Posted by: Sam Carson | 25 February, 2007

Rear-View Mirror Ideas 1: Old concepts, new realities

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the conflicts between older systems of organization and cutting-edge ones. This conflict can be seen pretty much everywhere from my father scratching his head over the menu system of a mobile phone to the clash between the globalized world and the nation state.

On every level it is important, and it is not a new phenomenon. Ancient Greek philosopher Socrates being ordered by Athenian courts to drink the poison hemlock is an example of this; questioning to gods and corrupting the youth has always been risky business.

Communications and technology guru Marshall McLuhan had a lot to say about this. He likens civilization’s technological progress to driving backwards watching where you are going through the rear-view mirror:

“The past went that-a-way. When faced with a totally new situation, we tend always to attach ourselves to the objects, to the flavor of the most recent past. We look at the present through a rear-view mirror. We march backwards into the future.” (Marshall McLuhan and Quentin Fiore, The Medium is the Massage, pp. 73-74)

I first read this two years ago and it has stuck with me since. I didn’t really understand the idea at first, and wonder if I truly understand all of it now.

The analogy I see, to compliment McLuhan’s, is that of drunkenly stumbling through time, vision blurred, grasping at immediate wants and desires, uncaring of longer term implications of them.

Saying that, I don’t know how it could be any different. The present is a prototype, and we don’t get much chance to real world road-test it before we have to release it. Though we can use history and experience to improve the model, often this is diluted by using the wrong history or misinterpreting the situation.

An example of this is the music industry’s handling of digital music. Big music’s position is impossibly antiquated. There is no way they can hold the position they had in 1997 when globalized distribution channels told everyone what they wanted to buy, hard copies only. Ten years later DRM is on everyone’s lips but it is last ditch survival.

That industry is inflated, there is no denying it. Why should I pay Sony BMG £12 for a CD when I’m not impressed with Sony’s marketing arrangement and I don’t want to hear all the songs. The argument says the bands need money. They do, but that doesn’t mean I have any interest in supporting the production and promotion industry. One brief look at the mechanics of the production and promotion side is a horror show of inefficiency.

The movie industry is no different. Why pay £20 for a DVD when you know the movie is already crazy with profit? Piracy is an economic function of price. If the price is too high for the product, alternatives will appear. Old world ideas can’t stop new world desires and innovation.

The sink or swim reality of capitalist economics are supposed to ensure that bad ideas fail, old ideas cycle out, and the market remains efficient. This is especially true of intellectual property.

It is not new. Structures of power: government and business alike, try to stick to stable platforms. Stability and innovation do not sit well together, they strike a delicate balance.


  1. Thank You

  2. […] a wonder they survived this long.  This decline perfectly demonstrates how the “rear-view mirror thinking” of holding on to old media, loses to disruptive […]

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