While most people would argue that the explosion of content creation technologies (web publishing software, video editing tools, audio mixing tools, cheap portable HD cameras, etc.), media channels (600+ and growing cable networks, millions of blogs, podcasting network, etc.) and distribution technologies (namely, the broadband internet) over the past decade has been a boon for consumers, I’m going to jump out and raise a red flag in the face of it all. Because our brains are hard-wired to prefer corroborative information (even to the point of filtering out and/or ignoring non-corroborative data), the trend towards increasing consumption of narrowcast media creates a series of dangerous conditions, hurts individuals along the way, and at least in my mind, runs the risk of weakening society.
A Pencil and a Dream
Literature has benefited tremendously from centuries of equal opportunity business. You do not need to be rich to write a book. You do not need to have the right connections. You just need a paper and pencil, a typewriter, or more recently, a computer. The result has been the creation of a tremendously diverse global body of work, and with infinite time and no publisher restrictions, a voracious reader could get a pretty good look at the whole human experience in every corner of the globe over the past few hundred years. But that is not how most people consume media by choice. Most people prefer to focus. No matter what you’re interested in, and what perspective you agree with, you could easily spend a lifetime reading nothing but books on that subject, written by authors with shared perspective. This can be very comforting.
Three $500,000 Cameras, $2mm of film, a few million dollars of editing time, a 300 person staff…. and a Dream
Until very recently, feature film and television have been quite different from the open conditions of the literary world. Television spent its first 40 years with essentially 3 channels available to distribute programming. Feature film has been a similarly closed experience, driven largely by the huge cost associated with making a quality film, leading almost all mainstream filmmakers to have to access the necessary capital through a small number of major studios. These conditions in television and film had two direct consequences. First, the content that was produced was generally crafted to speak to as many different audience constituencies as possible. As an audience member, you were likely to find occasional pieces that you really agreed with, and just as frequently, find pieces that you strongly disagreed with – as you were not THE audience, but rather, a very small part of a highly diverse audience. Because fare was limited and aimed at broad swaths of the population, viewers were subjected to a much more diverse array of stories and perspectives than they would otherwise choose to watch in a more open system.
Second, a vast array of highly talented storytellers were never given the voice that their talent would have otherwise merited.
The “Democratization of Video Media”
The restricted nature of video media has changed rapidly over the past decade, and the pace of change is only accelerating. iPhones with embedded video cameras and basic editing software are the poster child for this emerging era of video literacy. Now, we’re all producers and directors. When we couple a Twitter-like promotion engine with an increasingly video literate society, “channels” and “programs” will be rapidly replaced by “people channels I subscribe to”.
“I Love This Guy, He Thinks Just Like Me”
As news sources and opinion publications proliferate towards infinity, we all search (whether consciously or subconsciously) for our perfect channel of information. Finding it is a wonderful experience – as you suddenly find that “this page has everything I want to know”. The voice is highly resonant, as it’s basically your own. You feel like you’re getting exactly the information you’ve been looking for, but without the clutter. These “channels” can be broadly shared (i.e. MSNBC, FoxNews, The Drudge Report, the Daily Show, The Huffington Post, etc.), or much more narrow (i.e. individual smaller blogs like Davenetics). The bottom line, though, is that you get exactly what you’re looking for with each of these, and nothing more. It’s both comforting and easy. Your viewpoints are validated, reinforced and, ultimately, entrenched.
But isolation, even if it’s unintended, is still isolation. If we consider Darwin’s birds of the Galapagos, it’s hard not to wonder if information isolation will not have analogous social and cultural “evolutionary” ramifications. If we remove ourselves from contact with anything other than self-selected information and communities, will we lose the ability to interact reasonably and productively with people outside of those communities in time? How long would this take? What kind of impact would this have on society, particularly the parts of it where people from different information communities are forced to interact?
Information Availability is NOT the Problem
My gripe is not with search engines and information availability. Fact retrieval is easier now than ever before, and in some cases this can help create a more curious society – if I want to know the average lifespan of an albatross or birthplace of John Maynard Keynes, I can find both of these answers in less than 30 seconds on just about any cell phone from pretty much any place in the world. I have seen in my own life how this has changed my relationship with small information and unknown trivia. Whereas previously, I might have asked someone and given up quickly if they didn’t respond with the answer, now I find that I expect an answer for anything that sparks my curiosity. With approximately 43 seconds of searching, I can tell you that the average albatross lives amazingly for 42.3 years despite a brutal life on the seas, and that John Maynard Keynes was born in Cambridge, England on June 5th, 1883.
And I’m not in any way against narrowcast media. After all, with this blog’s loyal readership of seven readers, I’m using one of the most narrowcast methods available to put forward my thoughts :) Targeted sources of information can be great, for many of the reasons listed above. But they need to be only a part of the total input.
Calling for a New Era of BROADcast Information
Broadcast entertainment still works fine, so why can’t “broadcast” news (and I don’t necessarily mean it in the traditional context, but rather defined as broadly targeted at a diverse array of people)? Whether it’s American Idol, the Superbowl or the July 4th blockbuster release of The Transformers, as a society, we have no problem sharing in experiences despite the fact that we may individually be very different people.
I don’t know what the new format will look like, but I feel strongly that the continued decline of network news and the accelerating death of the major newspapers are somehow a very dangerous development. So, while the venture community focuses on alternative energy sources/transmission technology, clean-tech, performance marketing and other hot areas du jour, perhaps some of the social entrepreneurs can take a look at something slightly less sexy…something that marries Walter Cronkite to Sergey Brin.
The solution is not a television show or a newspaper. It will almost surely take full advantage of emerging technologies. My guess is that it will have attributes of Google News (democratized roll-ups of a broad array of news channels, ordered by popularity), it will prominently feature or be exclusively video, and it will openly (and proudly) incorporate the editorial input of a respected array of thinkers with a diverse set of belief systems.
it is, it won’t taste like medicine, but it’ll be good for us all.