In his column in today’s New York Times, Daniel Akst does a nice job of illustrating the fundamental tension on the internet: that between convergence and anti-convergence, or bundling and unbundling, or centralization and decentralization. The “bundling of the world’s computers into a single network,” he writes, “is ushering in what may be called the unbundled age.” Apple’s iTunes has unbundled music, making it easy to buy by the song rather than the album. Amazon has announced plans to unbundle books, selling them by the page. The head of the FCC is lobbying the cable industry to allow people to subscribe to individual channels rather than big packages of channels. With RSS, you can subscribe to stories by your favorite writers rather than buying entire newspapers or magazines.
On the one hand, the unbundling of media is great. It gives us all more control over what we buy. Economically, there’s a lot less waste. But there could be a dark side, too, as Akst points out: “Theoretically, all this unbundling will make everyone better off. But one consequence may be to force worthy cultural products to support themselves somehow – without being subsidized by commercial junk.” It’s not a sure thing, in other words, that an a la carte menu will end up giving us the widest possible array of choices. Rather than promoting the creation of a “long tail” of diverse products, unbundling may end up pushing even more economic rewards to the “hits,” squeezing out a lot of the good stuff.
The internet is unleashing a whole bunch of new and contrary economic forces. The fact is, we’re a long way from knowing how it will all shake out.