Archive for April, 2010

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Live Blogging and Recreating Baseball Games

After struggling through the live blogging of today’s iPhone 4.0 announcement from Apple, I couldn’t help but think about baseball. It’s Spring, the season has just started and I’ve already listened to most of a game on the radio. The first radio broadcast of a baseball game was in 1921:

In those days many radio stations often did not have the budgets or technology to broadcast games live from the park. Instead, stations would recreate the games in studio.  A telegraph operator would transmit the information back to the studio from the ball park where broadcasters and engineers would recreate game action from the ticker tape. Crowd noise, the crack of the bat, the umpire on the field and other sounds of the game were all manufactured in the studio as the game was being played live elsewhere.

Live blogging seems like public telegraph messages plus photography. The latency is still there— as is the re-creation of the event. Somehow I think those radio listeners in 1921 had a better sense of what was happening in the ball game than we do today watching our web browsers auto-refresh with the latest tidbit. While we grow closer in time, the fidelity of the broadcast is much lower.

In 1994, John Perry Barlow wrote about The Economy of Ideas, and made the observation that time replaces space:

In the virtual world, proximity in time is a value determinant. An informational product is generally more valuable the closer purchaser can place themselves to the moment of its expression, a limitation in time. Many kinds of information degrade rapidly with either time or reproduction. Relevance fades as the territory they map changes. Noise is introduced and bandwidth lost with passage away from the point where the information is first produced.

Thus, listening to a Grateful Dead tape is hardly the same experience as attending a Grateful Dead concert. The closer one can get to the headwaters of an informational stream, the better one’s chances of finding an accurate picture of reality in it. In an era of easy reproduction, the informational abstractions of popular experiences will propagate out from their source moments to reach anyone who’s interested. But it’s easy enough to restrict the real experience of the desirable event, whether knock-out punch or guitar lick, to those willing to pay for being there.

If you can’t be there, I guess a live blog is a reasonable kind of substitute. But the use of text and still photography as a medium to capture and broadcast a live event in real time has the feel of something you’d read about in a history book. The past is here, it’s just not evenly distributed yet.

An Inconvenient Complexity

The voices from a certain segment of the developer classes cry out that the iPad has left out too much. That the simplicity of the device has cut them off from the toolsets with which they’ve become comfortable and productive. There’s no keyboard, no mouse, no windows, no multitasking, no hierarchical file system. Perhaps they state the obvious when they say it’s not the laptop they already have. The device, they say, is too simple to be useful. The computing environment is too vertical. Somehow this crowd imagines a linear incremental evolutionary development from personal computing as they’ve always known it to a simple tablet device. A simple device that includes all the complexity and clutter to which they’ve become accustomed. Of course we know the fate of the complex tablet device they’re describing— it never caught on. That wasn’t what they wanted either.

There’s another segment that says that this new iPad device won’t inspire the tinkerer, the maker. The person who, as a child growing up, reveled in taking apart things to see how they worked. There are no screws to let the user open up this device and have a peak inside. The device is both too simple and too complex. The integrated design and manufacture of the product is at such a high level that there’s not much for the tinkerer to play with. This crowd believes the iPad kills play. But tinkering and play is always a relative matter. With the iPad, tinkering is simply displaced— it moves up the stack to the level of web/cloud and native software. Tinkerers, if they are tinkerers, are not so easily dissuaded.

A third segment thinks that the iPad will re-incarcerate the audience. Social media and various crowd-sourced content sites have transformed the audience from passive observers to active participants. But, the iPad is deemed an evolutionary step backward, an evil plan by the incumbent media companies to preserve their dastardly business models. The device, they say, is purely for consumption of media— it’s a screen, much like a television. Because it lacks the traditional input tools, the keyboard and the mouse, it can’t and won’t enable the user to interact or create. Multi-touch is a gesture of consumption, not one of creation. Those making this argument defend the “new media of the internet” from the next generation of innovators and the kids who’ll learn to type on glass.

In each of these cases there’s a defense of an inconvenient complexity. The complexity must be preserved to extend the stability of the existing ecosystem. There’s even a moral edge to maintaining the status quo, as if embracing this new platform was a kind of degenerate act. And instead of the device that’s available today, a non-existent device of the future is peddled in its place. A device where choices don’t have to be made, where everything you want, everything you have, and everything you can imagine exist in a simple package. Of course, if you wait long enough, the thing you’re looking for might just come along. Either that or you’ll run out of heartbeats.

In the end, what the simplicity of the iPad allows is more participation by more people with real-time personal and social networked computing. By eliminating levels of complexity, the barriers to practical and emotional engagement with the device are reduced below a significant threshold. But we’re only in the year zero, as the platform expands and matures, as competitors flesh out variations of the theme, new levels of complexity will emerge.

Collapse, Cognitive Surplus and The Proud Tower

In a recent post, Clay Shirky talks about The Collapse of Complex Business Models. In essence, the idea is that in the television business, you were able to support a high cost structure and complex production environment through massive distribution of the product through specialized video broadcasting services. While not sufficient, it was necessary to produce a high-quality product to achieve mass distribution, consumption and profit margins. Shirky’s point is that the same itch is now being scratched by non-commercial, low-quality product that also achieves mass-distribution over the Network. The question television executives face is: how do we compete with that?

This is reminiscent of the moment when the Coca-Cola corporation discovered that it wasn’t just competing with the Pepsi-Cola corporation for dominance of the cola-flavored beverage market, or the soda market in general. They were competing against water. Television executives are looking for their version of Coca-Cola’s Dasani— a bottled water product that delivers similar margins to their soft drinks. Although the attempt roll Dasani into the European markets exposed what most people already knew. Water was readily available from their taps as a utility.

Shirky’s focus is on the moment when complexity, and adding more complexity/quality to the mix, no longer delivers a positive revenue margin over expenses. And unlike the banks that make up our financial system, the big media corporations are not perceived as too big to fail. As the business models of the media giants are hollowed out, change will come. At the end of his post, Shirky makes some predictions:

When ecosystems change and inflexible institutions collapse, their members disperse, abandoning old beliefs, trying new things, making their living in different ways than they used to. It’s easy to see the ways in which collapse to simplicity wrecks the glories of old. But there is one compensating advantage for the people who escape the old system: when the ecosystem stops rewarding complexity, it is the people who figure out how to work simply in the present, rather than the people who mastered the complexities of the past, who get to say what happens in the future.

While measuring the value of complexity in the equation of a business model may be one signal of an institution’s chances in the ongoing transformation of the media ecosystem, there’s an older Shirky post that should be brought into this context. The post is called “Gin, Television and Social Surplus.” In this post, he contemplates the 200 billion hours spent watching television each year in the United States. Should that energy be refocused in another direction, what might it unleash?

And television watching? Two hundred billion hours, in the U.S. alone, every year. Put another way, now that we have a unit, that’s 2,000 Wikipedia projects a year spent watching television. Or put still another way, in the U.S., we spend 100 million hours every weekend, just watching the ads. This is a pretty big surplus. People asking, “Where do they find the time?” when they’re looking at things like Wikipedia don’t understand how tiny that entire project is, as a carve-out of this asset that’s finally being dragged into what Tim calls an architecture of participation.

Now, the interesting thing about a surplus like that is that society doesn’t know what to do with it at first–hence the gin, hence the sitcoms. Because if people knew what to do with a surplus with reference to the existing social institutions, then it wouldn’t be a surplus, would it? It’s precisely when no one has any idea how to deploy something that people have to start experimenting with it, in order for the surplus to get integrated, and the course of that integration can transform society.

When I linked these two ideas together, a changing media/technology ecosystem and a large cognitive surplus, and third pattern emerged that provided a distressing context. It’s interesting that when speaking of media and business models, we look blithely on at the destruction and upheaval occurring. We zero in on the inflexibility of institutions, the fact that they can’t adapt to change as the sad, but predictable, cause of their extinction. When Shirky adds together a socialized Network and a large cognitive surplus he comes up with experiments that ultimately are integrated into society and transform it. There’s a beautiful optimism implied there, one that imagines peaceful progress mimicking the periodic updates of web-based software over the Network.

The distressing context that emerged was that the contours of what Shirky describes begins to resemble the historical period before World War I. We’re living through an era of accelerating change in technology, communications, media, manufacturing and politics. The ecosystem of the dominant broadcast media is evolving into something else, and potentially unleashing billions of hours of human energy. In the forward to her book “The Proud Tower,” Barbara Tuchman writes:

The period of this book was above all the culmination of a century of the most accelerated rate of change in man’s record. Since the last explosion of a generalized belligerent will in the Napoleonic wars, the industrial and scientific revolutions had transformed the world. Man had entered the Nineteenth Century using only his own and animal power, supplemented by that of wind and water, much as he had entered the Thirteenth, or, for that matter, the First. He entered the Twentieth with his capacities in transportation, communication, production, manufacture and weaponry multiplied a thousandfold by the energy of machines. Industrial society gave man new powers and new scope while at the same time building up new pressures in  prosperity and poverty, in growth of population and crowding in cities, in antagonisms of classes and groups, in separation from nature and from satisfaction in individual work.

and a little later:

…society at the turn of the century was not so much decaying as bursting with the new tensions and accumulated energies. Stefan Zweig who was thirty-three in 1914 believed that the outbreak of the war “had nothing to do with ideas and hardly even with frontiers. I cannot explain it otherwise than by this surplus force, a tragic consequence of the internal dynamism that had accumulated in forty years of peace and now sought violent release.”

While it’s unlikely that there will be a note-for-note replay of the fin de siècle era, there is a significant risk that what was multiplied a thousandfold by the energy of machines, will be multiplied by orders of magnitude and distributed to millions of nodes across the Network. The question we might ask is whether we have a strong enough central agreement about morality and civilization to curb our darker instincts. Can the center hold?

Reflections On The Shape I’m In

The idea of a ‘MirrorWorld’ is very powerful metaphorically. It’s as though the vital and valuable parts of our world are taking root in the Network and creating— not a shadow existence, but a reflection of the shape of our lives. The personal computer has been the portal through which we viewed this reflection. It’s also been the tool we used to build this reflecting pond.

It occurred to me that the iPad is responding to the evolving shape of the Network. We think of augmented reality as something written on top of the base field of the reality around us. The Network, in the sense that it reflects our lived world, is already an augmentation of reality. The portal to that real-time reflection looks more and more like an iPad, and less and less like a personal computer. Perhaps we’re in an in-between state— we don’t yet know the shape we’re in.

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