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A. Tatnall, publisherThe Occasional Web-Journal of a Comic Misanthrope.New Hampshire

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Latest Article: "Time immaterial"

Early this morning I had a nasty dream, though it would be more accurate to say that my consciousness got lost and wandered by accident into Satan’s Laboratory. In that forbidden place, industrious wriggling creatures practice their Hellscience, formulating, developing, refining, and testing the evil of tomorrow, today. This secret glimpse was all the more insidious because it was confusingly mingled with my real-life awakening process.

In this dream, my alarm clock violently perforated a peaceful sleep with its silence-shattering buzzing. My free alarm clock, I reminded myself! All alarm clocks were now given away to the public for free. I fumbled for the snooze bar and depressed it with a satisfying clack, just as always, only to be greeted by the following text glowing from the clock’s face:

“Would you like to purchase ‘Snooze (Single Use)’ for $0.99? Confirm / Cancel”

Oh, right… this, I thought. OK, yeah, I’m nowhere near ready to get up. I pressed the button again, agreeing to the transaction that would automatically debit my linked checking account. I twisted around and allowed myself to drift back to sleep.

Seconds after that, nine minutes had sprinted by, and the alarm blared to life once more. I was again faced with the choice: Force myself awake before I was ready, or pay for the privilege of sleeping a little longer. Clack.

Four or five dollars later, the machine helpfully offered me a new option:

“Purchase ‘Snooze (Single Use)’ for $0.99 / Purchase Snooze (Pack of 5) for $4.49?”

Guh! I’m still too tired. How much money do I have left…?

I give you: Alarm clock microtransactions. The latest in consumer convenience and flexibility, brought to you courtesy of the devil.

Some of you are saying, “So? Just get up early. I do it every morning and I don’t have to use the snooze button.” But consider this counterargument: Go away; you’re weird and nobody likes you.

The fact that I imagined all this at the same time that my real alarm clock was getting its jollies doesn’t change the fact that it was just a dream, of course. But I think I know where my brain was getting its ideas, and it has to do with the quiet campaign that is being waged to divorce us all from the concept of ownership.

Just about everybody likes the ease and convenience of the digital download of music, books, movies and software. Buy it wherever you are, consume it whenever, and throw away the massive media rack that’s been falling apart in your living room for a decade because you misplaced a couple of cam screws while putting it together. But this digital future, while exciting and inevitable, doubles as a tasty pill pocket made to smuggle within it a bitter lozenge which is known as “rights management”.

With physical media like Blu-ray, CDs, game cartridges, or paper books, you pay one time up front and the item belongs materially to you, to use or lend as many times as you like for as long as you have it, or to gift or sell to someone else who doesn’t have to pay the publishers a hot cent. The media companies who sell these items—your Warner Bros., or Disney, or Microsoft, or many others—look at this activity and see only dollar bills flapping off into the sky on little feathery wings. They view their products as services rather than objects, and services are never unlimited in use.

Thankfully for them, digital distribution fixes all that consumer-friendly anarchy. Downloadable content largely kills the problem of lending and reselling (and in the odd case where they allow you to lend their product to a friend, it is only on terms they may carefully define and restrict), since digital files can easily be locked to an account or a device, neither of which customers are in a hurry to pass around. It also allows them to dictate which devices their media will work with in the first place.

That’s a start, but it still puts something into customers’ hands that can be manipulated, which leaves open the door to piracy. In truth, these companies have never trusted you or me since Napster. They mostly looked the other way when we copied their stuff using cassettes, as long as we were still paying their inflated prices most of the time. But with Napster we broke their gentleman’s agreement, and it was a feeding frenzy for a public who had essentially been given the keys to the candy store. Once a cheater, always a cheater, they say of us, and the only way they see to prevent another Napster scenario from ever reoccurring is to take anything copyable out of our hands completely.

Enter cloud based streaming! So nimble and convenient! Don’t travel to a store or abide lengthy download times: They’ll keep everything on their servers—in their own toy box—and you pay for the privilege of playing with it for a while. At home or on the go, synced on all your devices! Until they decide to alter the deal, changing their terms and conditions. Or they shut down their expensive servers. Or go out of business. Or you lose your internet or electricity. All of these are scenarios by which you might lose the ability to use the product you paid for. In effect, you are paying not for your own personal library of things, but for a series of imaginary keys that will unlock those things for you to borrow for a while, keys which might disappear at some point in the future. You are exchanging your currency on the open market for air.

That’s the direction in which we’re being herded today, but what will tomorrow bring? Publishers can prevent you from giving your digital books and movies away, but they can’t charge you extra for letting a friend watch with you… yet. Samsung’s mobile devices include a technology whereby the front facing camera can track your eyes and know when you are and aren’t looking at the screen. Why couldn’t they program it to count the pairs of eyeballs trained on a screen and adjust movie rental prices accordingly? (Eye patches could become a fashion trend, but we’ll tally that under the “pro” column.) Or what if non-media industries—whose household products are becoming more connected every day—get the idea to slow-drip cash from us in the same fashion: products like coffee makers, or alarm clocks? It seems far-fetched, yes… but is it that much farther-fetched than most of us twenty years ago would have found the way things are today? I can totally fetch those possibilities, from this far. That shit is not unfetchable.

The ray of hope is that we can still be roused from our bread-and-circus lethargy into a little good old fashioned consumer outcry when these media companies really overstep. Microsoft’s recently announced game console, the Xbox One, introduced a litany of draconian policies surrounding the lending and reselling of games, along with a requirement that the console check into their servers once every twenty four hours or else lock out the ability to play games. An enraged public has forced them to reverse both policies, although what likely permitted the success of their outcry was the presence of a competing product that eschewed similar restrictions. So long as one company is willing to provide a viable, consumer friendly alternative, we still have the freedom to vote with our wallets.

Still, the great infernal laboratory continues to hatch its sticky larvae, always drafting the blueprint for the next great innovation in sticking it to us all: in bleeding consumers of more of their wealth and feeding it into the pockets of those enthroned atop the highest towers, all the while cloaking their actions in promises of a more comfortable world for those scurrying far below. The real trouble is that Satan’s Lab is the one part of this that was definitely just a dream. It’s real, of course, but it exists right here on the surface, in industrial parks and corporate campuses across the globe.

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