a big bang theory for media 05.23.2005, 5:35 PM
posted by ben vershbow
Future generations, living comfortably as digital natives, may look back on the twentieth century as the big bang moment in the history of media. The big bang theory, by now a household concept in the annals of cosmology, speculates that the universe began some 13 or 14 billion years ago in a massive explosion of matter from an original, super-dense, super-heated singularity. What does this have to do with twentieth century media? More than you might think. Industrialization and the development of telecommunications resulted in the centralization of communication forms into a kind of super-dense, super-heated singularity of their own: the mass media. Its power to drive a consumer economy through advertising, and blanket entire populations with messages and imagery has been so impressive, so all-consuming, that in a very short time it has come to seem all but inevitable.
But much to mass media's surprise (and horror), the singularity has exploded. With the web barely a decade old, it looks like the reign of mass media is turning out to have been only a brief interlude between a pre-electrified world, and a vastly uncertain digital horizon. Generations for whom radio and television were wondrous novelties assumed a passive posture, letting the transmission waves wash over them. But subsequent ages, reared in the super-heated forge of the mass media, have grown increasingly impatient with the paleolithic norms of the TV network, the daily newspaper, the cineplex, and the publishing conglomerate. They want more diversity, more choice, more mobility, and more opportunity to contribute in the very forms the media taught them. Totally decentralized, the internet is a different kind of animal, and since it can absorb and copy basically any kind of media, it is perceived by Big Media as fundamentally hostile to its interests. Consequently, they are doing everything in their power to preserve the models that worked so well for them when the universe was still young and galaxies (chains, affiliates, imprints) were still within their grasp: suing file-sharing services, going after DVD pirates, and slapping all sorts of nasty DRM (digital rights management) on the little downloadable content they are tentatively trying to sell. But in the end, it's a losing battle. Trying to hold still in a swiftly expanding cosmos will prove at first uncomfortable (as it is now) and eventually impossible. The universe is moving outward. Later, we'll tell our grandchildren what it was like to watch the big bang and the brief, brilliant age of the mass media.
The Wall Street Journal ran a free web feature today - "How Old Media Can Survive In a New World" - examining the crisis facing mass media, asking influential observers in each industry what might be done to adapt to the decentralized laws of the web and how to profit from media that has no physical dimension. It serves as a nice snapshot of the explosion in its current phase.
Posted by ben vershbow on May 23, 2005 5:35 PM
Gary Frost on May 23, 2005 8:37 PM:
I think it was Terrence McKenna that said that the Big Bang concept is believable except that it comes at the end. In a few years we will realize that the web is not there. You will not be able to bring it up. It will be gone.
This is because no future reader will not be able to bring up the web we know tonight. That reader will be able to consult the same print book, but not the same on-line resource. It will be gone.
The web is only a minor technology that presents and mimes all other media on a single screen. There are a number of ways to draw the given screen, but it is just a convenient screen presentation.
Unfortunately there is a dark side. Print books will never induce intellectual lassitude, but search engines will. Search engines and the drawn screen will substitute for observation evaluation and understanding. They will mime observation, evaluation and understanding and then they will be construed as observation, evaluation and understanding.
Unfortunately there is a bright side. The print book could sustain our native powers of observation, evaluation and understanding. But print is eclipsed, right? Print, the only truly modern and futuristic technology for transmission of conceptual works that we have, is now too old.
Ha! The verbal/visual mode so characteristic of on-line presentation and its avatar, the cell phone, is an interface that goes back to the hominid series, and writing or emailing goes back in history too. Only print exemplifies a modern departure from the inherent transience of conceptual works.
ben vershbow on May 24, 2005 1:28 PM:
I share your concerns about search engines and the transience of the web. Perhaps the computer is just a shadow box, like the cave in Plato's allegory. But I would not characterize them as "minor technologies." It is as a communications medium that I think the web is profound. Blogs, chat rooms, and even web "archives" (which wear the trappings of permanence) - these are all transient forms. Because they in many ways mimic the page, they to some extent convey the illusion of permanence (they are sort of like echoes of the book). But to me, they are more akin to conversations, or a performing art. A blog is a sustained performance for an audience. It lasts as long as it is suffused with human heat, and as long as it is being watched by others. It may get archived for a while, but reading old blog entries is not unlike watching a video recording of a play - the shape is there, the idea is there, but it is emptied of spirit. These recordings are sometimes useful for research, but they are no substitute for having been there, in the moment.
I agree that print is a more persistent medium, and superior for preservation. And maybe a separation of digital and physical libraries, or at least a distinct demarcation within a single space, is the right approach. The problem of transience will always haunt us on the web.