Notes on Nicholas Carr

I just caught up with an older Nicholas Carr post from February on the possibility that micropayments might save the business side of journalism. Carr says that, as things are now, micropayments aren’t the answer. Patience is.

He spends part of his essay debunking the similarities people have tried to draw between the successful iTunes store and possible small-payment systems for news. You can’t apply the iTunes mentality to news articles, he writes, because buying a song is far different from buying a bit of news.

Most news stories, for one thing, are transitory, disposable things. That makes them very different from songs, which we buy because we want to “own” them, to have the ability to play them over and over again. We don’t want to own news stories; we just want to read them or glance over them. Hawking stories piecemeal is a harder sell than hawking tunes; the hassle factor is more difficult to overcome.

News stories are fungible, Carr writes, meaning basically that one is as good as another. That’s not the case with music, and that uniqueness lends songs value that articles do not have. On top of that, the news becomes outdated very quickly, eroding most of its value.

As a side note, Patrick Thornton has some good money-related arguments against the iTunes model that put another nail in that coffin. For a dose of the other side, Marc Glasberg, CEO of the micropayment/subscription startup Icents has some hit-and-miss arguments for such a payment system.

Micropayments may be out, but Carr believes that the days of people paying for news are not gone. They are merely on a market-induced hiatus.

Right now, “supply so far exceeds demand that the price of news has dropped to zero.” This, Carr says, is a distortion in the news market, caused by the massive impact of new online technologies. Carr writes:

Now here’s what a lot of people seem to forget: Excess production capacity goes away, particularly when that capacity consists not of capital but of people. Supply and demand, eventually and often painfully, come back into some sort of balance. Newspapers have, with good reason, been pulling their hair out over the demand side of the business, where a lot of their product has, for the time being, lost its monetary value. But the solution to their dilemma actually lies on the production side: particularly, the radical consolidation and radical reduction of capacity.

Once the world of journalism shrinks enough, it will become profitable again, Carr argues. Then the users had better watch out! The producers will regain their power and show us what’s what — by prying open our wallets.

Carr dismisses writers like Clay Shirky and Jeff Jarvis, who argue that something has changed significantly and irreversibly about the way people find and consume news. For Carr, the crisis affecting the news business is a temporary affair, the good times will return. It’s just a matter of time.

To say that things will recover from this market slump in more or less the same form as before the communication revolution is the same as saying that the academy shook out the same way after the transition from oral to literate society. It’s the same as saying that books held the same power after they could be cheaply mass produced as they did when they had to be laboriously copied by hand.

The Web is mainstream (to use a sexy phrase: it’s hit a tipping point), and its effect on the part of society that has access to it, and even on the people who don’t, is as fundamental to our culture.

This is philosophy, and it’s not directly applicable to journalism, true. But we can’t ignore the immensity of the current communications revolution. And it’s naive to think that things will go back to the way they were without significant change.

4 Comments on “Notes on Nicholas Carr”

  1. clayshirky

    Carr, I think, is a considerably more sophisticated thinker than he gets credit for, and what looks to the naked eye like conflicting assertions are actually part and parcel of a deeper dilemma he faces.

    As a pessimist, he'd like to simply contradict what the optimists are saying, which would mean minimizing or denying the enormity of the current changes. However, he's a smart and knowledgeable pessimist, so he can't simply gainsay the optimists and call it a day, because he knows that the current changes are a big deal (even if they are not a big deal in the ways or to the degree we optimists claim they are.)

    This means he *also* can't side with most of the minimizers or hand-wringers. There's nothing in Carr's work that I read as “Oh, this will all return to the old normal” — his point about Google News opening up access to 11,000 competing accounts of a news story means that the correcting of supply-side imbalance, per Carr, leave a handful of suppliers who can charge after that change, but the path to that re-balanced supply will be nothing less than the Gotterdammerung of newspapers, and Carr knows it.

    He also can't side with 'third-way' models — he was as skeptical of Sanger's Citizendium project as I was — because he things the internet's effect on culture is 99% bad.

    This leaves him writing from a lonely spot — he believes the media world we've know is being blown to bits; he can't bring himself to hold out false hope that this change will stop or reverse; and he also believes that many of the cherished hopes of the optimists tied to increased participation or free culture are claptrap.

    This puts him in the position of “a pox on both your houses” writing, and it's easy to mis-read, because what Luddites see in Carr are predictions that newspapers will be crushed by transparency, while all we optimists see is his conviction that our imagined future will fail, because it's built on nothing more than fantasies about psychology and economics.

    As a historical analogy, one of the optimists' models for the current change is the Protestant Reformation, where new communications practices upended traditional society, but also ushered in science and democracy. Carr's model is the sack of Rome, where the people doing the upending are destroying a culture too tired to carry on, but replacing it with nothing of comparable value.

    Disagree with him all you like on that latter point, but don't underestimate the force, clarity or sophistication of his work.

  2. Michael Becker

    Thanks for reading. I'm afraid I have to bow to your superior knowledge of Carr, but that particular article of his does seem to take a wait-and-let-this-settle-out approach. I can't place that in the context of what else he's written, but trust me: that doesn't mean I am minimizing Carr or taking him, or his sophistication, for granted.

    Again, thanks for reading. It's always a pleasure when celebrities stop by.

  3. clayshirky

    Carr, I think, is a considerably more sophisticated thinker than he gets credit for, and what looks to the naked eye like conflicting assertions are actually part and parcel of a deeper dilemma he faces.

    As a pessimist, he'd like to simply contradict what the optimists are saying, which would mean minimizing or denying the enormity of the current changes. However, he's a smart and knowledgeable pessimist, so he can't simply gainsay the optimists and call it a day, because he knows that the current changes are a big deal (even if they are not a big deal in the ways or to the degree we optimists claim they are.)

    This means he *also* can't side with most of the minimizers or hand-wringers. There's nothing in Carr's work that I read as “Oh, this will all return to the old normal” — his point about Google News opening up access to 11,000 competing accounts of a news story means that the correcting of supply-side imbalance, per Carr, leave a handful of suppliers who can charge after that change, but the path to that re-balanced supply will be nothing less than the Gotterdammerung of newspapers, and Carr knows it.

    He also can't side with 'third-way' models — he was as skeptical of Sanger's Citizendium project as I was — because he things the internet's effect on culture is 99% bad.

    This leaves him writing from a lonely spot — he believes the media world we've know is being blown to bits; he can't bring himself to hold out false hope that this change will stop or reverse; and he also believes that many of the cherished hopes of the optimists tied to increased participation or free culture are claptrap.

    This puts him in the position of “a pox on both your houses” writing, and it's easy to mis-read, because what Luddites see in Carr are predictions that newspapers will be crushed by transparency, while all we optimists see is his conviction that our imagined future will fail, because it's built on nothing more than fantasies about psychology and economics.

    As a historical analogy, one of the optimists' models for the current change is the Protestant Reformation, where new communications practices upended traditional society, but also ushered in science and democracy. Carr's model is the sack of Rome, where the people doing the upending are destroying a culture too tired to carry on, but replacing it with nothing of comparable value.

    Disagree with him all you like on that latter point, but don't underestimate the force, clarity or sophistication of his work.

  4. Michael Becker

    Thanks for reading. I'm afraid I have to bow to your superior knowledge of Carr, but that particular article of his does seem to take a wait-and-let-this-settle-out approach. I can't place that in the context of what else he's written, but trust me: that doesn't mean I am minimizing Carr or taking him, or his sophistication, for granted.

    Again, thanks for reading. It's always a pleasure when celebrities stop by.