Flashback: Random Radio-Show Caller Envisions iTunes In 1993

December 20, 2010

Ira Flatow

NPR’s “Science Friday” recently dug a true gem out of the archives. Flying back to 1993, host Ira Flatow re-aired a segment in which he and his guests talk about the future of some newfangled thing called “the Internet.”

The segment was not only about the Internet — it was on the Internet. Live. A nearly unheard of accomplishment at a time in which a caller’s Internet-streamed audio was slowed and garbled by, as one participant suggested, some surfing stranger who “may have started a big database search at the same time.”

The discussion took place nearly 20 years ago. On the Internet, 20 days is a lifetime. It’s hilarious to hear a guest call in and talk about how he’d love to be able to skip driving to the record store, download music over the Internet and “if I like it, you know, upload a credit card number.”

But BoingBoing’s Cory Doctorow focused on the truly fascinating parts of the discussion: “Call-in guests asked how we’d manage the glut of information, how we’d figure out what was true, what you could do with your overstuffed email inbox, and, of course, how copyright would fare.”

Sound familiar? That’s because these four topics are four of today’s most frequently discussed topics among researchers, developers and all sorts of digital communicators. Still. For the most part, the solutions to these challenges are obvious and easy, so why do these struggles persist?

Well, the speed at which information is created and distributed will only continue to increase, so managing it takes a constant maintenance of habits and prioritization of incoming info. We usually seem to have trouble figuring out what’s true when we simply don’t really want to know the truth, but that’s a separate issue; for now, let me just remind you that gatekeepers serve a purpose, even on the democratized Internet.

As for protecting copyrights, I could spout some half-accurate paraphrasing of the Stewart Brand line, but this is the bottom line: People will always steal stuff. Whether it’s a magazine article that gets copied 100 times on a Xerox machine and strewn about the office or a movie that’s downloaded via BitTorrent, thieves will find a way. In large part, that’s because the illegal route is, more often than not, easier than the legitimate alternative. Maybe if copyright holders made it easier for consumers to enjoy legal content, the thieves would have less company.

Do yourself a favor and listen to the half-hour segment at Science Friday’s website or read the transcript at NPR.org.