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Preserving Digital Culture

As digital media and distribution moves farther down the road of "media as a service", how can we ensure that the art and content we love is preserved for future generations?

The following is reposted from kulturekeeper.com...



There has never been a better time to be an artist. I honestly believe that. Despite all points to the contrary, no generation has had access to so many tools, mediums, and distribution platforms as we do today. The exponential rise of technology has given us the power to create things that were once limited only to our imagination. We live in an age where it is possible to create entire virtual worlds, and to share them with people all over the globe.

But technology is also a business, and the temptations of industry do not all lead to positive ends. For every creative innovation, there is often a financial need that must be met. Creative Industry is a good thing; it allows thousands of artists all over the world to do what they love and make a living off of it. Even so, in the pursuit of a more effective industry, we must be careful that our shortsightedness does not harm the long-term cultural value of the very art we are creating.

 

THE RUMOR MILL

There have been rumblings lately of Microsoft's next-generation Xbox requiring an "always on" internet connection to function. In short, this would mean that games, movies, and other media would simply be unable to play if a user was not connected to Microsoft's servers. If a user loses connection for a few minutes while playing a game, the game would lock them out until they reconnect, and if they happen to not have access to the internet at all, then they're just out of luck. Granted, at this time all of it is still just a rumor, but that hasn't stopped thousands of people from forming a fairly public outcry against the idea.

And why would they do that? Why would thousands of consumers rally against a simple rumor? Is it because they are foolish and unwilling to accept change? No, consumers are not stupid. Not everyone may have the time or energy to articulate it, but we all understand on some level when the work we love is being threatened by poor decisions.

What do we stand to gain from an "always online" platform? Sure, the convenience of a device that can update content in the background and connect to relevant services would be great, but the requirement of a network connection just to enjoy a completely solitary media experience helps no one. I honestly cannot imagine a scenario where watching a Blu Ray movie or playing the single-player Halo campaign would be better if I was required to be online.

The only group that appears to benefit here is Microsoft and its business partners. By controlling the entire experience through a constant connection, they effectively eliminate financial holes such as used games and piracy. I'm all in favor of helping artists and developers get the money they deserve, but this decision would come at the expense of the consumer's experience. Beyond that, this damages the continued value of the media itself.

 

IT'S ALL ABOUT SERVICE!

This isn't really about Microsoft, though. The Xbox rumors are just an example of a much larger industry movement that is already well in motion: media as a service. For years now, publishers and developers alike have been courting the idea that art should be an ongoing service. And why not? It's good for business, and it supplies consumers with even more content for their most beloved experiences.

Years ago, most media was thought of only as a product, something you package and ship that is singular and closed. A movie, a game, or an album of music was something you would buy that, so long as you took proper care of it, was yours to keep and control potentially forever. Now, many of these things are part of a larger connected service infrastructure. Companies like Netflix and Hulu allow you to subscribe to a service and stream your media down from "the cloud". Many games, even single-player ones, connect to servers for social integration, stat tracking, and content updates. We have, in many places, exchanged the idea of owning a physical product for the accessibility of ongoing service. 

There is something important about the idea of a finished, shipped product though. As consumers, we are all in some way connoisseurs of art. We have experiences that matter to us, that we feel a sense of ownership over. What happens when someone can change that or take it away?

 

WHAT'S MINE IS YOURS

What's troublesome about media as a service is the idea that someone else has final control over the content you purchase. It is like being attached by an invisible umbilical cord to the studios and publishers that sell you media. Everything is fine, so long as nothing ever goes wrong. 

One only has to look at debacles like the Sim City launch or Diablo IIIto know that media as a service has very real consequences. What happens when the servers fail, or the network drops out? What happens when a studio shuts down? 20 years from now, will you really be able to go back and enjoy that game again? I still have favorite films and games that I share with people decades later. 

Digital distribution platforms like Steam and iTunes ride this line precariously. I personally own hundreds of dollars worth of content on both platforms. I don't really own it, though. I just own the rights to download and use it. One day, if either of these services shut down, will all the media I purchased simply be lost? Sure, once you download the content you can back it up and save it as you wish, but most people never do that, for lack of time or resources. There's no guarantee that the games, movies, and music we buy digitally will be accessible forever. 

Publishers and studios are flirting with the idea of taking this concept even further. Services like Ultraviolet allow you to "purchase" movies that are then stored on a server and streamed to you via your internet connection. Sony has hinted at the idea that while the new Playstation will not be backwards-compatible to older games, it will be able to stream them from a server somewhere down to your device. These are effectively one-way systems, where the consumer must put all their trust in the content provider. In doing so, we lose the ability to preserve media on our own terms.

 

HISTORY MATTERS

 

Imagine not being able to share Star Wars with your friends, kids, or peers. Imagine never being able to show someone the raw genius ofSuper Mario Brothers for the first time. What if every story, every song, and every game you ever loved could be lost in an instant?

No one will ever have to worry about the Mona Lisa vanishing because the internet died in the Louvre, or the collected writings of Tolkien being erased if his estate goes bankrupt. These are works of art that now belong to the people, and we preserve them because we have decided they are important.

It shouldn't be up to publishers and studios to do that for us. Sure, maybe these services will still be running 10 years from now, but what about 50 or 100? Do we honestly think that the media of today is just a commodity, and not worth holding onto for the next generation?

I don't know about you, but one day I want to be able to play Halo 5with my kids in the same way that my parents watched A New Hopewith me. I want to know that the art I care about will always be there for future generations. Preserving digital culture is a responsibility we can all easily share. Let's not allow our industry to lose sight of that.

 



Logan Dwight is an active game designer and blogger living in San Francisco, CA. You can find more of his work at Kulturekeeper.com.

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