RUSS ROBERTS

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More than an Invention

(From Tech Central Station)

Time Magazine has chosen the iTunes Music Store as the Invention of the Year. Invention of the Year? When you think of an invention, you think of the light bulb, the cotton gin, the airplane, the television, the transistor, the cell phone. But an online Music Store? That’s not a “real” invention, is it?

For the pessimists, honoring a software program that does nothing more than transfer music from place to place is just another sign of America’s decline, another step on the road to an all-service economy where America makes nothing. Another step toward an economy where all we do is sell cosmetics or french fries to each other or try to sustain our standard of living by doing each other’s laundry.

I’m a little more optimistic about the future. OK, a lot more optimistic. Some very talented people designed that iTunes Music Store. It works beautifully. It lets me buy a single song for 99 cents or an entire album for just under $10. I can listen to a sample of the music in advance. I can discover new artists by looking at what else people bought who like what I like. When I buy music at the iTunes Music Store, it’s easy to keep it organized on my desktop or loaded on my iPod. The confluence of the iTunes software with the iPod is one step closer not to an all-service economy, but one step closer to the world where all the music ever recorded is stored on a single simple portable device. Someday, that device will be embedded in my toenail and by doing some simple dance step, the song I want to hear will reverberate through my brain at the same time a holographic display of the artist performing it is suspended in midair.

Is that as important as the cotton gin? There’s a temptation to conclude that the cotton gin is related to clothes and clothes are a necessity. iTunes is a mere luxury.

But the value of technology always depends on context. If you’re naked and living in a cave, inventing clothes is a big breakthrough. Really important. A man who could skin a saber-toothed tiger and turn that skin into something that kept you warm had a very profitable product to hawk to his fellow cave dwellers. And like every profitable invention, his profits came from pleasing those he traded with. When every one is a nomadic hunter, the cotton gin is worthless. After farming was invented, it was much better to make clothes from something that grew from the ground rather than having to chase it. So cotton was a big deal. But you have to find a way to get rid of those nasty seeds. So in the nineteenth century, the cotton gin is the road to prosperity. It’s also pretty obvious that in the nineteenth century, working out a concept for downloading music over the Internet still isn’t terribly useful.

But in 2003, iTunes can be more profitable and enjoyable for humanity than a new way to work with cotton. We already are pretty good at cotton and shirt-making. Most of our shirts come from overseas and they’re cheap because of technology that’s already been developed that raises human productivity and lowers costs. There isn’t much profit in making it a little bit better through some innovation. So in 2003, iTunes can be more profitable than a better cotton gin. If anything, it’s a sign of our prosperity rather than a cause for alarm.

And while I like the convenience of iTunes and marvel at the aesthetics and ergonomics of the iPod, the iTunes Music Store is more than just a way of selling music. It’s more important than just another music store opening at the nearby mall. By creating a profitable interface for downloading music via the internet, iTunes gives the musicians of the future an increased incentive to create new music and get it into listeners’ ears with the click or two of a mouse. That’s pretty important if you have a soul and music speaks to it. That’s most of us.

We will never be reduced to only doing each other’s laundry. That can only happen if laundry is all we know how to do. The road to prosperity in America will always rely on finding ways to leverage what we do best. And in 2003, what a lot of us do best relies on transferring information or using it in creative ways. Music lovers, rejoice.

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