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Gutenberg's Rainbow
Transformations of Media, Technology and Society in the 21st Century

by Glen Emerson Morris
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Part One - Overview
Like Gutenberg's printing press, the combined technologies of personal computers, digital media and the Internet are acting like a giant prism to transform a highly standardized society into a relative rainbow of intellectual, social and political diversity. We are midway in an epic transformation, and this is a difficult time because many of our traditional social and media institutions are well into disintegration, while few new institutions have evolved yet to take their place.

It is hard to predict exactly what society will be like at the end of the Internet revolution, as that will depend on choices not yet made, but many aspects of this new balance of power it is bring about are apparent now. It is clear that in the new order, governments, business and commercial media will have lost any technological edge they may have had over consumers in terms of the ability to acquire, process and share information.

In addition, consumers will have the ability to produce the goods and services they need for themselves on their own, without depending on big business or big government. These are major changes, but highly likely given the forces at work.

R&D Feedback Loop
The miracle behind the Internet revolution is the research and development feedback loop. Companies spend money developing technologies that do more work for less expense, and continue to plow money back into R&D to make ever more efficient products. The evidence so far is that there is no limit to how far this curve could continue.

Research & Development is like oxidation. When it happens slowly, like rust, it's too slow for casual notice. When it happens quickly, like fire; it's hard to ignore, and it can be very difficult to stop. From an R&D perspective, the Internet revolution is the world's first five-alarm fire.

Technology downstreaming
The R&D fire is spreading through what I call technology downstreaming, which is the process of a technology becoming increasingly inexpensive and widely available as it matures. Applications like CRM and data mining, which were once reserved for the largest and most affluent companies, have become commodity prices and widely available, even to small businesses and individuals, due to downstreaming.

When the newspaper industry started buying Atex digital typesetting systems in 1973 to replace hot lead systems, few in the newspaper industry dreamed the technology they were helping fund into being would one day threaten their very existence. However, this may have occurred to at least one Atex employee, Paul Brainerd, who went on to found Aldus in 1985 and bring to market PageMaker, the first major desktop digital typesetting software application.

In the 25 years since then, many technologies funded by many industries have downstreamed, and combined, to give consumer tools of unprecedented power and abilities.

Cumulative action
A category of applications is emerging that allow consumers to work together in ways that eliminate duplication of effort, and on a huge scale. Gracenote, a service used in Apple's iTunes, automatically fills in the track list information when a CD is imported into iTunes. Without this feature, a person has to manually type in each song title for each track, which takes about a minute. Now, that's only necessary for the first person to import the CD since iTunes allows users to save the track in the Gracenote database for all other iTunes users to share. Based on a minute per CD, the amount of time people collectively spend entering track info is 1,666 hours for every 100,000 CDs imported. Gracenote has saved consumers centuries collectively.

Cumulative knowledge
The tobacco settlement marked the point information simply couldn't be managed effectively by corporations or the media anymore. The Internet allowed lawyers suing the cigarette companies, for the first time, to share and effectively pool all of the damaging information their various lawsuits discovered. Previously, there had been no way for a lawyer in one state to share and use information discovered by a lawyer in another state. Once the lawyers could pool resources, the tobacco companies lost their advantage. Now consumers are learning how to pool knowledge, and for that matter, how to create it.

Cumulative computing power
The computer power available to consumers is just beginning to be collectively channeled into useful research projects like seti@home. This project allows consumers to install a screen saver that automatically downloads and processes raw radio telescope data in the hopes of finding signs of extraterrestrial intelligent life. In the future, collective applications like seti@home will become common, and consumers, not politicians or big business, will select and sponsor major research projects my making the processing time available.

Open Source
Though seen more as a cult than a major social movement, the open source framework for development of complex software applications by volunteers will have profound effects on media and business in the future. In the future, manufactured products will also be developed in open source products (an open source car is already under design in Europe).

Desktop Manufacturing
3D printers that can print anything from flower pots to TV remote control units are just a few years away from being commodity priced and common household items. Consumers will begin to make the things they need at home with their own mini manufacturing plants, wrecking havoc on everything from sales taxes to entire manufacturing industries.

Media in the New World
By almost any metric, commercial media in the 21st century will have nowhere near the power it had in the 2oth century to mould and direct public opinion and preferences. It will not be an easy environment for media to survive in, either. Commercial media will have to compete with vast quantities of consumer created content that features no advertising, just bulletins about the latest free open source project releases.

To be viable in the future, media will have to do more than just deliver news, editorials and entertainment. Media will have to offer a high “value added” quality to everything they offer. Reporters for instance, will either have to become highly entertaining (common already) or become experts in the area they cover and offer insight and context into news issues (not common, but we can hope).

In the end, the successful media will be those that integrate with, and use the combined resources of, their audience. That approach won't guarantee success, but at this point it's fairly certain any other approach will guarantee failure.

Glen Emerson Morris was recently a senior QA Consultant for SAP working on a new product to help automate compliance with the Sarbanes-Oxley law, an attempt to make large corporations at least somewhat accountable to stockholders and the law. He has worked as a technology consultant for Yahoo!, Ariba, WebMD, Inktomi, Adobe, Apple and Radius.

Copyright 1994 - 2008 by Glen Emerson Morris All Rights Reserved

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