Lowering the Bar

 

A Discussion of How Modern Computers Have Reduced the Barrier to Entry in Text, Audio, Photographic and Video Production.

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René Descartes

René Descartes

In 1637 René Descartes penned his now famous line “I think, therefore, I am.”  This concise philosophical thought had a deep impact on western perspective and inspired discussion about the nature of humankind.  Although it resonated from a philosophical standpoint the thought identifies man as a thinking being.  Our archaeological record illustrates that man has spent much of his time on earth working to communicate those thoughts to others.  Man has thoughts and those thoughts must be shared.

Today’s environment includes a broad spectrum of communication tools each worth of it’s own study, however for this paper I will focus on four categories of communication production, the written word, music/audio, image and video creation.  In this paper I will show how modern technology has reduced the barrier to entry for those wishing to share their thoughts using these communication mediums.  

While several definitions for the term barrier to entry exists in economics there is no definitive consensus (McAfee, 2004).  For the purpose of this paper the term barrier to entry will refer to real or imaginary obstacles that make it difficult to enter a specific market or activity.  To prove my thesis I will review the workflow within each of these areas and discuss how modern computers have greatly reduced the cost in both finance and time enabling a wider range of participants.  While time and financial costs are both good indicators when discussing workflow cost reduction in some cases, workflow reduction is not the sole indicator of a reduction in the barrier to entry.  Popularity is also a reasonable measure of a reduction in the barrier to entry.  

Popularity in this context refers to a quantity of publication not its consumption.  For the purpose of this work, entry into the marketspace is defined as publication.  When discussing a barrier to entry there is little need to look further than the successful publication of a particular item.  Publication will be the final step in the production chain for all disciplines.

The basic steps for producing the written word are: Idea Generation, Outline, Draft, Review, Rewrite, Proof and Publish.  Depending on the length of words needed to communicate the idea these steps may be abbreviated or expanded.  For example a casual message to a loved one may simply go from idea, to draft, to publication with nearly automatic keystrokes, while an essay for a peer reviewed journal will require several iterations of the draft, review, rewrite cycle prior to publication.  As mentioned before publication is considered entry in this evaluation of the barrier to entry.

Computers have greatly enhanced the speed of each of these individual processes and also therefore the whole.  The processes of capturing an idea was still very much the same as it has been since the widespread marketing of the typewriting beginning in the 1870’s (Kunde, 1986).  CRT monitors on early word processing systems enabled a greater efficiency in the editing process.  Lawyers, whose business relies upon precise argument using the written word were among some of the early adopters of these CRT enabled computer systems.  Recognizing the market Linolex paid for a full page ad in the June of 1974 issue of the American Bar Association Journal.  It can be argued that these early word processing systems weren’t computers as we know them today.  That change emerged in the early 1980s with the increased popularity and affordability of personal computers.  By 1983 Stewart Cheifet and Gary Kildall estimated that there were over 150 different word processing systems (KCSM, 1983).  Despite the early growth in the market represented by those early systems and adopters the computer still remained too expensive for widespread saturation and adoption.  Because of this expense and lack of massive adoption it is difficult to demonstrate a reduction in the barrier to entry.  It’s easier to see a barrier to entry being reduced when it’s done across a larger population.

Desktop and laptops saw widespread adoption in the 1990s and early 2000s but a two significant game changers occurred in late 2007, netbooks and the release of the iPhone.  Both of these disruptive technologies became serious contenders for market dollars over the next few years.  From 2008 to 2009 netbooks had a 641% increase in sales growth (Blodget, 2010).  By the fourth quarter of 2008 the iPhone had sold 13.2 million units (statista.com, 2015).  This enabled a steady growth of internet users despite a global economic downturn (Ristić, 2009).  With the saturation of inexpensive portable internet connected devices the processes of getting the written word from idea to publication became considerably more efficient.  This is evident through the increased of print on demand publications which saw a 132% increase from 2007 to 2008 (“Just press print”).

The process of repeatedly working through drafts is now considerably easier.  Websites such as Freelance.com boast over 600,000 editors (“Hire a Freelance Editor”) and allow an author to upload their work and request assistance in a matter of minutes.  Finding a good freelance editor prior to computers was a difficult task without publicly accessible databases of available talent.  Computers as communication devices have significantly reduced the inefficiencies in time management that existed in this workflow as well the others that will be discussed.  Iqbal Quadir talks about how this reduced inefficiency is greatly changing the lives of poor people simply by making their time more efficient (Quadir, 2005).  For the purposes of our discussion, similar reduction in the inefficiencies in time management also apply.

Print on demand and access to editors have reduced the cost of time and money for authors wanting to publish their work through print, but with the saturation of low cost portable devices much of what people used to consumed with physical media is now consumed electronically (Figure 1 & Mims, 2012).  To supply the demands of this consumption market many authors have moved to producing works entirely online.  In some circles blogging almost seems like a dated term.  There are even conversations about whether or not the medium is no longer useful, but as Nielsen’s research pointed out in 2012, the number of bloggers has grown with sites like Pinterest helping change the way people logically organize content online (Nielsen, 2012).  In his usually prophetic way Paul Schindler discussed in 1983 that his word processing software didn’t include a page formatting back end because he had no need for it since his writing stayed digital until the final step (KCSM, 1983).  

Today publishing the written word online takes on the form of social network updates in as little as 140 characters with devices that fit in the palm of the hand and have access to a worldwide audience.  Building that same capacity prior to the computer would have cost millions and could have only been done with satellites.  Transatlantic cables were nowhere near capacity for the 1980’s TAT-8, the first transatlantic fiber optic cable, could only handle 40,000 simultaneous phone calls (Hammack, 2011).  A far cry from the capacity required to share the data created for today’s cross continent audiences.

Several aspects of the workflow in written word production namely, Idea Generation, Outline, Draft, Review, Rewrite, Proof and Publish have all seen improvements in efficiency due to computers.

Audio production has a similar workflow to written text.  For the purposes of this discussion the workflow will be defined as Idea, Capture/Record, Edit, Copyright, and Publish.  In each of these steps the computer has helped reduced the barrier to entry.  The proliferation of  computer devices and the massive amounts of data available online has contributed to the conversation that inspires people to experiment with their talent to create music.  Zach Sobiech’s story has over 14 million views on youtube with an encouraging message for young people to take full opportunity to live their lives (SoulPancake, 2013).

The time and financial cost associated with audio capture/recording is one of the largest areas where quantifiable costs in both time and money have been reduced.  In 1965 Abbey Road studios purchased four J37 4 track reel to reel tape recorders at a price of £8,000 (MusicTech.net, 2014).  Today a Zoom H6 recorder which can do four simultaneous input tracks can be purchased for under four hundred dollars (B&H, 2015).  Paul McCartney has even recently remarked that the Beatles forgot dozens of songs due to a lack of portable recording equipment (Gildman, 2015).  That’s a price reduction of $168,182.97 and an extremely powerful tool for the user (DollarTimes, 2015 & Antweiler, 2015).

Editing is the next step in the workflow and a processes one that has not only been enhanced by computers, but an area in which computers have almost universally taken control.  SoftwareInsider.com lists over 124 software editors with various features and for various platforms as part of its review (softwareinsider.com, 2015).  While it’s difficult to identify the most popular editor in today’s music industry (Rosenkjær, 2015), one thing is certain, all of the ones currently being debated are all run on today’s computers.  To really get a feel of what the industry was like prior to computers its best to look at the music created in the 1960s and 1970s.  Sound engineers in this era were not only required to perform the tasks necessary to publication, but often invent new techniques.  Now the techniques that Jimmy Page and Geoffrey Emerick pioneered are menu features on free cross platform programs such as audacity.

Over the years the music industry has developed several layers of protections for artists to ensure that they are compensated for their efforts.  These protections help to incentivize individuals to participate in the market.  One of these protections is the ability to copyright their work.  The copyright process involves filling out a form processed by the copyright office in Washington D.C.. Prior to computers this work was done via mail and now it is done electronically.  In addition to sending in the application at nearly the speed of light, the electronic requests can be processed by a database on the back end.  This database method of processing reduces the amount of processing time for each individual request.  

Copyright was designed to reduce theft by creating a system whereby ownership could be accurately credited.  Today there are protections for content creators embedded within privately hosted websites.  Google’s YouTube website analyzes uploaded audio and compares it against their existing database.  If the audio matches that of a third party the video’s ability to be monetized by the uploader is removed.  This feature would be possible without the computer systems behind it scanning millions of recorded audio tracks and running comparison algorithms.  This feature gives content producers another level of protection for their information further incentivizing them to enter the market.  

Publishing today can refer to both publishing the written musical notation as well as releasing the audio to public consumption.  Both of these processes are enabled by computers.  Just as there are a variety of word processing applications, there are also a variety of sheet music applications many of these such as musescore (Musecore, 2015) are cross platform and available for free.

CD’s and digital downloads (to include streaming) are the two major ways in which digital media is made available for public consumption.  CD-R drives have been available in computers for well over a decade enabling artists to write their own album to disc.  This medium would not even exist as an option without the proliferation of the computer.

Digital downloads, to include streaming, represent another aspect of publication that would not exist without computers.  The barrier to entry in this market is lowered because a computer with only minor capabilities need exist to participate.  If the computer can upload a file, it can enable the content creator to have that file hosted and sold online.  Google, Apple, and CDBaby use their high powered machines to conduct a lot of the resource intensive distribution tasks such as CDN, website rendering, and database management.  In 2008 Apple became the largest single music retailer through its iTunes store (Neumayr, 2008).  Artists wanting to have their content added to store are encouraged to use an intermediary company that has an existing relationship with iTunes.  New artists wanting to establish themselves are required to have several albums ready for the store in order to participate in its marketplace (Ehrlich, 2011).  Although Apple enables a popular worldwide distribution they have constructed barriers to entry.  These requirements are still minor to pre computerized barriers to entry and companies like CDBaby with thousands of albums in their catalogues are able to help independent artists overcome this barrier.  In order to become competitive, Google has taken a different approach allowing artists with only a single song and a $25 setup fee (Google.com, 2015).

Several aspects of the workflow in audio production namely, Idea, Capture/Record, Edit, Copyright, and Publish.  have all seen improvements in efficiency due to computers.

Photographic media’s workflow consists of image capture, Import, Edit and Publish.  Depending on the desired quality of the photograph some of these steps can be expanded and editing is not a requirement for some forums of publication. Image capture occurs when a sensor absorbs photons.  Film is a sensor which has largely been replaced by the digital sensors in modern cameras and phones which convert the photonic reaction into electrical signals.  At the heart of moving these electrical signals is a computer embedded somewhere in the camera.  DSLR camera bodies mask these cameras within their bulky frames and assume a body similar to the older film versions.  Mirrorless cameras generally have a smaller body size and make it easier to see the devices for what they are, computers attached to sensors and screens.

Electronic capture devices reduce the overall cost of time and money reducing the barrier to entry in the photographic market.  For the the same price of film to hold less than a hundred photos one can purchase an SD card that holds thousands.  The cost of time is also reduced by the immediate development of the image in preparing it for review on the screen instead of waiting for the film to be developed over an hour.  Even Polaroid’s minutes pale when compared to the near instantaneous processing by today’s cameras.

The process of editing photos has so permeated our American culture that we use a brand name as a verb to describe the process.  Photoshop isn’t the only image editing software available.  There is as much competition in photographic software as their is in the audio editing software available.  Each of top low cost  sixteen applications for android contains features that weren’t available in low cost darkrooms during the best days of film.  This increase in features reduces the barrier to entry by incentivizing the creativity and productive ability of participating members.

Like audio and word production publication of photos for a worldwide audience or even their intended specific audience generally involves using technology reliant upon computers.  Photo printing is done by a range of high grade competitive services such as Shutterfly and Snapfish.  These businesses have very little (if any) store front.  Instead they have a heavy web presence dependent upon reliable servers and databases capable of managing the print queue, files and orders in real time.  As discussed previously reaching a worldwide audience without this technology would not be possible and reaching that audience with regards to photos is key as the platforms that connect people to that audience also encourages interaction with it.  Sites like platforms such as instagram, facebook, and twitter encourage users to like and love the images that are shared.  These features provide social rewards increasing the return on investment for publishing one’s photos online.  So many photos have been published online using Flickr that the site was recently used to track world travel (Barchiesi, 2015).

Author Tony Northrup has leveraged this form of publication to assist with his business model built upon teaching others how to get the most out of their cameras.  An author since 1998 writing about mostly technology Tony designed his books with a “basic vocabulary that ESL students can understand” (Northrup, 2015).  Shifting his focus to the technology of photography Tony set up an online forum and a facebook group.  In an email he informed me that the forum was “a failed experiment, but the FB group has been a huge success and that peer support and validation is a really important part of the learning process for our more social learners” (Northrup, 2015)  Tony’s Facebook group is private allowing members to post without concern that their works in progress will become embarrassments while getting the constructive feedback to make them better.  It’s easy to see how a support system like this can easily reduce the barrier to entry by reducing the time necessary to master the skills of capture and editing.

The workflow we will use for video contains the following steps, Capture, Import, Edit (prepare), Render, Publish.  Image and video capture both have the same reductions in technology discussed in film.  Where computers have really enabled a reduction in time is the reduction of time and cost associated with the editing, rendering and distribution process.  Editing with analog technology involved physically cutting a piece of film at the right frame to create the desired effect.  The most skillful use of this was Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove trailer with 136 cuts per minute (Palmer, 2015).  Today’s editing software allows the editor the same precision in frame selection with the added ability to rework an edit until it achieves the desired effect.  The analog method for doing this was to cut the physical film long and trim it down repeatedly until it met the necessary results.

Editing digital video also allows for some exposure and color correction adding effects to scenes that were only possible with filters and professional lighting techniques.  Once again in this medium we see features available with low cost digital software that was not at all possible with amateur or even professional studios in the analog age.  The latest version of Final Cut Pro allows editing of three dimensional texts in its title creation tools.  Windows Movie Maker contains a series of transitions not possible with simple analog splicing techniques.

The greatest cost in video production is the amount of processing power required to render the file to its final stage.  As our screens have increased in density and cameras increasing to record more pixels the processing power to render the files has also increased.  More pixels means more processing power.  In general more pixels translate to a more rewarding viewing experience making the increased workload worth it.  A standard definition video of 576i at 16×9 contains 414,720 pixels per frame to be processed while 1080p contains 2,073,600 pixels per frame to be processed.  The difference of 1,658,880 frames translates to a workload five times larger than the standard definition video but modern processors are more capable now than in the past especially with those optimized for video workloads such as the Intel i7 series.

While youtube remains the king of user generated video distribution online it’s certainly not the only site that provides the service.  ScaleEngine provides a video CDN for content not conducive with youtube’s terms of service.  Each of these services enables a worldwide audience that would have been impossible at the price point required today.  One of the objective criteria discussed earlier in this paper was that of popularity.  This month youtube confirmed that its powerful network of servers allow users to upload 400 hours of video each minute (Robertson, 2015).

In this paper I attempted to show how computer technology has reduced the barriers to entry with regards to the written word, music/audio, image, and video production.  To prove this we looked at the workflow of each of these areas and illustrated how computer technology has reduced the cost in time or finances required to participate.  Across all areas it was noted that the advantage of the internet provides an unprecedented access to a global market while greatly reducing the cost of publication.

Barriers to entry reduce the participants in a given market (Sowell, 1980).  They separate us from a desired outcome.  When one puts a screw to a block of wood the intent is to embed it inside and generally a hammer is the tool of choice to accomplish the task.  Not every barrier to entry is as simple as a nail needing to go into a board, and not every tool is as simple as a hammer.  Just as computers have enabled us to build tools that allow us to solve the complex problems of production and publication for media, they are also enabling us to develop solutions to other more complex problems.  In finance the blockchain is gaining traction.  Google’s android operating system allows individuals with smartphones to upload their own photospheres mapping remote areas of the globe.  The international space station is upgrading from Windows XP to Linux to allow them to have an operating system they can customize to the problems in space.  We haven’t yet begun to define the tools we will create, because we haven’t defined all the future problems that we face.  The research presented here should illustrate hope, that when those barriers are identified our computers will enable us to lower the bar.

 

References

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Figure 1:  Technology-1980-vs.-2010

Source: http://main.makeuseoflimited.netdna-cdn.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/Technology-1980-vs.-2010.png

 

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