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[berkman] Russ Neuman

W. Russell Neuman is giving a Berkman talked called “Theories of Media Evolution.” He wants to think about the effect of the Internet in the context of the history of other media and the difference they’ve made. (The book “Theories of Media Evolution” will be out this fall.)

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.


There are four classic dismissive argumenst about the Internet: 1. It’s just another communication tech. 2. Human psychology doesn’t change. (Russ thinks we should take that seriously.) 3. “Just you wait.” “The iron laws of political economy just aren’t going to change.” 4. If you say the Net will make a difference, you are a naive techno-determinist.


Russ says his current research was inspired by his own mentor, Ithiel de Sola Pool. The volume of communication is growing exponentially. His conclusion: The volume of info changes the media from push to pull.


He shows a famous graph of volumes and cost in communication, 1960-1977. Volume goes up and cost goes down exponentially. Russ has done a new study, 1980-2005, studying the number of words per medium per day going into the average American home. How many newspapers, how many words in each, etc. Russ looked at 12 traditional media and the Internet. And he shifted from words to minutes as the unit of measurement. He includes CDs, video games, etc. He finds that the average newspaper consumption has gone from 16 mins/day to 6.5mins/day. But most of the charts are climbing at a tremendous rate. E.g., Average American home spends 1.10 hr/day on the Net (which includes houses with no access). The total media supply to the home has gone up exponentially. The total media consumed in minutes per day is a much shallower curve, from about 600 mins per day in 1960 to about 1,000 mins per day, in part because homes now have more TV sets and portable media. The growth of media supply consumption grew very slowly 1960-1980, but has gone up from single digits (minutes per day) to over 20,000. The ratio was 98:1 — if you read every book and watched every minute of TV available, the ratio of supply to consumption was 98:1. “That was a human metric. You can deal with that.” But in 2005, it’s 20943:1, which is not a human level of metric. “And this counts the Internet as one. You should count the number of pages available to you” which is somewhere north of 8.5 billion.


So, he says, we need the help of machines with their algorithms and socially-based recommendation systems. Search is incredibly important in this world of super-abundance, he says. It will help us to think about the new media in the context of the old, he says.


Q: You think volume is the fundamental factor. You’re saying the volume changes the nature of media from push to pull. Maybe it’s volume + technical affordance. If you look at satellite TV or cable TV, those didn’t fundamentally change the nature of the medium as the volume went up.
A: “Affordance” makes the “you’re a techno-determinist” criticism go away, because it says that technology isn’t determinative but it does have capabilities that people can take up. As far as the first part of the question that said “Isn’t it more complicated than…,” the answer is always yes. About regulation: The argument for regulation was spectrum scarcity, which is why we don’t regulate the print medium. Ironically, we got one newspaper in a market but dozens of broadcasters.
The shape of media could come from a number of places, but it’s going to come from Google.

Q: How about the number of words going out from households?
A: 900,000 bloggers (US only)… One of the questions is: What are the topics?
Q: The Berkman MediaCloud project should help address that in a rigorous way.


Q: Pool left out data like the phone book and the home encyclopedia.
A: There’s a psychological analytic (cf. Todd Gittlin) of info overload: people panic and withdraw when faced with this much info. But people who entered a library weren’t intimidated by it. That seems to be the case with the Web.


Q: [yochai benkler] I’m surprised that you predict it’d take me longer to view all the movies than read all of the Net. You’re masking the actual size of the increase in media access…
A: Yes. I had to mask in order to make the other sources visible, so I counted it as one channel. But it makes my point even more strongly…
Q: When you construe the Net as a flow of info that a human has to parse, you get your way of approaching the problem: We have to rely on Google or a friend. But that masks what’s going on. We’re producing. We have to construct our own social environments. It’s not just push to pull, but also read to write. (Push to pull are read categories.) And the question of power depends on whether the machine is impervious to workarounds. The only tv broadcasters could not be worked around. But on the Net I can find others with related interests.”
A: Important questions. Let me bring out some points I didn’t make in my talk. It costs $3M/hr for TV. $16M/hr for a motion picture. We’ve developed historically a metric that people are willing to pay, say, $10 to see a movie, and that’s split 50:50 between the distributor and the motion picture company. They make $5/hr, whereas on TV the revenue is about $0.60/hr (commercials). Google News is repurposing independent professional journalism; if a competitive search engine started doing independent investigative journalism, and Google would do the same. [Sorry for the choppiness]


Q: The Internet is all about entertainment. People are reading fewer books.
A: You revealed your presumption when you said that books are hard to read and are good for you, while Internet is easy and not good for you. Where is the evidence that reading Shakespearean sonnets makes you a better person?


Q: You could argue, marxistly, that mass production changes how people interact with their environments. What’s the parallel of this and the mass production of consumer goods?
A: Alienation theory? When Marx got paid, rarely, he got paid as an independent investigative journalist. The Net makes it easier to find unalienated work (made by craftspeople who is not alienated from the product of her labor).


A: There are so many research questions that these technology afford that we should have our research budgets doubled.

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