Tangled in the Threads

Jon Udell, August 8, 2001

Jeremy Rifkin's The Age of Access

How networked services change the economy, and us

Through the lens of this book, Microsoft's .NET initiative is just part of a historic transition from ownership to access

I'm a self-employed worker, operating from a home office. I access colleagues and clients around the world, and they access me, through electronic networks (phone, Internet). I work on projects that are also about access -- connecting people to information (content-rich websites), and to one another (collaborative systems). In doing this work, I often access support services (outsourced web searching, list management). Of course we are all, increasingly, embedded in these networks of access relationships. Those of us who are technologists tend to focus narrowly on how to accelerate the trend. We think about XML-based web services, authentication, access control. Once in a while, though, it's useful to step back and think more broadly about where all this is headed. Jeremy Rifkin's The Age of Access (ISBN: 1-58542-082-4) connects the dots in ways that I find really stimulating.

Rifkin's central theme is simply stated. We are entering a new stage of capitalism. Its defining principle is no longer ownership of property bought and sold in markets, but rather access to services leased within networks of suppliers and users. As consumers, and as businesses, we spend less on one-time purchases, and more on subscriptions to a growing array of services. Many of these services are delivered through electronic networks -- electricity, Internet connectivity, online content. But as Rifkin points out, tangible things -- cars, computers, office buildings, and inventory -- are also "dematerializing" into services. Ownership of such things is becoming a liability, something to outsource.

What do businesses own, then? Increasingly, nothing but intellectual capital:

Together, the information sciences and life sciences -- computers and genes -- will dominate much of the commercial life of the twenty-first century. Both are based less on ownership of physical property and more on access to valuable information, be it embedded in software or wetware.

This explains why the CFO of Merck and Company has said: "the accounting system doesn't capture anything, really." And it explains how Microsoft's market capitalization can exceed that of IBM or General Motors, companies that own far more tangible assets.

Microsoft, of course, is busily engaged in transforming itself from a seller of software products into a provider of software services. Its sweeping .NET initiative, a frequent topic of discussion in my newsgroups, raises a number of issues for which The Age of Access provides a useful conceptual framework.

Access and identity

In a property regime, commercial transactions can be (relatively) anonymous, and are of brief duration. I walked into a local computer store a few months ago, and paid $25 in cash for a PC video adapter. The proprietor might or might not recognize me on the street; might or might not have a record of that transaction; might or might not have any further contact with me. In an access regime, transactions are never anonymous, always recorded, and embedded within a long-term relationship.

One of the prices that we pay for the convenience of using services, rather than owning products, is the burden of repeated authentication. I have to identify myself, every time, to gain access. Whether I do so directly, with my own name, or indirectly, by way of a pseudonym, is a matter of architecture and policy, and will determine whether or how the slippery concept of privacy will govern my use of the service. But the fact is that some real or pseudonymous identity is a condition of access.

Clearly Microsoft's Passport system for identity-based access control, the centerpiece of the controversial HailStorm initiative, goes to the heart of the infrastructure required to support an access regime. Rifkin's book doesn't address how access control will be effected. But it reminds us that what Microsoft is proposing, in HailStorm, is not just another product campaign. It's part of a sea-change in the whole global economy. Unless we want to engage with the emerging realm of services on terms defined solely by Microsoft -- and I sure don't -- we will need to ensure that there are choices among open and interoperable means of identification and access control.

Access to intellectual property

As the recent arc of Napster has shown, it was premature to announce the death of copyright. It's true that certain Net technologies -- encryption, peer-to-peer computing -- appear to defy the ability to control intellectual property. But the Net, as a whole, influenced by the twin forces of government and commerce, tends in the other direction. As Lawrence Lessig argues in Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace, what is most threatened by the emerging architecture of the Net is not the rights of intellectual property owners, but rather the intellectual commons which IP law is also designed to protect. That's true because, in an ownership regime, the only instrument that can regulate use of IP is law, and it is a very blunt instrument. But in an access regime, code -- the software system that mediates access -- affords very precise and granular control.

Rifkin, in The Age of Access, moves this discussion from information sciences to life sciences:

... Genes are not sold but only licensed out; not bought, only leased.

... The transnational life-science companies have been quietly buying up the remaining independently owned seed companies in recent years, giving them vast control over the germ plasm upon which all of agricultural production depends.

... To understand the historic significance of both controlling and patenting the world's seed germ plasm, we need to bear in mind that from the beginning of the Neolithic revolution in agriculture until now, farmers have owned their own seeds.

... Now, this fundamental relationship between farmers and their seeds has been broken for the first time. Patented seeds are never sold, in the conventional sense of the term. Rather, patented seeds are leased to farmers for their one-time use over a single growing season. The new seeds collected during the harvest belong to the patent holder and therefore cannot be used by the farmer the next growing season. Thus the farmer is granted only short-term access to someone else's intellectual property.

Not coincidentally, IP issues swirl around Microsoft's bid to bring software into the age of access. Whether or how fair use governs content or software services is only the tip of the iceberg. More ominously, Microsoft is the holder of patents and/or copyrights on things that could be the "germ plasm" for all such services: the Common Language Infrastructure, the HailStorm schemas.

Some things simply should not be classifiable as intellectual property. I'll never accept the notion that my DNA could be patented by someone else, and that part of the cost of some future prescription drug could be a licensing fee for the use of my own genetic information. In a similar vein, I don't want Microsoft -- or anyone -- to be able to own the algorithmic DNA that will define the next generation of the Internet. Defining and protecting the intellectual commons, a space that nobody can own, will be one of our key challenges as we enter the age of access.

The commercialization of networked existence

Although the dominant theme of Rifkin's book is the shift from ownership to access, there is a subdominant theme: the pervasive commercialization of lives lived increasingly within networks of commodified access relationships:

... while we have created every kind of labor- and time-saving device and activity to service one another's needs and desires in the commercial sphere, we are beginning to feel like we have less time available to us than any other humans in history.

... The network-based economy does indeed increase the speed of connections, shorten durations, improve efficiency, and make life more convenient by turning everything imaginable into a service. But when most relationships become commercial relationships and every individual's life is commodified twenty-four hours a day, what is left for relationships of a noncommercial nature -- relationships based on kinship, neighborliness, shared cultural interests, religious affiliation, ethnic identification, and fraternal and civic involvement?

Rifkin's point here is more than sentimental. Social capital, he argues, is the soil in which market capital can be grown:

Social communities -- that is, culture -- precede commerce. Throughout history, human beings have always established social communities first. They develop rules of social exchange, embed their members in complex reciprocal relationships, and build social trust. Only when these relationships, and the trust that is built from them, are firm can communities enter into commercial trade and set up markets for exchange. That's because markets, by their very nature, deplete trust.

We need more than an intellectual commons, in other words. We need a social commons too, a space that is not owned by anybody, where relationships are not solely commercial in nature. We can of course, and often do, unplug ourselves from our various electronic networks in order to socialize the good old-fashioned way. But electronic networks can be amazing places for social interaction. It would be refreshing to hear, as Microsoft rolls out its .NET initiative, some acknowledgement of the need to sustain a social as well as an intellectual commons.

When I interviewed Ray Ozzie last year, during the Groove rollout, he addressed this issue in an elegant and moving way.

Ray Ozzie:

The things that you're sharing with your friends and family within Groove are not occurring on our Web site, or anybody's Web site. Nobody's recording what photos you're looking at, and nobody designed the application awkwardly in order to monetize your page views. Nobody is watching how you interact with your friends and family, and trying to figure out why so that they can sell you something. Nobody's going to take your photos away when they realize that they can't sell you anything that you don't really want.

Groove isn't an indirect marketing play. It's about enhancing the value of the pipe that is connected between us, in a way that gives you control and respects your privacy. It's a way for you to share and do things with the people who are important to you. It's about value, and trust.

It would be nice to hear Microsoft saying things like this. It would be even nicer for Microsoft to mean them. I have applauded the company for its efforts to create what I think are some of the correct technologies needed to enable the age of access. But as Jeremy Rifkin reminds us, there are huge unanswered questions about what kind of world that will be, and whether we will want to live in it.

Jon Udell (http://udell.roninhouse.com/) was BYTE Magazine's executive editor for new media, the architect of the original www.byte.com, and author of BYTE's Web Project column. He is the author of Practical Internet Groupware, from O'Reilly and Associates. Jon now works as an independent Web/Internet consultant. His recent BYTE.com columns are archived at http://www.byte.com/index/threads

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