4.3 Innovation from the internet

Recall from Section 2 that the three layers stacked up like this in the controlled v commons stakes:

Table showing the balance of status - Controlled, Commons (free) or mix of both - for each Internet layer. The Content layer (e.g. web pages, browsers) is a mix of Controlled and Commons. The Code/Logical layer (e.g. TCP/IP protocols) is Commons. The Physical layer (e.g. wires, routers) is Controlled.

Right from the start of the unit we have been referring to the explosive innovation that arose out of the internet, but up to now we have not talked in terms of specific examples. Chapter 8 is devoted to the examples.

It is suggested that specific innovations such as Napster even cross over into free or uncontrolled parts of the physical layer, through using the ‘dark matter’ of the internet. Clay Shirky has written a useful essay on this, ‘PCs are the dark matter of the internet’, in which he says:

PCs are the dark matter of the internet. Like the barely detectable stuff that makes up most of the mass of the universe, PCs are connected to the internet by the hundreds of millions but have very little discernable effect on the whole, because they are largely unused as anything other than dumb clients (and expensive dumb clients to boot). From the point of view of most of the internet industry, a PC is nothing more than a life-support system for a browser and a place to store cookies.

Table showing Internet innovations that affected each layer. The Internet innovations to affect the Content layer are HTML books (free), My.MP3 (paid for and accessible), Napster (free but stolen?), P2P. The innovations to affect the Code/Logical layer are World Wide Web, HTML, My.MP3, Napster, P2P. For all of these e2e leads to the code layer becoming a Commons. For the Physical layer the innovations are Napster, P2P (‘dark matter’ of the Internet - unused processing power of individual PCs).

The internet essentially offered a platform for new technologies (MP3) and products (audio and video streaming), new means of distribution and a vast new marketplace. It opened new markets for things like poetry and allowed new entrants like My.MP3 and Napster into the music distribution business (just like the player piano innovators of an earlier era). It offered all these in the thick of a mix of free and controlled resources. Lessig feels that originally the balance between free and controlled resources was right for innovation, but that has now changed.

The My.MP3 and Napster stories are probably the most important in Chapter 8, and I would like to focus on Napster here.

4.2 Creativity in the ‘dark ages’

4.3.1 Napster – pirates' tool or celestial jukebox