Saturday, April 29, 2006

Brave New World

The last issue of the Economist has yet another excellent survey (a hallmark for the periodical), this one of New Media. They really have a way of putting together the issues in a way that brings crystal clarity to the discussion. Here's how the survey starts out:
THE next big thing in 1448 was a technology called “movable type”, invented for commercial use by Johannes Gutenberg, a goldsmith from Mainz (although the Chinese had thought of it first). The clever idea was to cast individual letters (type) and then compose (move) these to make up printable pages. This promised to disrupt the mainstream media of the day—the work of monks who were manually transcribing texts or carving entire pages into wood blocks for printing. By 1455 Mr Gutenberg, having lined up venture capital from a rich compatriot, Johannes Fust, was churning out bibles and soon also papal indulgences (slips of paper that rich people bought to reduce their time in purgatory). The start-up had momentum, but its costs ran out of control and Mr Gutenberg defaulted. Mr Fust foreclosed, and a little bubble popped.

Even so, within decades movable type spread across Europe, turbo-charging an information age called the Renaissance. Martin Luther, irked by those indulgences, used printing presses to produce bibles and other texts in German. Others followed suit, and vernaculars rose as Latin declined, preparing Europe for nation-states. Religious and aristocratic elites first tried to stop, then control, then co-opt the new medium. In the centuries that followed, social and legal systems adjusted (with copyright laws, for instance) and books, newspapers and magazines began to circulate widely. The age of mass media had arrived. Two more technological breakthroughs—radio and television—brought it to its zenith, which it probably reached around 1958, when most adult Americans simultaneously turned on their television sets to watch “I Love Lucy”.
Second incarnation

In 2001, five-and-a-half centuries after Mr Gutenberg's first bible, “Movable Type” was invented again. Ben and Mena Trott, high-school sweethearts who became husband and wife, had been laid off during the dotcom bust and found themselves in San Francisco with ample spare time. Ms Trott started blogging—ie, posting to her online journal, Dollarshort—about “stupid little anecdotes from my childhood”. For reasons that elude her, Dollarshort became very popular, and the Trotts decided to build a better “blogging tool”, which they called Movable Type. “Likening it to the printing press seemed like a natural thing because it was clearly revolutionary; it was not meant to be arrogant or grandiose,” says Ms Trott to the approving nod of Mr Trott, who is extremely shy and rarely talks. Movable Type is now the software of choice for celebrity bloggers.

These two incarnations of movable type make convenient (and very approximate) historical book-ends. They bracket the era of mass media that is familiar to everybody today. The second Movable Type, however, also marks the beginning of a very gradual transition to a new era, which might be called the age of personal or participatory media. This culture is already familiar to teenagers and twenty-somethings, especially in rich countries. Most older people, if they are aware of the transition at all, find it puzzling.
It goes on to identify audience participation as one of the emerging keys of the new era (not just the internet era, but the always-on broadband era), of the age of citizen journalists, of the blurring of the distinction between media and content producers and consumers, of blogs and wikis and podcasts.

From the article on blogs:
Among the other technical features of blogs, two highlight the quintessentially social nature of blogging. The first is a “blogroll”, along the side of the blog page, which is a list of links to other blogs that the author recommends (not to be confused with the hyperlinks inside the posts). In practice, the blogroll is an attempt by the author to place his blog in a specific genre or group, and a reciprocal effort by a posse of bloggers to raise each other's visibility on the internet (because the number of incoming links pushes a blog higher in search-engine results). The other feature is “trackback”, which notifies (“pings”) a blog about each new incoming link from the outside—a sort of gossip-meter, in short.

Blogging is also about style. Dave Winer, a software engineer who pioneered several blogging technologies, and who keeps what by his own estimate is the longest-running blog of all (dating back to 1997), has argued that the essence of blogginess is “the unedited voice of a single person”, preferably an amateur. Blogs, in other words, usually have a raw, unpolished authenticity and individuality. This definition would exclude quite a few of the blogs that firms, public-relations people or newspapers set up nowadays. If an editor vets, softens or otherwise messes about with the writing, Mr Winer would argue, it is no longer a blog.
For these LiveJournal blogs, the average number of readers is seven, says Ms Trott. Such small audiences are common in participatory media. Indeed, they may conform to the biological norm, whereas mass-media audiences may have been an aberration. Robin Dunbar, an anthropologist at the University of Liverpool, has studied primates and discovered a surprisingly stable ratio between the relative size of the neocortex (thought to be responsible for the evolution of intelligence) and the size of groups formed by particular species. For humans, Mr Dunbar calculated, the upper limit is about 150. Many clans, tribes, fan clubs, start-ups and other groupings remain well below this limit, as do most blog networks.

The LiveJournal groups of readers are typical of the new-media era in another way. The bloggers (ie, creators) are one another's audience, so that distinctions between the two disappear. Creators and audiences congregate ad hoc in meandering conversations, a common space of shared imagination and interests., a social-networking and blogging service that last year was bought by News Corporation, Rupert Murdoch's media conglomerate, reflects this quality in its name.
On Podcasting
It is not quite true, therefore, that podcasting is to audio as blogging is to text. Podcasting is about “time-shifting” (listening offline to something at a time of one's own choosing, as opposed to a broadcaster's), whereas reading blogs requires a live internet connection and a screen. More subtly, podcasts are different from blogs and wikis in that they cannot link directly to other podcasts. This makes podcasting a less social, and probably less revolutionary, medium.

Nonetheless, its rise has been nothing short of astonishing. Mr Curry's own podcast, The Daily Source Code, has several million listeners. Apple's iTunes, the software application and online music store that makes iPods work, currently lists 20,000 free podcasts and is adding them at a fast clip, all before podcasting's second birthday. Podcasting is even expanding from audio to video, although this trend is as yet so new that several words (“vodcasting”, “vidcasting” , “vlogging”) are still vying for the honour.

For listeners, the appeal is threefold. First, they become their own programmers, mixing the music and talk feeds that they enjoy. This liberates commuters, say, from commercial radio stations that, in America especially, seem only ever to get dumber and duller. Second, podcasts liberate listeners from advertising, and thus put an end to the tedious and dangerous toggling between the car radio's pre-set buttons at 100km an hour. (However, some podcasters are experimenting with putting advertisements into their podcasts.) Above all, the time-shifting that podcasts make possible liberates people from having to sit in their parked cars to hear the end of a good programme.
And of course, with a beginning that compares these times to the early 15th century, the wrap-up essay has the inevitable religious comparisons:
That leaves benefits and evils. Gutenberg's revolution undoubtedly had enormous democratising effects. It enabled entire populations to read the Bible in their own language, liberating them from Latinate clergies that had kept them in superstitious serfdom. [insert eye-roll here] Further on in the revolution, people got news from far-flung corners of the world; one of the things that impressed Alexis de Tocqueville during his travels through America in 1831 was that even frontier families in remote Michigan had weekly newspapers delivered to their doorsteps. And the dramatically lower cost of disseminating the written word allowed many more people to express themselves creatively.

Each of these benefits also seems to have had a dark side. The availability of religious texts in the vernacular led to literalist and fundamentalist movements, and indirectly to religious wars. The surge of textual expression produced not only classics but also pornography and propaganda. Printing presses reproduced “Mein Kampf” just as accurately as the Gospels.
(Surely there were religious wars before the printing press? Oh yeah ... let's see ... the rise of Islam, for one?) Anyway, a journal as relentlesly secular as the Economist can be forgiven such lapses ... :) It really is an excellent survey, and much food for thought. I don't know how many of those links work for non-subscribers, however I do have pdf files of all the articles in the survey available (in a convenient .767K zip file) on request (the perverse can go to and shell our $4.95 for a single .pdf of all the articles). There's also five neat audio interviews with various futurists and experts (Chris Anderson of Wired!). That's a slightly larger zip file (44MB, mp3s) if anyone is interested. [Yes, it behooves everyone to get a gmail account. I have tons of invites left! :-)]

[Don't forget Jonathan Last's great survey of the Catholic blogosphere and Internet in First Things, December 2005: God on the Internet.]

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