The Good Word

Are We Content?

Yes, and product, too.

The news that scientists in Scotland have successfully cloned an adult female sheep, bringing forth a young female named Dolly, has raised questions of considerable public urgency, the most troubling of which in my own mind is: Dolly? The cells from which Dolly was cloned, it turns out, were taken from a sheep’s ample mammary glands. The Scottish embryologist who obtained the cells was reminded of the full-figured country singer Dolly Parton. Such are the improbable byways of on the wintry Caledonian moors.

A more substantial issue raised by the advent of cloning (itself from the Greek klon, meaning “twig” or “branch”) is, of course, the possibility that commerce in the very stuff of which we’re made will ultimately turn humanity into merchandise, our genesis controlled by some mutant form of agribusiness. “Turning People Into Product” was the headline above a New York Times commentary by Brent Staples that evoked, among other things, the science-fictional prospect of “the wholesale manufacture of synthetic human beings.”

The word was apt. Product in this collective sense, used without an article, has none of the quantitative, formative, or even poetic associations that the word had otherwise acquired–as in “gross national product,” “a product of Groton and Harvard,” or “the fruit and product of his labors past” (Dryden). It is used, rather, as a white slaver might speak of “flesh.”

Product as a generic mercantile term for “marketable commodity” has been around for years, but it seems to have first acquired prominence as jargon–and specifically as a term with a somewhat off-putting aroma–in the recording industry during the 1960s. In his book Rock Gold: The Music Millionaires, George Tremlett observes that “people in the music business always talk about [music] with one word that you hardly ever see mentioned in the popular press: Product. Sound recordings may be technically superb, with all the benefits of the latest digital electronics, but it’s only ‘good’ Product, ‘live’ Product, or ‘strong’ Product if it sells. Otherwise it’s ‘dead’ Product.”

Product has since come to encompass all aspects of the entertainment world, and the cynicism it once embodied is today only occasionally highlighted by means of its presentation in quotation marks. Employed matter-of-factly, even unself-consciously, product is perhaps now found most often in connection with the motion-picture industry. “This year’s nominees,” wrote one newspaper critic recently, after noting that a single big-studio movie was in the running for an Oscar for best picture, “represent a triumph of independent films over Hollywood product.” Another critic says of the director Quentin Tarantino, “He has been acclaimed for some of the most hollow product ever to pass itself off as art.”

Product in the entertainment-industry sense used above occupies a distinct class within the phylum content. Whereas product is, for the most part, a commodity that exists or is envisaged, content, in its most advanced and today most widely used sense, means the totality of all substance (in particular, commercially viable substance) that can be made available through the various communications and information media: not just movies, TV shows, and music but also software, games, sports, news, directories, advertising, and everything online–now and in the future.

When content is used this way, both the specific source or substance and its medium of transmission are irrelevant to its definition, much as source and medium of transmission are irrelevant to a definition of the word heat. In a recent e-mail communication, the Random House editor Jesse T. Sheidlower writes:

I added this to the forthcoming edition of Random House Webster’s College Dictionary, but it took a tremendous amount of effort to define. We argued about what it really means and sent drafts back and forth for about a week before we arrived at the following definition which (like all definitions that one struggles with) looks perfectly innocuous and simple: “content n. … substantive information or creative material viewed in contrast to its actual or potential manner of presentation.”

This is the meaning of content in the cloying phrase “content is king,” the mantra repeated endlessly by Bill Gates and other multimedia conquistadors. “The dominant corporations are bigger than ever and have more control than ever,” the media critic and former Washington Post national editor Ben Bagdikian said recently in a newspaper interview. “What they are aiming for–and have gone a long way toward achieving–is to control the origination of content and the natural delivery system.”

T he same content appears in the term content provider. Although at first used to designate corporations such as Time Warner, Disney, and Microsoft–which scour the universe for matériel to give life and purpose to their distribution networks–the term has been trickling down to apply to individuals. “We like to think of ourselves as content providers,” I heard a cleric say recently about his line of work, a comment that I took to be knowingly ironic but which could also have been a sincere and pathetic attempt to be with it. (Church talk presents this problem often.) The composer and multimedia performer Laurie Anderson now calls herself a content provider:

At first, I thought, “That’s one of the grossest things I’ve ever heard.” And then I thought about it, and I go, “Well, that’s not really horrible.” In fact, I eventually started to like it. Every time I renew my passport–“content provider,” I put that right in.

The big issue with content is, of course: Who owns it? Information is the resource-extractive industry of the next century, and the concept of intellectual property–a term that dates back 150 years–comes up when individuals or companies assert a particular claim and embody it in the form of copyrights, trademarks, and patents. Intellectual property refers, basically, to nontangible creative product and, like a rising sea, it seems to cover new territory with every passing year. The National Basketball Association has famously sought to trademark the scores of its games. Harley-Davidson has sought to trademark the rumble of its motorcycles. Patents can even be held on the genetic blueprints of various forms of life.

In biotechnology, as in telecommunications, intellectual-property law remains at an embryonic stage. But it is not premature to begin thinking of Dolly’s ovine progenitor not so much as a sheep–or even as product–but, in some sense, as content. In her clone’s eyes, of course, she will always be a significant udder.