Author Archives: Bill Baker

Why we need better online copyright, an interview with Mark Bide

Mark Bide is the Executive Director of EDItEUR, the global trade standards organisation for the book and journal supply chains.

He is also a consultant with specialist media consultancy Rightscom and has recently been working with the European Publishers Council on the establishment of a project called the Linked Content Coalition.

He has worked in the publishing industry for over 40 years and he writes here in a purely personal capacity.

What is the biggest challenge facing traditional media companies?

I am not sure I would want to identify a single “biggest” challenge. It is facile to say “the Internet” – since evidently (see my answer to the next question) the existence of an increasingly ubiquitous global communication network creates both challenges and opportunities for traditional media companies. The challenges and the opportunities are the opposite sides of the same coin.

Instant, inexpensive and increasingly ubiquitous digital communication opens up many new business opportunities; but these are often easier for new entrants to exploit than for incumbents, simply because they are by their nature predatory on existing business models. An obvious example is classified advertising, which has disappeared as sites like Craig’s List have taken over. It is hardly surprising that it is difficult for incumbent businesses to accept that a new business model may be successful but at much lower margins than have traditionally been enjoyed. Continue reading

How is media reshaping our consciousness?

“All of us have become the unwitting workforce for social change.”
-Marshall McLuhan

Lincoln Douglas debates (source: wikimedia commons)

In nineteenth century America, it was common for citizens to gather and listen to dense political oratory for hours at a time.  At the first of the famous debates between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas in 1858, Lincoln proposed that the debate be split in half to make it easier on the audience.  The two men would share the podium for just four hours before lunch and three hours after—even with the break, an excruciating stretch of time by today’s standards.  Yet the crowd that day reportedly listened with rapt attention for the full seven hours, only breaking their silence to express support or disagreement, or to applaud a well-turned phrase.  Nineteenth century audiences regularly gathered by the thousands to perform similar feats of sustained attention.[1]  Neither Lincoln nor Douglas were considered prolix, yet just one of Lincoln’s responses that day ran to over sixteen thousand spoken words.

In contrast, the entire televised debate between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy in September of 1960 ran to fewer than ten thousand words.  Today, the average length of a political ad on TV is thirty seconds, and the average sound bite on the evening news is fifteen seconds (about how long it takes to read this paragraph out loud).  Nine and a half million viewers tuned out of President Obama’s most recent State of the Union Address during the first five minutes, before the speech even began.

What has happened to the American attention span?  Are Americans today simply dumber, or less virtuous than they were in the 1800s?

Declaring a decline in public virtue is speculation at best, and at worst a reactionary cliché.  To discover what has changed about our public discourse between Lincoln’s day and ours, we have to rethink the question.  Instead of focusing on public virtue, we should focus on the ways that virtue is talked about.  Or, as the father of media studies Marshall McLuhan would have said, we need to concern ourselves with the medium rather than the message.

Kennedy Nixon debates (source: wikimedia commons credit: National Parks Service)

The Nixon-Kennedy debates are a good place to begin.  In 1960, enough Americans based their vote on the outcome of the TV debate to decide the election in Kennedy’s favor.  Of the 70 million Americans who watched the debate on TV, the majority thought that Kennedy won.  Of the far smaller number who heard the debate on the radio, the majority thought that Nixon won.

Radio listeners and TV viewers heard the same words, but came to different conclusions.  Why?

Nixon had insisted on vigorously campaigning until just a few hours before the debate.  He wore an ill-fitting shirt, refused make-up, and was noticeably gaunt from time spent recuperating after surgery.  Kennedy was well rested, tan from a recent vacation, and, unlike Nixon, did not visibly sweat under the hot studio lights.  But the reasons for Kennedy’s victory went beyond the circumstances of the debate.

The medium of TV itself prevents viewers from listening in quite the same way that their forebears listened to Lincoln and Douglas.  TV excludes all but the most impotent forms of audience participation, for one.  Furthermore, attention itself toward any televised event is not sustained as easily as attention to a real world event.  After a few moments, most people’s interest naturally strays from any image on a glowing screen.  Attention has to be revived and sustained artificially and continuously, by quick cuts from one viewpoint to the next, pans, close-ups, and other tricks, so commonly deployed that the TV industry refers to them collectively as “technical events.”  TV as a medium simply does not allow the kind of deep participation of print and radio.

Most pointedly for Kennedy and Nixon, and perhaps counterintuitively for viewers, television does not flatter intense emotional involvement.  Those present in the room for 2006 Presidential candidate Howard Dean’s famous “scream,” made during his Iowa caucus concession speech, did not feel that anything out of the ordinary had happened.  Yet on television, the same speech came across with such ferocity and strangeness that it ended Dean’s presidential hopes.  Nixon’s intensity and sharp intellectual edge similarly alienated most viewers of the 1960 TV debate with Kennedy, whose relative lack of emotion and less pointed approach to the issues proved more telegenic.  Since television was, by 1960, where the national discourse had migrated, Kennedy was chosen to lead the country.

The mode in which we encounter information, the medium in which it is expressed, changes not only what we choose to express but what we think is important.

Every form of communication invisibly lends its biases to the civilization that employs it.

Five centuries of print have given the world cities, industry, specialization, the middle class, mass literacy, continuous technological and social progress, and widespread democracy.

What kind of civilization can we expect from instantaneous electronic communication?

Marshall McLuhan (source: wikimedia commons, credit: Louis Forsedale)

Since McLuhan’s time, we have come to a partial understanding of television’s effects on society.  The Internet’s effects are even more dimly understood, yet the accelerated pace of change in the world demands that we understand them as quickly as possible.  The health of the political discourse is one issue at stake, but the health of our intellectual culture and even our minds themselves may also be at stake.

When Marshall McLuhan first proposed the idea that the dominant medium of communication shapes a society more than the content of its communications, he employed metaphors that foreshadowed neuroscience.  McLuhan said that the habit of reading print on the page promoted the visual sense to a place of unnatural prominence, upsetting its natural equality with the four other senses.  He also said that instantaneous electronic communication activated patterns of thought similar to an “oral” or “tribal” organization of knowledge.

The conclusions of neuroscientists currently studying the effects of computers on the brain are even more outlandish than McLuhan’s metaphors.  The concept of neuroplasticity argues that our brains at any stage of life are capable of being rewired by repeated activity.  The rewiring can be so fundamental that types of repetitive brain exercise are prescribed as treatment for diseases like schizophrenia and severe brain damage.  As we use the Web more and more, say some neuroscientists, we are literally reprogramming our brains to think in new ways.  And the new ways of thinking displace older ones.  As we learn to multitask, for example, we actually lose the ability to be silent and concentrate deeply on one thing at a time.[2]  Not only do important political decisions require deep concentration, but so too does the formation of meaningful personal relationships.

If there is a chance that even some of these ideas prove to be true, then more than just our political discourse is at stake when we ask how new media are affecting society.  We cannot isolate the effects of media to a single realm, like politics or education.  Instead, we have to ask the broader question: “How is media reshaping our consciousness?”

 


[1] Postman, Neil.  Amusing Ourselves to Death, Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business.  (New York: Penguin, 2006).

[2] Carr, Nicholas.  The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains.  (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2010).

Is the golden age of novels and short stories about to return?

An unbound chapter from Bleak House's original print run (credit: Evan Leatherwood)

According to this piece from Fast Company, short pieces of writing, like recipes and single articles, are now being sold on Amazon and at the Apple store for prices ranging from ¢99 to a few dollars, for download to the Kindle, iPad, etc.  The article asks: what sort of writers will benefit from this new form of publishing?

First off, this is not really a new form of publishing, but a really old one.  Before the mass reading public had a taste for bound books, they bought printed works in single sheets, or in unbound sheaves of paper, priced to move and made for single-serving consumption, not unlike downloading single episodes of your favorite TV show to your iPhone to watch on the subway.

This is how the essays of Samuel Johnson were first published, and how millions first consumed the novels of Charles Dickens, chapter by chapter.  At first, only serious media nerds took the time and money to take the separate bundles they had been buying at the newsstand, bind them together, and put them on their shelves at home.  Eventually, there was a market for special edition boxed sets of works by popular authors, which were released in bound sets called “novels.” Samuel Johnson, who died in 1784, never made much money from the sales of his works, but by the time Charles Dickens got famous in the 1830s, there was a fortune to be made.  Short fiction and journalism boomed, and became a way for new writers to break into print and stay afloat.  Certain kinds of stories, like ghost stories and detective stories, evolved as a perfect fit for the new short form market, and gave people like Arthur Conan Doyle and G.K. Chesterton their start.

Have we come full circle (credit: Corey Nascenzi)

Then TV, radio, and rising postage costs conspired to mortally wound the mass market for short form printed works in the middle of the last century.  The frontier that Samuel Johnson pioneered started to close, and it has been closing ever since.

But now there is a glimmer of hope that that market, and the riotous creativity in once unleashed, is on its way back.  In addition to the rise of Kindle singles and their kind, some self-published ebook authors are making enough to quit their day jobs.  More power to them.

So the latest move by Apple, if successful, may not herald anything new at all, but a return to the good old days.

by ELeatherwood

Marshall McLuhan’s unmediated faith

by Bill Baker & Evan Leatherwood

by permission from The Catholic Herald, where this piece originally appeared.

Marshall McLuhan

Marshall McLuhan, who coined “global village” and “the medium is the message,” and who predicted the internet and the rise of social media, was born a century ago this past July.  He is considered one of the 20th century’s intellectual giants.  Along with Marx, Freud, and Darwin, McLuhan is one of those rare thinkers with a persuasive “theory of everything.”  He was also a devout Catholic, who taught almost exclusively at Catholic universities and attended mass nearly every day of his adult life.

McLuhan’s most important insight was that all technologies, especially media technologies, have hidden biases.  His classic example, which has entered into conventional wisdom, is the 1960 Nixon/Kennedy presidential debate.  People who heard the debate on the radio declared Nixon the winner, while those who watched on TV thought Kennedy had won.  To say that TV emphasizes appearances and radio emphasizes ideas oversimplifies McLuhan’s thinking, but gets the basic concept across.  Any new medium not only changes how we get information, but also what information we think is important.

Before he died in 1980, McLuhan applied this core insight to the world he saw taking shape around him.  His conclusions then have the ring of prophecy today.

It is no exaggeration to say that McLuhan predicted the internet.  While other futurists declared that computers could lead to either utopia or Big Brother, McLuhan quietly anticipated Facebook and Twitter.  Writing in 1967, thirteen years before the first Web site even went live, McLuhan got the trivial, distracting qualities of our digital life just right. He told us there would someday be “one big gossip column,” powered by an “electronically computerized dossier bank,” that would keep an uneraseable record of our tiniest actions.  This would be the background noise against which our lives would play out.

McLuhan also saw that our participation in this collective gossip column would be voluntary.  He claimed we would all become not the unwilling but rather the “unwitting workforce for social change.”  In McLuhan’s world, change does not announce itself or even arrive by ambush, but instead creeps up on us.  After every advent in media technology, we wake up to an invisibly but fundamentally altered world.

The pervasive fear and uncertainty of modern life, argued McLuhan, could be traced back to a change in our dominant information technology.  Books, which promote quiet, solitary and linear thinking, are giving way to electronic media, which promotes noisy, collective, and unpredictable experiences.  The hangover from this change, argued McLuhan, is a profound uncertainty about the future.

Beginning with the publication of Understanding Media in 1964, the intelligentsia went crazy for McLuhan’s ideas.  He went from being a teacher at a small Catholic college in Canada to a world famous media sage.  Writers like Tom Wolfe, and top executives in advertising, media, and technology companies sought him out.  At the height of his fame, shortly before he died, McLuhan even appeared as himself in Woody Allen’s film Annie Hall.

Despite global fame, McLuhan never abandoned his post as a teacher of literature at St. Michael’s College at the University of Toronto, and he remained a private but devout Catholic.

McLuhan was not a Catholic by birth.  Born into a Protestant household that was not especially devout, as a boy McLuhan recoiled from what he saw as the ugliness and inanity of modern life.  He sought beauty and meaning in literature, and wavered between indifference and even hostility to religion until his late twenties.

It was not until he encountered the writings of G. K. Chesterton as a graduate student in the lively intellectual circles of 1930s Cambridge that McLuhan took his first steps towards becoming a Catholic.

Chesterton is one of the great English writers, creator of the fictional detective Father Brown, and a powerful Catholic apologist in books like Orthodoxy and The Everlasting Man.  Like McLuhan, Chesterton had once been a literary young man in search of meaning, and had found happiness and an intellectual bedrock in the Catholic Church.  Chesterton charms his readers away from conventional errors via paradox and humor, as McLuhan would one day do with his own readers.  It is no wonder that McLuhan found Chesterton’s ideas so compelling.

Though he was Canadian, McLuhan’s conversion is best understood as belonging to the tradition of intellectual Anglo-Catholics like Evelyn Waugh, who were attracted to Catholicism in sharp contrast from the Church of England, and from the noisy, disenchanted world that had grown up around it, and, in many ways, because of it.  Protestantism was fundamentally linked in McLuhan’s mind with the excesses of capitalism, and the disorienting world of advertising and mass media that it had spawned.  Catholicism, in contrast, was staunchly on the side of art and intellect.  When he converted in 1937, McLuhan came into the Catholic Church as a grateful refugee from a fearful world.

But in the end it was not ideas that brought McLuhan into the Church, but first-hand experience.  Open-minded in all things, the young McLuhan decided to approach the Church on its own ground.  He saw that above all else, that ground was prayer.  Though not yet a man of faith, McLuhan prayed fervently and persistently to be shown proof that Catholic doctrine is true.  “The evidence,” he says, “came unexpectedly and from many quarters and unmistakably.”  He never stopped praying during the five decades from his conversion to his death.  Prayer for McLuhan was a “constant appeal for daily nourishment.”

Though a man of profoundly complex ideas in his professional and public life, McLuhan felt no need to immerse himself in the subtleties of theology and dogma.  For him, the Church was a living, sacred presence which entered his life on a level deeper than conscious thought.  Faith, for McLuhan, was a matter of the human heart in resonance with the divine word.

The open-mindedness that served him so well in the world of scholarship was what brought him to the certainty of faith.  And it was from the security of his faith that McLuhan could look out at a world in turmoil and, without sentimentality, bear honest witness to how it was changing.

Though it underlay his thinking, McLuhan never spoke from an explicitly Catholic perspective.  He described his investigations into the effects of technology as “probes,” and persistently claimed to have no fixed point of view.  This can make reading and listening to McLuhan frustrating.  Just when you think you have a handle on his thought, some new statement keeps you guessing.  But behind all his oracular vagueness is a sincere desire to come to the aid of people who feel displaced by modern life.

Privately, McLuhan was not happy about most of the changes he observed in the modern world, but he was never a pessimist. He believed there was hope as long as we used technology conscientiously rather than uncritically.

He also found hope in his faith, specifically in the guidance of the Virgin Mary, whom he petitioned in her role as a patroness of study.  “At a time like this,” he said in a 1971 interview, “there is a very great role for her to play, because the things that we now have to study in the world are rather tremendous, and new.”

Irene coverage: tempest in a teacup

Irene, source: wikimedia commons

I’m writing this on an iPad with the power still off at my home in Riverside, CT.  This is the third day without power, phone and Internet.  We came within inches of a flooded basement, had three feet of water in the driveway, and there are still lots of tree limbs on the lawn.  But that’s it for damage.

Yet my adult daughter and my wife, who were glued to the TV leading up to the storm, had pictured us all standing on the roof of our house surrounded by forty feet of water waiting for a helicopter to airlift us to safety.  The Weather Channel reports were the most histrionic.  One actually said that Irene would be “the worst storm we will see in our lifetime.”

I never thought for a moment that our lives would be at risk.  I was rightly concerned about our basement, since we live right on Long Island Sound.  Three more inches of rain and it would probably still be full of water.  But I knew that Irene was no Katrina, and that all that would end up happening was a few days without power.

Why was I not as worried?  Because I paid attention to the right sources.  I have some weather equipment at my house, and I am a relentless tinkerer, so I was able to calculate almost exactly how deep the water was going to be, and I wasn’t far off.

I also knew that when it comes to weather news, go local, and the hype to news ratio tips in your favor.  The best station in our area was the hyper-local service offered by our Cablevision provider.  They got it almost right.

The radio weather people were also quite good.  They seemed much more informed and accurate than the doom crying Weather Channel meteorologists.  WCBS made it clear that this was going to be nothing like Katrina.  1010WINS did an equally good job.

Conversely, the local government seemed to join in the overreacting by telling people in Connecticut to evacuate when they probably did not need to.  I was worried that mass evacuation could have risked more lives than it saved.  Millions of uprooted people are a lot more dangerous than a few uprooted trees.

A nice, smart New Zealand reporter named John Campbell, showed up at my front door with a cameraman.  They had been watching CNN, nine thousand miles away, and based on what they were hearing they were convinced that American life would forever be changed by Irene.  They had been following the storm’s progress since landfall in the Carolinas.  I was almost sorry to tell them that there wasn’t much to see where I lived.  Then they asked me about media hype, an appropriate question indeed.

Christchurch, New Zealand, was devastated in February and again in June of this year by earthquakes, and will never be the same.  I have been to Christchurch.  It’s beautiful and has long been one of my favorite places on Earth.  When was the last time you heard a story about them?

So what happened?

Irene coverage was too close to the epicenter of American media, and not close enough to the facts.

CHINA’S MEDIA FUTURE, SIX THINGS TO THINK ABOUT

My presentation at CEIBS, April 2011

China already has more internet users (450 million) than America has people, even though just one-third of China is online.  What will happen when the other two-thirds (890 million people more) get an internet connection?

This April, I went to Beijing to find out.

My hosts were the China Europe International Business School (CEIBS), and I was a presenter and attendee at the China Media Industry Forum.  I gave a talk on the American media landscape, represented IESE Business School at the forum, and uncovered some remarkable trends and facts about the future of media in China:

1. Relaxed ownership rules?
The buzz in Beijing’s investor community is that the government will relax media ownership rules.  Coupled with China’s booming $40 billion advertising industry (poised to overtake Japan’s as the global #2 after the US) the relaxed rules could significantly strengthen China’s ability to reach viewers, sell ads, and drive markets.

2. Microblogging is everywhere.
The public in general and the business community in particular are using microblogs to get past the state media’s official version of events.  While microblogging can be an avenue to more insight and a unique, first-hand point of view, it seems that just about everyone in China is blogging, or about to be.  That means information overload and anxiety about whose info to trust.  But the consensus is that media with microblogging is better than without it.

3. A Chinese alternative to Bloomberg and Reuters.
Imagine investors around the world using data terminals, just like the Bloomberg models preferred on Wall Street, but made by CCTC-2, the financial news arm of China’s state media.  That’s exactly what Guo Zhenxi, head of CCTC-2, hopes will someday happen.  The newly launched TV station has captured 75% of China’s business community after just months on the air, and has ambitious plans to go multiplatform.  They’ve got a long way to go before they’re anything like Bloomberg or Reuters, but this new company is worth watching.

4. No success without greater transparency.
I was amazed and pleased to hear outspoken criticism of China’s controlling stance towards its media.  At the forum, advocates for business ethics called for greater transparency in business information, and announced a project to compile a “social responsibility index,” which will rank Chinese companies by how ethical and sustainable their practices are.  Unless the government allows business and business media to be open and honest, say advocates, China has no real chance to compete and win in a global arena.

5. How to be a journalist in China’s new media landscape.
When an audience of aspiring reporters asked how to break into and succeed in journalism, Liu Shui, Editor in Chief of Phoenix New Media, gave a reply you’d hear in any country: expect low pay and steep competition, and be prepared to muster near fanatical devotion to success.  The biggest asset for any aspiring journalist, according to Shui, is a broad education and a wide reading list that includes books as well as blogs.  Shui’s reply and the sheer number of people in the room made it feel just like a gathering of journalistic hopefuls in the US and Europe, and that can only be a good thing for China.

6. China’s Coming Entertainment Boom. Opening the door even a little to private entrepreneurship in media could unleash the wealth of talent and showmanship I saw on display during my time in Beijing.  The two-day Media Industry Conference was slick and captivating, and the technology in use was no different than what you might find at a media conference in the US.  If the 2008 Olympic opening ceremony is any indication of how big the Chinese can think, and if their decade long dash to global #1 in manufacturing is any indication of their tenacity and follow-through, it’s wise to be on the lookout for Beijing’s answer to Hollywood.  It may be coming sooner than you think.

In general, I was highly impressed by the conference, and by my hosts. CEIBS ranks near the top of Chinese business schools, and, based on my experience at the forum, it’s one of the best business schools anywhere.