Sometimes, I hear hopeful statements from publishing’s self-appointed saviors that the article economy or something like it will eliminate wasteful spending on content. These savings are portrayed as ultimately good for users and as something that puts publishers in their place. After all, why should users have to pay for things they don’t use? They should only have to pay for things they use.
But what if the things they use aren’t the goods in question, but the capabilities involved in making those goods? What if we’re talking about services and not products?
This came to mind in two instances recently.
The first occurred while I was helping my son with his French homework. My French is rusty. It was his first day back at school, so his was, too. Certain words stumped us, so I’d Google them, find them in a Collins online French-English dictionary, glean the meaning, and move on. Collins had sold some ads next to the definitions in an attempt to monetize their online content, which is otherwise free. There was very little waste — in our time, in pages traversed, or in attention. However, there was also missing the sometimes wonderful experience of zeroing-in on a word, during which other words — friends, neighbors, and rivals to the original — toy with your field of vision.
The second occurred talking with a cycling friend, who was looking for a cycling map of the Western part of our state. He and I had often used maps from a local company for Central and Eastern parts of the state, but I didn’t recall having one for the Western part. The reason he was looking for a loaner map is that the company that made the maps had gone out of business, a victim of Internet maps. This was a shame, because these cycling maps were excellent — detailed, helpful, and they listed ice cream shops you’d encounter on the way.
When you buy a dictionary or a map, you buy a lot of what some would call “waste.” There are words in that dictionary which you’ll never look up — common words, conjunctions, and obscure words you’ll never stumble across even if you read widely. There are roads on that map you’ll never take — they’re too congested, don’t lead to any destination of yours, or are simply dead ends.
But in buying these outputs from lexicographers and cartographers, are you really buying the dictionary or the map? Or are you supporting their capabilities and expertise by funding the service they provide? Is it a bit of both? And what if the price you pay supports the one but not the other? What if market pricing becomes purely focused on the wrong one?
Earlier this year, we asked whether publishers provide a product or a service. The answer is “it depends” — the difference is in what you sell. Some publishers sell products only; some sell services only; some sell a mix of the two. But in either case, publishers need to sustain both their products and their services.
When people talk about eliminating “waste” from the sales of information goods, they are usually talking about excess products. And in addition to usually dismissing the service continuum that provided the specific product, they are being subjective. What is one person’s wasteful product may not be another’s.
In “just in case” purchasing, waste only exists until the situation arises when you need something. It was a “waste” for the dictionary to have an entry for “mieux” until we needed it. The Internet provided this just in time, but its business model doesn’t yet support just in case. It is leveraging the excess of the older sales model through to what some hope will be a new way to support just in case — because, ultimately, “just in time” is simply a snapshot of “just in case.” And in this way, the argument about waste is fundamentally flawed because waste is often hard to define, unpredictable, idiosyncratic, and mostly non-existent over a long stretch of time.
Digital goods don’t eliminate waste, either. When you buy a computer, a broadband service, or software, there’s an illusion that you aren’t buying built-in waste. But there’s a lot of waste involved in all of these purchases — broadband sits idle for hours in a day; computing capacity goes untouched by your minimal use of basic programs; and software isn’t pushed to its limits or explored for its full value. Does this “waste” invalidate the value of these purchases?
Our fealty to the digital misinforms many perceptions of value. Does a $3 map of half a state really have a worse value equation than a $400 smartphone that is occasionally used for mapping? Does a $14 dictionary really have a worse value equation than a $95/month broadband account that’s used at 15% of its capacity and only occasionally to look up words? This is the magic of retail — to make the new form of waste seem more attractive than the old forms.
Maybe you’re just renting those songs after all.
We also seem to believe that digital services are infallible, or at least perfectible. Yet, GPS systems routinely fail us in small and annoying ways. And graphical systems expose their limitations on a regular basis, such as the maps of airplane flight paths that look clogged only because the airplanes are completely out of scale (as you zoom out, the planes stay about the same size, so one plane is about the size of a major metropolitan area by the time you can see an appreciable number on-screen). So far, I have yet to meet a digital system that works infallibly. They are still an extension of us, and are imprinted with our limitations.
Usage reports at institutions are an attempt to quantify value by identifying waste — if the per-use cost of a title exceeds a certain level, that title gets a closer look before renewal. However, there is a fatal flaw with this approach, one that most librarians fully appreciate. The fact is that one download of the right PDF at the right time by the right person may completely justify not only the expense of the subscription to the title in question, it may also justify the library budget that year — a researcher makes a breakthrough that leads to huge new grants; an administrator finds ways to generate newfound philanthropic support; or a professor gains inspiration to restructure a department and attract a whole new class of undergraduates.
The caution librarians exercise in the management of their collections speaks to another constant they know intuitively, if not explicitly — that publications, as proxies for their fields, go through cycles. I’ve lived through months and years at scientific publications that yielded very little interesting science — mostly incremental findings or uninteresting negative findings. Then, a few months on, a set of reports comes through that revolutionizes the field and sets off a spate of debate, insights, and extrapolations that light the field on fire for a while. If the capability to handle these high points is scuttled because of impulsive reactions to the “waste” perceived during the low points, the unintended consequences could be devastating to a community. Worst, they may never know what they missed.
This is where brands mitigate the harsh calculus of waste — brands earn loyalty and patience. Neither is infinite, but a strong brand is less likely to be canceled or abandoned over a slump or a dry spell. This goes for brands of all types — athletes, actors, musicians, journals, authors. As one person who would know once stated, “has been” is the same as “once was, and might again.”
Our ability to anticipate needs is notoriously poor. In fact, the notion that you can know in advance just how much information or how many ideas you will need is a fantasy. Intellectual work is inherently extravagant and therefore wasteful. You need to read more broadly and discursively than you first imagined; you’ll find the best idea in the strangest place; the observation that makes the difference often seems like serendipity; and so forth. Starving intellectual work in the pursuit of product or service efficiency is akin to saving yourself poor.
I’ve written before about the hidden costs of computing and digital technologies, many of which are energy costs. Perhaps we should also become more cognizant of the waste inherent in digital technologies — the vampire power, the underutilized services, the untapped capacity. Or, perhaps, we can accept that our mental model of “waste” is wrong — that what we’re paying for isn’t what we use, but the potential and availability of utility, the associated convenience and assurances, and the expanded boundaries necessary for true intellectual awareness and work. Then, we are supporting not only the producers of goods and services, but our own unpredictable needs and inherent limitations.