reform it. But here we are, and even Lessig’s own talks are taken down from YouTube because of alleged copyright infringement.
It seems to me that this is much more the world of the Jeltsins. Of a web that consolidates itself into major players, which are not as intent to empower their users, as they are intent to profit themselves and keep the industrial system in place.
The reason I write this post is I still see opportunities to revive Kaplak, not as a company, but as an idea and set of ideas which can still be worked with and developed upon to build better tools, which can help take a crack at our original problem : connecting products and markets on the slim end of the long tail. But it is even clearer to me today that this battle is also political. It cannot be fought without taking a political stand. It can’t be reduced to just business or just a company. It has to have a wider scope. I will keep this blog a space to explore this further – the construction of concrete tools and information architectures as well as the politics.