Wednesday, 11 July 2018

The weightless economy

The developed world's gross domestic product is growing below-trend; bouncing back from such a dip as the global financial crisis it should be doing better than it is. One reason is that the way GDP is measured still concentrates on physical goods and services - and the value created by the virtual world is underestimated. This article in Monday's Independent explains how difficult it is to put a figure to this move from the physical to the digital. So much of our economy today is weightless, intangible.

This struck me last Thursday in London. On my way to Ealing Broadway tube station, I paused to take a photo and realised that there was no memory card in the camera - I'd forgotten to take it out of my laptop the previous evening. So I bought a new one (Kingston 32GB) for £18. Rather expensive, but as a captive of circumstance, I had to choose between spending the money or lugging a useless camera around with me all day while missing shots.

In the old days, for £18, I'd have been able to buy a roll of 36 exposure 35mm film, develop it and get back 36 prints plus a CD with crappy low-res digital scans of the negs. Today, my Nikon D3300 can - cram 675 photos in fine .jpg and RAW format on to this £18 card (that I could probably have bought at half price online). That's 675 photos, again and again and again until the card packs up. I've only had one fail on me - a 256KB (yes! that small!) card which was over ten years old. In the days of film, I'd be shooting  and processing between two and four rolls of film a month. Then the photos would be piling up in cupboards, drawers, albums filled and filed on bookcases - today, a single hard 1TB drive with external back-up holds 11 years' worth of digital photos.

Think of the supply chain that stood behind my photography in the old days. Film manufacturers, distributors and retailers. Film-processing machine makers. Operators skilled in running the machines that could develop negs and print photos. Makers of those envelopes in which the negs and prints were presented. An entire industry - gone.

And music. In the old days, I'd be forking out loads of money on buying music. That £18 is what I spent over 21 years ago on my last CD purchased before moving to Poland - David Bowie's Low. Working across the road from the Virgin Megastore and not too far from HMV on Oxford St, I'd be shelling out fistfuls of tenners on vinyl LPs, then music cassettes, then CDs and DVDs.

Today I consume my media from YouTube; I can find the obscurest piece of music lodged in my memory there. Blast Furnace and the Heatwaves' cover of Robert Johnson's Me and the Devil off of the Blue Wave EP? Proszę bardzo. The longest of the long tail (a mere 200 views since it was uploaded last October, but I've been looking for this particular piece for 40 years). So why should I ever spend money on buying music again? I'm not listening to less music than I was Before Internet, it's just the internet delivers what I want - no matter how obscure - for free. And those fistfuls of tenners I used to spend on vinyl, cassettes and CDs no longer go towards the calculation of the nation's gross domestic product. All those vinyl pressers, album-sleeve printers, packers, distributors - jobs gone.

In the old days, I'd be forking out on newspapers. A paper on the way to work some days, but an Evening Standard on my way home every night. Before it became a free paper. Let me tell you this, Londoners - the moment Transport for London puts WiFi into your tube trains - newspapers will be dead. People will be glued to their Twitter, Facebook and breaking-news feeds. I have a full paper-and-digital subscription to the Economist - and that's all the paid-for media I consume. Newspaper owners are losing money rapidly, to the detriment of proper reporting.

Pay TV? Forget it. Any kind of TV. The idea that at a certain time, a certain programme is to be broadcast - and if I'm not on the sofa in front of the set, I miss it? How quaint. How 20th century. Not for me.

During the boom of 2000-2001, many thought that digitisation would be a little add-on to bolster an already well-functioning economy. Then the bubble burst, confirming that view. Yet the digital revolution has proved to be disruptive and transformational. We do things differently in the digital world - digital has not simply been about doing what we do better, faster and cheaper, but about a total re-shape of what and why and how we do it.

Today's economy is increasingly about intangibles. How can you measure the value you get from Google, for example? How much would you pay if you had to pay to access gmail, Blogger, Google maps, Google Earth, Google Drive, Google Calendar, Google Translate*, YouTube and the world's favourite search engine? Of course, if you did have to pay, someone would offer a free alternative very quickly. So let's put it another way - how much would you have to be paid to forego using the internet for a year...? Think about it. All those free services... How much would it take you to quit? £1,000 (5,000 złotys)... £10,000 (50,000 złotys) a year?

Now that's probably a truer figure of the value of what you're getting for free - and it's not being calculated into the world's gross domestic product.

* is a superior alternative to Google Translate - my entire office has switched to it now - thanks Andrew Nathan for suggesting it to me!

This time three years ago:
Seven days in Warsaw in seven photos

This four years ago:
Best Bacon From Poland: ad on London bus, 1969

This time nine years ago:
Sunset across the tracks, Nowa Iwiczna

This time ten years ago:
The storm the forecasters missed

This time 11 years ago:
Peacocks in the park

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