Burying the media magnate
© Copyright 1994-2002, Rishab Aiyer Ghosh. All rights reserved.
Electric Dreams #50

It is 1455 AD. The Christian clergy is beginning to wonder at the marvelous opportunity Guternberg's printed Bible offers for the preservation of the faith. They can't even imagine the revolutionary impact of the printing press on the distribution of power, and science's dethroning of the Church. Now, 540 years later, the world's media are agog at the marvelous opportunities a global information infrastructure will offer them, so many movies on demand and bewitching profits. What then, are they overlooking?

Before print, homogeneity, and hence control, was difficult to maintain. Now, in the age of television and a 'global culture' it appears deceptively to be the norm. The fifteenth-century Church hoped, with the new technology of movable type, to mass-produce spirituality for their increased control of people's lives. Media conglomerates, who are interested in profits and not necessarily control, now hope that new interactive technologies of multimedia communications will multiply the mass-produced success of homogenizing television. Two hopes, equally mistaken.

Television works as a profitable medium as it relies on selling prefabricated dreams. It encourages viewers to share the same dream: that is, after all, what broadcasting is all about. Cyberspace with all its interactivity beckons participants to create dreams of their own. The impact of this difference on consumers and producers is far greater than usually assumed, for while broadcasting requires off-the-shelf content and a placid audience, interacting requires neither packaged content nor audiences, only participants. And billion-dollar companies don't make good participants.

Entertainment is what such companies see as their greatest market, and it is the market that will change the least in its needs. But it will change enough. Most people usually want to be entertained - in the passive voice. The change to actively having fun will be very slow. Others, especially the young, already have fun, when not with one another then playing low-budget video-games produced by relatively small companies. While video-games are becoming increasingly polished, prompting comparisons with films, films that are adapted to a participatory format have increasingly sketchy plots. Myst, arguably one of the most successful interactive multimedia experiences ever, hardly has a story line at all - just a space to create your own dreams. Myst was made on a low budget by two guys in a garage.

While the entertainment industry awaits an information infrastructure that will satisfy their gluttonous needs, the Internet and on-line services continue to grow at well over 80% a year. Hardly any providers of packaged information or services, leave alone entertainment, exist on-line. So perhaps packaged stuff is not what users are desperately looking for. In fact, companies and people get wired only to meet others like themselves. Businesses make deals that way; individuals have fun that way. Neither miss the vast capital of the media dinosaurs.

People discovered with printed books that all ideas can be widely distributed. Now, with participatory media they shall discover one another, and find that ideas and experiences need not be widely distributed, mass-produced, to be enjoyed. In the decades to come, the media magnate had better find a new job.

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