Objects as Property on the Electronic Frontier

Brad Cox

Addison-Wesley 1996
A book review by Danny Yee © 1996
Cox sees a fundamental difference between the efficiency of modern industrial manufacturing and the failures of the software "industry". In Superdistribution he argues that the root cause is the ease of replication of information and the concomitant problems with charging for software: this stops the long range communication of market pricing which coordinates industrial production. The "silver bullet" that will solve the software crisis is not a new tool but a paradigm shift, a "software industrial revolution".

The core of the industrial revolution lay in division of labour, standardised parts, and a focus on specification and testing rather than production. (Cox uses the introduction of standardised parts into weapons built for the United States military as an example.) With software this means a focus on re-usable software components and a shift from a process-centric approach to a product-centric one. The necessary foundation for such a revolution is a shift from the current pay-to-own paradigm for software to a pay-per-use scheme similar to schemes used in the performing arts. Under the name "superdistribution", such an approach has been advocated by Ryoichi Mori and the Japanese organisation JEIDA. Perhaps the most controversial suggestion (and certainly the one that seems least plausible) is that this could be achieved by modifications to computing hardware to allow reliable accounting for software utilisation.

However it is achieved, Cox thinks that the long range forces of commerce will eventually be brought to bear on the electronic frontier. The resulting confrontation between the existing culture of the Internet (the 'Nerds') and the newcomers (the 'Newbies') is likely to end the same way as earlier confrontations between indigenous peoples and Western capitalism.

While Cox's analysis has a lot going for it, he seems to ignore some pertinent matters completely. One of the obvious problems in the software industry is the existence of monopolies and the lack of open standards. Cox mentions this not at all (the word "monopoly" doesn't appear once in Superdistribution). I guess this is not such a congenial problem for someone who takes his Austrian school economics neat. Similarly Cox says little or nothing about attempts to use the ease of replication and the failure of "conservation laws" for software to create something entirely different to existing markets — surely the ethos of groups such as the Free Software Foundation and the existence of high quality free software deserved a mention?

However much you credit Cox's diagnosis of the ailment afflicting the software industry and his suggestions for a cure, if you are interested in the future of the information economy then Superdistribution is worth a look. If it is provocative and one-sided, it is also well-argued and original.

July 1996

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%T Superdistribution
%S Objects as Property on the Electronic Frontier
%A Cox, Brad
%I Addison-Wesley
%D 1996
%O paperback, index
%G ISBN 0201502089
%P xvi,205pp