In the late 1960s, conservative Australian historian Geoffrey Blainey coined the term “the tyranny of distance” to describe how the geographic gap between Australia and the centres of the Western world (US, UK) played a fundamental role is shaping the Australian psyche and character. Fast forward thirty something years into the future, the world is widely considered a global village; the web, email and a million other applications have made realtime information-heavy communication and commerce the expected norm. Today, however, the event of the last few days have given me pause enough to think about what we might consider the tyranny of digital distance insomuch as the potential and, indeed, expectation of synchronous global culture (at least for English-speaking countries) leads to a constant state of delay and annoyance when the promise isn’t met. A few examples from my life in Perth, Western Australia (“the world’s most geographically isolated capital city”) …
News (in print and more or less online)
David Sifry’s State of the Blogosphere, August 2005, Part 1: Blog Growth has been widely cited across the blogosphere and the US and UK newsmedia for most of last week. A full week after the story hits, The West Australian, our only WA-based newspaper, finally picks up the piece. Although, I shouldn’t really complain, because the story actually makes it online; less the half The West goes up on there website (I have no idea why, but I suspect it’s a lack of demand and a lack of foresight reinforcing each other).
Film: Code 46
While this film has had a slightly difficult release no matter which country we look at, the mainstream UK release was September 2004. The cinema release date for Code 46 in Australia was July 28 2005. There’s a ten month delay there!
Television I: Desperate Housewives
While I’m not particularly interested in this show, it’s a good example because it is very widely watched in Australia. The finale of Desperate Housewives,“One Wonderful Day” aired in the US on May 22nd. The episode airs in Perth tonight, 8th August. While that’s actually quite a respectable delay considering the norm, that period of almost three months is how long Aussie Desperate Housewives fans have had to avoid large segments of the net which have reported/discussed/dissected the season finale. (That’s not counting the period before the show when spoilers were widely available!)
Television II: Battlestar Galactica & The Podcasts
A show I am very interested in. Battlestar Galactica season one didn’t air in Australia until March 2005, despite a UK release in 2005 and a US release in early January. Any SF/F show is going to have a large, dedicated, fannish following. Battlestar Galactica is a very good SF show, and thus has a huge following. There are even official podcasts by exec producer Ron Moore, and fan podcasts such as the Combat Information Centre. I can get the podcasts via iTunes minutes after they go live. But the episodes? Well, after season one got pushed later and later into the evening (finally resting at a 10.30pm timeslot), season two doesn’t even have a scheduled release date (although I sorely suspect early 2006 to be likely).
So, here we have plenty of examples of cultural delay in an era where the technology and infrastructure already exist to get around the delay. Now, I recognise that these delays are in large part caused because big business and big media have divided the world up into slices that they each exploit to their fullest. Channel Seven trys to milk Desperate Housewives for all it can, thus playing the show later in the year during the traditionally higher rating winter months. Channel 10 moves Battlestar Galactica to a later slot for the same reason and because they know SF/F shows have the most stable audience; move it to 2am and they’ll still watch (or, at least, record) their favourite shows. Code 46 is too artshousey for much mainstream release, so cinemas don’t worry too much about when. And The West … well, in a one newspaper town the web is king.
However, these delays are also hurting the businesses who live off advertising. The delays in TV shows have led to a widespread culture of TV-show downloading; torrent TV is the easiest and fastest way to keep apace of your favourite TV show. I purchased and got mail-delivered the (legal) Code 46 DVD before Australia had even agreed on a release date. And I haven’t paid for The West Australian for a long, long time. So, is this just a whinge? No; it’s a suggestion. Australian media distributors need to be looking at alternative models, not try to lock them down through lawsuits. Yes, downloading torrents of TV hurts Australian ratings a little (but not a lot from the looks of things), and it may very well continue to get worse. The solution, of course, is not trying to prevent innovative technologies (“information wants to be free”, after all!), but rather to embrace them. If I could pay a few dollars for a direct-download of Battlestar Galactica today, I would. If an Australian company set this up via a license from the US, this would mean the show can still, to some extent, be marketed nationally. If Australian cinemas can’t get films before their US DVD release date, then why not try and set up a direct-download-pay-per-view or some such platform in Australia? The generation that are growing up having experienced peer-to-peer filesharing will expect synchronous global media even more than the current twentysomethings. Big media should be embracing innovation and learning to work with new technologies or they may find the carpet being pulled from under them before they’ve even realised it was made of ones and zeroes.
The tyranny of distance was geograhpic with cultural effects. The tyranny of digital distance occurs when the geographic has been by and large supplanted by the digital, but the age-old national boundaries to legal media distribution will very soon lead to more and more people circumventing those legal limits unless big media admits that dividing the pie up in terms of national licenses (or the ridiculous DVD region zones) no longer makes sense when information is moving at the speed of light!
[Cross-posted from Ponderance.]