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April 28, 2009

[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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April 26, 2009

Did the telegraph bring peace?

In his book The Victorian Internet, Tom Standage presents two quotations (pp. 103-104) prompted by the creation of transatlantic telegraph cables. The first is from Henry Fields:

“It brings the world together. It joins the sundered hemispheres. It unites distant nations, making them feel that they are members of one great family…An ocean cable is not an iron chain, lying cold and dead in the icy depths of the Atlantic. It is a living, fleshy bond between severed portions of the human family, along which pulses of love and tenderness will run backward and forward forever. By such strong ties does it tend to bind the human race in unity, peace and concord…it seems as if this sea-nymph, rising out of the waves, was born to be the herald of peace.”

The second is unattributed:

“The different nations and races of men will stand, as it were, in the presence of one another. They will know one another better. They will act and react upon each other. They may be moved by common sympathies and swayed by common interests. Thus the electric spark is the true Promethean fire which is to kindle human hearts. Men then will learn that they are brethren, and that it is not less their interest than their duty to cultivate goodwill and peace throughout the world.”

The obvious lessons are, first, that our enthusiasms are sometimes wildly wrong, and, second, that technology by itself doesn’t determine its effect.

And yet I wonder if the tele-utopians were entirely wrong. It is undeniable that the 150 years between the deploying of the telegraph and the rise of the Internet have been unimaginably bloody. So, in that sense, the telegraph heralded the opposite of peace.

That correlation — more communication, more war — certainly means that communication technology doesn’t bring peace. But communication technology may still be an instrument of peace. Peace — IMHO — ultimately comes from understanding that we share a world about which we care differently. The only feasible peace is a noisy peace. We only get there via communication. And I believe that overall communication technology has made us more aware of the unresolvable noisiness of the world. Simple-minded colonialism is no longer in vogue. There is an increasing understanding that no one religion or form of government is going to sweep the table (although those who think it’s their way or the highway to hell are still working their horrors). Our hearts and minds are closer to the conditions of peace than they were before the telegraph, although our governments, religions, and economic systems still have a long way to go.

No, the world is still a mess, and the warriors still tend to rise in power. Yes, communication technology enables armies to deploy on new and vast scales. But also: Peace comes from the recognition of difference that communication makes possible. The tele-utopians were comically wrong, just as are cyber-utopians who think the Net will automatically create peace. But both are also right to rejoice. The threading of the world through communication is the most fundamental condition for a noisy peace, which is the only type of peace possible in a world characterized by difference.

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