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A Distribution Paradigm for the Fourth Civilization

When the seller of goods is no longer a village craftsman dealing with friends and neighbours on a one-to-one basis, but a multinational company with hundreds of products and millions of end users, it is impossible to deal with each customer individually. Thus, the late industrial civilization created complex patterns for the distribution of goods and services. A manufacturer sold to a limited number of regional distributors, who in turn resold in smaller bulk lots to local distributors, who moved product to retailers in case lots, who then sold to the end user in one-of quantities.

The advantage of the distribution pyramid is its simplicity at each stage. No one level creates an unmanageable number of customer records. The disadvantage is that the price may increase by three or four hundred percent by the time an item reaches an end user – this without any value being added to the product along the way.

Already, many home-based businesses are built on short-circuiting this process. They offer soap, jewelry, clothing, cookware, and other goods directly from the manufacturer to the consumer through in-home sales representatives. However, these schemes can still be improved, for most still have distribution chains, and only the physical overhead is really saved.

Information technologies such as automated ordering/billing and computer assisted manufacturing (CAM) enable a better way. Customers could view sample goods online or in a local showroom licensed by a manufacturer and/or order items to personal specifications from a catalog. The goods would then be made to order on demand by automated assembly lines receiving computerized instructions for each item.

Electronic ordering and funds transfer would enable manufacturers to deal directly with the millions of customers. No paperwork would have to be handled, for none is created, and building to order cuts inventory and reduces costs further. This method might be most fully applied to goods requiring customizing – clothing, automobiles, and computer hardware. There is less to gain in the production of general hardware, household items and tools, for they can be identically mass produced. However, all would benefit from the shortening of the distribution chain.

There is nothing new in these ideas; indeed, they could be regarded as obvious extrapolations of current methods of doing business. Direct distribution coupled with automated ordering, manufacturing, and paperless payment is just a natural outgrowth of information age technology applied back to the problems of the industrial age. Such a development would contribute to making the industrial infrastructure as invisible as is the agricultural infrastructure today. How many people do you know who make their living growing food? More to the point, how many First Civilization people do you know – those making a living as hunter-gatherers? About as many as your children will know of factory workers and store clerks.

If this is not so far revolutionary, then how will information age techniques create new distribution paradigms? How will information and the (software) tools needed to create, manipulate, and access it be distributed and accounted for? After all, the number of contributors to a particular data bank or manipulation tool may be legion. In an age of reusable software components, the intellectual creations of scores or hundreds of people may be employed for a single information transaction. The industrial paradigm was that such techniques were licensed or purchased outright by a manufacturer, and the cost spread out over the number of items. If the new product was a success, not only did no further payment go to the creator of the enabling techniques, but the law allowed the new owner of the technique to restrict its use in other products. This may be an acceptable stopgap for hard goods in a society that is limited even in its ability to record the sales of goods, much less the use of methods, but it is already feasible to propose much better.

Define a civilization’s "metalibrary" to be the set of all its knowledge, (information and technique) together with the means of storing and accessing it. "The Metalibrary" is the universal information store, including data, journals, magazines, newspapers, books, TV programs, movies, artwork, in short, everything there is to know on whatever media. The Metalibrary already exists, but it will grow and develop to become something much more complete.

Assume that anything could be posted or read (for a fee.) Assume that all will be hyper-indexed in space and time, so that any kind of multi-media thread can be followed through the Metalibrary. Indexing threads could be attached by individuals or by editors, and a user would be free to accept for view-use any thread collections, or only those of certain editors. (Journals would become collections of threads by the responsible editor.) Every home and business would have Metalibrary Terminals of various kinds. Some would do data searches, some show publications such as National Geographic in full colour; large ones might display artwork or symphonies.

Each individual would have an indexing profile, started manually, but maintained by a "world view daemon" that monitored usage preferences. Every Metalibrary item (even the world views of others) would have a registered UIC (Universal Information Code.) This would be an index to the registry of contributors to that item, with their percentage share in the proceeds of its use. The registry would be hierarchical; one UIC might refer (with percentages) to other UICs through many levels to individual accounts.

One distribution technique would be to download every instance of an item on a rental basis from the Metalibrary store – the ultimate in centralization . In this system, no goods are sold; everything is paid for each time a local instance is created and used. Such a method by itself has the advantage of allowing for proper automatic credit to the contributor, but the disadvantage of requiring communication bandwidths that may not be feasible.

A better (self-auditing) payment mechanism was suggested by Brad Cox (Journal of Object-oriented Programming; Jun-92; Dr. Dobb’s Journal; Oct-92) in his case for reusable software components. His technique is here adapted to the entire range of Metalibrary services.

Local devices would have smart hardware accessed by distribution code contained in every software product. This code keeps a record by UIC of use instances (not purchase) whether items are copied from the Metalibrary store directly, or obtained in some other way. Periodic reports would be sent to an accounting daemon, which would employ the UIC registry to debit user accounts and credit creator accounts appropriately. The accounting code would also have to check periodically to ensure that its results had been sent and properly received, and refuse the application permission to run otherwise. This technique could be applied to the components of access or production software, as well as to the components of the data being viewed or manipulated, for all would have a UIC. It has the same access and payment advantages as the one above, and could be used in the same way, but information or tools would only have to be acquired once (saving much network bandwidth).

Software would record each use of itself and of the information it accesses (publications on any medium, the display of artwork, 3-D artistic performances, and searched data). The software creators and data generators would receive royalties automatically in proportion to their contribution to the collection. If a user synthesized new tools or data from old, UIC codes for each component would be sent to accounting with appropriate percentages. (If the new tool were made a public product, some verification of the relative value of the parts to the whole would be necessary before actually registering a new UIC code.) For instance, if the user synthesized Walter Cronkite, Marilyn Monroe, and Elvis Presley as the evening news anchors, their estates would get a cut along with the reporters who produced the items, the team that edited that particular news thread for the day, and those who created the data files for the syntheses.

The making of a hard copy (where appropriate) would fetch another premium. Artwork (wallpaper?) displayed on the condo walls would generate a time-based fee to the parent museum. Symphonic, athletic, and other performances would generate royalties according to a formula agreed to by the participants and registered for the event along with the UIC. A percentage of each transaction would finance the Metalibrary itself. The hardest distribution problems to solve, as Cox has pointed out, would be tamper proofing the hardware and the software to store and transmit accounting information. A harder problem would be the initial cross indexing and storage of all available knowledge in every form. This task could be automated for new materials, whose primary medium of publication would be the Metalibrary.

Though specific data searches might be done online to the Metalibrary (more likely a series of networked nodes than a central location), larger and less timely collections of data, artwork, performances, books, and software tools might be better distributed "hard," i.e. on a medium such as a CD-ROM or its future equivalent, the 3-D data cube. Indeed, some things might have to be distributed "hard" to prevent piracy, as there is probably no effective copy protection means in software. There would be no reason to charge for such distribution except for the out-of-pocket cost, as pay-by-use would cover the important fees.

Metalibrary Terminals would take the place of the mail carrier, telephone, TV, book reader, journal and news reader, library card, computer, and personal data assistant. Equipped at a some stage with more sophisticated interfaces, they might eventually be known as "pocket brains," though there would be no need to suppose them to be artificially intelligent. The Metalibrary would also enable the creation of personal services partnerships or "metapersons" – like present day corporations, but of limited duration and changeable structure. These would be the primary vehicle for the assembly and sale of professional services such as education, training, counselling, accounting, writing, software production, and legal services. In no case would there be a distribution chain, for all consumers would directly access providers.

A caveat: As in other cases, information technology only enables the scenario painted here. Besides the unifying aspects of these potentially global information paradigms, other forces are at work to fragment nations, stir up old hatreds, and prevent the free flow of information. Other paradigms may replace this one before it is realized. Thus, although the present distribution chain is already obsolete and overdue for replacement, subsuming its functions in the Metalibrary is only possible; it is not inevitable.

[We welcome discussion of Rick’s ideas, particularly in relation to software distribution, online in appropriate discussion groups, most notably the Info-Mac Digest <[email protected]> and on CompuServe in the TidBITS section (#5) of MACDVEN. -Adam]

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