Monday, August 08, 2005 | Since helping to found the San Diego Supercomputer Center at the University of California, San Diego in the 1980s, Sid Karin has distinguished himself as a national expert on digital technology and its possibilities for scientific research. His lengthy list of accolades includes co-authoring “The Supercomputer Era” with Norris Parker Smith, serving on the Board of Directors of the Computing Research Association (and numerous other boards), and earning a fellowship at the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He is also a serious fan of Grace Slick. Voice of San Diego spoke with Mr. Karin for his insights on how our society is grappling with the difficulties of the digital revolution.

With the rise of the Internet, our civilization has undergone great changes. Are these the early bangs of what will be an ongoing transformation or have we seen much of what is to come?

We’ve hardly seen anything of what’s going to happen. That’s what I think people miss. There seems to be something in the human condition that sees whatever is at the moment and thinks that it is going to be that way. It’s sort of the same as thinking we’re on a curve that has been very steep and has now leveled off. But the rate of change is actually increasing, not decreasing.

I was reading somewhere that someone soon will have terabyte-scale disk drives in laptops, and therefore in iPods and things like that. Well, no one’s going to buy a song when they’ve got a terabyte iPod. They’ll buy all of recorded music. We haven’t come to grips with that. It’s not just that all this info is available on the Web to anyone who can run a browser. It’s much greater than that. You will soon buy a license to all recorded music for all time – it’s going to be trivial to give everyone their own copy of all recorded music.

I drove up to Lake Tahoe for a wedding almost two years ago, and I used my GPS device in the car for the first time. There are several screen settings you can put up, and the one I chose had most of the screen taken up with a cartoon of the road. So you look at the screen, and the cartoon shows the road turning left. You look up, and the road is turning left. So what? You don’t really need that cartoon. But I drove all the way to Lake Tahoe looking at this, and after awhile it occurred to me: There’s only 128 megabytes in a data card. But if there was a terabyte in there, it wouldn’t be a cartoon of the road, it would be a photo-realistic picture of every commercial establishment along the road. And you’d be able to drive the cursor over to the Mobil station four miles ahead and find out what the current price of gas is. That’s the kind of thing that’s going to happen.

You say that you think the recording industry has its head in the sand?

Up to its ankles. People started exchanging MP3s independent of whether they had a right to or not, several years before iTunes came along and provided what the industry says is the only legitimate model for it. During those years of exchange the recording industry got exactly zero revenue (from it). Zero. That doesn’t seem very smart to me. They could have gotten a huge amount of money excepting some losses. Free downloads don’t work. It just takes too much time and energy. And a dollar a song is too much. You need to be able to populate things cheaply.

So there’s a Russian music site called “All of MP3.com.” First, it sells you music by the megabyte, not by the song. And it allows you to choose the resolution. For a typical song, the price is about 16 cents. That’s really cheap. One day in the office I wanted to listen to some things I had, but they were at home. But wait a minute, I thought. A song is sixteen cents. What do I care? Then I realized that there’s not a whole lot of point in moving music from one computer to another. It’s easier just to pay for it again. The conclusion is that when the price is low enough, people will buy more because they’ll buy multiple copies. It’s easier than doing anything else with it. That’s the kind of thing that the recording industry has missed. They’ve missed that a bunch of people download free music they already own for one reason or another. And they miss the whole idea that the credit card companies have, which is that OK, we’ll get 5 percent fraud or whatever, so we deduct that 5 percent from our profits, add it to our cost base, and we’ve got a pretty successful business here.

The recording industry suffers from what we often see in the computer security industry: people reject anything that doesn’t work 100 percent of the time under all circumstances. Well no one lives that way, why does your computer have to work that way? You probably wouldn’t ride a motorcycle with bald tires and no brakes at 150 mph down the freeway. But you might a new motorcycle with a helmet cautiously on the freeway. You’re less likely to get killed. The recording industry hasn’t figured that out.

Is there always going to be a generation gap in the practical understanding of technology? You talk about the older leaders not knowing what they’re doing now, but isn’t it possible that when [the younger] generation are CEOs and political leaders, that an equivalent technological boom could set things on yet again another trajectory?

I don’t think so. When cars first came along, there were places that said you had to have someone walking in front of the car ringing a bell. It took a while but eventually people figured out that that was not the way to do it. This is more complicated technology in a lot of ways. We’re talking about a technological revolution, and you don’t have those every few years. Look back in history for technological revolutions and you’ll see about a dozen. Digital technology is one. The steam engine is one. The airplane is one. They don’t happen on a regular basis.

– IAN PORT, Voice Contributing Writer

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