Media Revolution: Old Line vs. Online

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This article was published by ComputorEdge, issue #2626, 2008-06-27, as a feature article, in both their PDF edition (on pages 23-27) and their website.

We are in the midst of a sea change in terms of how we receive news of current events, how we can actively search for news, and how we can report our own news to the rest of the world. The traditional media strongholds of television and radio networks, are being increasingly battered by the waves of Internet-based communications methods. These innovations are opening the door for greater public participation in news gathering, sharing, and analysis — while at the same time undermining the traditional roles and power to which Big Media have become accustomed. Yet, in order to fully understand the impact that the New Media have had and will continue to have upon our world, we must understand the nature and potential of such massive changes, and the lessons that can be learned from them. This is not the first communications revolution.

Throughout history, people have relied upon whatever news sources were available for learning of events in their local communities and in distant lands. But while their desire to stay informed has never wavered, the quantity and quality of information obtainable has never been constant. Initially, illiterate people relied completely upon word of mouth, in the form of infrequent travelers who conveyed — and no doubt distorted — what little new information they had overheard at the previous village. Recipients had no other choices for learning what was happening in the world at large. Historical knowledge had dim prospects as well, for whatever was not captured in the oral history of legends and ballads, could be lost forever.

Fortunately, the developments of written text, increased literacy, and avid correspondence, had a tremendous impact upon the sharing of news and opinion. The speed of dissemination and accuracy of message greatly improved. Yet more significantly, the message content was determined by the sender, and not the messenger. This is a critical yet frequently overlooked point. Nevertheless, for varied reasons, the amount of information that could be conveyed was limited. Few individuals outside of the Catholic Church, had the resources to employ scribes for generating more (handwritten) copies of existing books and pamphlets.

The Church had no interest in giving their sacred texts to the masses, even their most faithful devotees, because the production of these sizable texts was quite costly in terms of time. In addition, the Church leaders much preferred serving as the translators and interpreters of Scripture for the masses, who were thus dependent upon these self-appointed messengers. This may have been the first large-scale example of a principle evidenced repeatedly since that time: When the dissemination of information is controlled by a few, they can more easily control the many.

From Gutenberg to Gmail

The only thing that could break the Church's gridlock was a technology to mass-produce books, and Johannes Gutenberg created just that, when he started his printing press in 1454. Prior to this powerful technology, there were roughly 30,000 books in Europe; by the end of that century, there were about nine million. A great many of these volumes were the Gutenberg Bible, which allowed the literate among the faithful to read and discuss God's word for themselves, largely bypassing the bottleneck of the Church rulers. Libraries were created by the wealthy, and treasured as storehouses of knowledge. A lifetime of learning could be transported in a horse-drawn carriage or in the hold of a sailing ship.

In addition to books, newspapers served a vital function throughout Renaissance Europe. Prior to the application of printing press technology, they comprised handwritten letters circulated privately among merchants, passing along a variety of information, including news of wars, financial developments, and social customs worldwide. In the late 1400's, the first printed newspapers appeared in Germany, in the form of political pamphlets aimed more at generating sensationalist agitation than dispassionate understanding.

The first American newspaper, entitled Publick Occurrences, appeared in Boston in 1690. Published without authorization, it was promptly suppressed, its publisher arrested, and all copies destroyed. Freedom of the press in America thus experienced a disastrous beginning. But by the end of the American Revolutionary War, in 1783, there were 43 newspapers in the colonies. By the time of the next great upheaval, the Industrial Revolution, that number had increased to 2526 publications, in 1850.

During that same first half of the 19th century, working telegraph systems were being developed in Europe, Britain, and America, as eclectic and competitive engineers unlocked the mysteries of electromagnetism. One such innovator, Samuel Finley Breese Morse, invented an early telegraph instrument, as well as his famous dot-dash alphabet code, which is not unlike the binary representation of characters by the ASCII code. In fact, the telegraph only flourished when this standard language of transmission was settled upon, like its cyber equivalent a century later, with the development of a hypertext transfer protocol (HTTP), which enabled the Web. Morse also invented the relay, which solved the problem of current loss on long lines. It is strikingly similar in concept to the repeater used today in boosting an Ethernet signal. Thus, the telegraph foreshadowed the Internet more than any other early communications method.

Even then, new communications technologies were enabling previously unconceived uses. For instance, in 1851, Erie Railroad Superintendent Charles Minot began using the telegraph to control train movements, thus introducing "train dispatching" to American railroading. Likewise, the innovators of the Internet and later the Web, probably never conceived of being able to make long distance telephone calls without using the telephone system — in the form of "voice over IP" (VoIP).

Communications revolutions also have far-reaching financial consequences. For instance, the Pony Express officially initiated service in April of 1860. On 21 October of the next year, Western Union joined telegraph wires from the east and the west, at Salt Lake City, forming the first transcontinental telegraph. Three days later, Pony Express was terminated, ruining countless investors. The horses never were able to outrun the electrons.

The idea of transmitting data by sending pulses of electricity down a wire, took a tremendous leap forward with the invention of the telephone, by Alexander Graham Bell, in March of 1876. The proliferation of the telephone throughout America brought with it a level of convenience and speed of communication that was inconceivable only years before, as people were no longer required to physically travel to any telegraph office, or have someone else do the same, in order to send a message quickly. Furthermore, because telephone conversations are two-way, in real time, the speed of sharing information and reaching an agreement, dramatically accelerated the pace of business in America, and doubtless proved a critical enabling technology in the country's groundbreaking industrial progress.

Telephones are now worldwide, wireless, and found even in children's book bags. Telegraph, while a terrific creation, simply could not compete. However, it did continue to provide valuable service in less-developed parts of the world. Even as late as 1991, Morse telegraph was still in use on some Mexican and Central American railroads, and by the post office system of at least one Central American country. Nonetheless, the massive displacement of telegraph with telephone clearly demonstrated a lesson still valuable today: People will invariably opt for having greater control in choosing the timing and privacy of sending their messages. Only the latter applies to e-mail, but it is a worthwhile advantage, as there is far less risk that a third party is reading one's messages. Telegraph and telephone switchboard operators often learned more about other people's businesses than they needed to.

The late 1800s was an era of phenomenal inventiveness and engineering prowess, hitting a high point with the development of radio, motion picture, and later television. These three communication platforms eventually formed the bulwark of modern media. Each was initially viewed with skepticism or outright hostility, but grew in acceptance as the decades passed and technical weaknesses were eliminated. Eventually, they became so popular and thus influential, that executives in the book and newspaper industries feared that Americans would abandon reading for more passive and "light" entertainment. Little did they know that this would not begin apace until public schools began graduating functionally illiterate students.

Yet Americans and Europeans of the early 1900s continued to enjoy packaged reading just as much as packaged listening and viewing. This illustrated a simple yet key principle: Any new form of communication will not displace another one, if there are consumer advantages unique to each one. Radio allowed listeners to hear the voices of their leaders and celebrities, enjoy music not within their record collections, and receive entertainment while driving vehicles. Newspapers continued to allow readers to peruse their desired reading material at their convenience, pass along clippings to acquaintances, and, during political campaigns, line their canary cages extra deep.

During the second half of the 20th century, technological change accelerated, with the invention of computers, microprocessors, networking, the Internet, and the Web. These phenomenal advancements closed the curtain on the Industrial Age, and ushered in the Information Age. People all over the world can now communicate with one another via e-mail, chat networks, instant messaging (IM), VoIP, Webcams, and more. Despite the seemingly limitless wealth of information on the Internet, people can search billions Web pages in a matter of seconds, thanks to search engines such as Google. Such power and quantity of data would have been inconceivable just centuries ago, if not decades ago.

This brings us back to Gutenberg and the King James version of the Bible — all 789,788 words of it. What would the religious zealots of his time thought of the idea of a child now being able to access the Internet, open a Gmail account for free, store thousands of uncompressed copies of the Gutenberg Bible online, and within seconds e-mail copies to friends all over the world? Missionaries would have been delighted, while Church elders would probably not have been pleased. Information is power, and the Internet has put information in the hands of the people.

Big Media

As noted earlier, from the middle of the 15th century to the present, there have been several gigantic steps forward in communications technology — handwritten newspapers and pamphlets, printing presses, telegraph and telephone systems, radio, motion pictures, television, and most recently computer networking, the Internet, and the Web. Each major development has allowed more varied and extensive communication, but not all in the same manner. Handwriting and printing allowed long-term storage and distant transmission of exact wordings, but only for the more literate. Telephone and telegraph offer (near-)instant transmission of the sender's message to the recipient, no matter how distant the recipient. Radio shows allow the use of sound, including music and the persuasive voices of political leaders. Television shows and movies added the visual element.

Telegraph and telephone were the true ancestors of e-mail, as they allow the sender to better control who receives the sender's message. More specifically, the user of such communication systems chooses the recipient and the message, with innumerable options in each category. This is quite unlike radio and television, in which the recipient only decides the sender, from at most a handful of choices, and oftentimes with little variation among them. Furthermore, the choice of sender then determines the message, as the individual cannot influence their message.

Radio, television, and motion picture do differ in one absolutely critical way from all of the other communication platforms: there is no talking back. Even call-in radio shows can be taped, edited, and transmitted later — thereby easily presenting a caller's statements out of context, or excluding them entirely. Nonetheless, these passive forms of entertainment proved wildly popular, and now no American household or motor vehicle is centered complete without a radio, TV, DVD movie player, MP3 player, or some combination thereof.

This combination of overwhelming popularity and one-way communication has clearly become a major factor in the increasing ease with which public opinion is molded and directed by corporate and political leaders. Regardless of what their marketing departments may attempt to portray, dominating media corporations do not offer much democratic communication. There is little choice and even less input. In fact, the only choice one typically has is to change the channel or, better yet in most cases, turn it off.

In addition to the public being told what to believe by Big Media, there are fewer and fewer people — actually corporations — controlling the process, because of the infrastructure costs in creating the media and making it all available to so many people in a restricted manner (such that costs and profits can be recouped). Due to economies of scale, smaller media organizations are often swallowed by larger ones. An example is the newspaper industry, which originally started as brief newsletters crudely printed on basic presses, and distributed by hand. In some ways they were not much more sophisticated than personal letters distributed through mail delivery, which for centuries had been the backbone of uncensored communication in civilized countries. During the 1900s, each major American city had multiple newspapers competing against one another, making every effort to be the first with the biggest stories. Now a large American city might have just two substantial newspapers, with both owned by the same media giant.

The situation is little better in the world of radio, despite the fact that there are more frequencies on a dial than television channels going into the typical American home. In the U.S., one single corporation, Clear Channel, owns over 1200 radio stations and 37 television stations, with interests in 240 radio stations globally, and operating over 200 venues nationwide. This would explain why the music played is typically the most bland and homogenized, rarely featuring local artists, but instead the big names whose musical tours are generally owned and controlled by Clear Channel. The dominance of the movies by major studios is much the same.

Radio broadcasts and television news shows have been the principal sources of news for most Americans for many decades. This problem is especially worrisome in terms of current events and political discussion — that is, what is happening in our world and what we intend to do about it. In the case of the above example, in which a major metropolitan area is served by only two newspapers, typically one is conservative in political persuasion and the other is liberal. In other words, both publications advocate Big Government, with little difference between their statist positions.

Web of Influence

The decades-old dominance of media channels by the old liners, is rapidly being chipped away by a technology that, in a couple short decades, has come to permeate our lives — at least those of us in industrialized countries. The Internet, in all its global glory, offers any Net citizen the capability of adding his or her voice to the cyber chorus. People can create their own websites, newsgroups, forums, mailing lists, blogs, and news syndication (RSS) feeds. There is virtually no censorship for those citizens living outside of communist countries. Even those unfortunate enough to reside behind "bamboo curtains", are constantly seeking, and occasionally discovering, clever methods for reading the information forbidden to them, and posting their own thoughts, regardless of how politically inflammatory or dangerous they may be.

This is truly an alternative media. People can learn what they want, when they want, and disagree actively as much as they like. Without question, the Internet revolution is equal in significance to the invention of the printing press, which allowed people to disseminate news and opinions that earlier had been controlled and filtered by the information gatekeepers in monasteries. Why is the Internet revolution so much more significant than the introductions of TV and radio? Because it is two-way communication. No longer are the listeners and viewers merely passive participants, but instead can react and proactively report news not deemed important or politically correct by the Big Media, or even known by them. This allows the people to bypass the decades-long chokehold on information distribution by traditional outlets. It is turning "we the masses" into "we the media".

Consider only one aspect of Internet-based media — blogs (short for "web logs"). Blogs are periodically updated journals that provide online commentary with minimal or no external filtering. They are typically structured as a set of "posts" in reverse chronological order, with each post composed of news or commentary, oftentimes the personal opinions of the "blogger". The entries can include links to other websites, enabling the blogger to utilize the content of the entire Web. Blogs can function as personal diaries, political soapboxes, advice columns on finance, and more. Their number has grown at an astronomical rate. In 1999, the total number of blogs was estimated to be around 50; five years later, the estimates ranged from 2.4 million to 4.1 million. By 2005, it was estimated at more than 50 million.

The political power of active New Media participants, is substantial and growing. Again, consider just the impact of blogs on U.S. politics. Several years ago, bloggers were awarded press credentials to cover the national political conventions, for the first time. The top five political blogs together now attract over half a million visitors per day. The "blogosphere" (the combination of all blogs) is now considered by many decision makers in the highest echelons of government, to be timely and invaluable gauges of the current political mood within the country. Political journalists and pundits are also using blogs to track what the citizenry considered to be the most important issues of the day. The more progressive-thinking journalists are adapting to this challenge, rather than denying the threat.

What are the advantages of blogs over more traditional forms of journalism? They are typically faster to market with news, because they bypass the review, editing, and approval of any editor or publisher. Similar to a live video feed, they can be created as the event happens. Technical and press conference attendees are increasingly contributing to their blogs via laptops with Wi-Fi connections to the Internet. There are already publicized cases of such bloggers receiving information from people outside the event, and being able to utilize that fresh information in a question to the speaker, before the speaker has even finished his speech.

Internet self-publishing — whether as websites, online journals, or blogs — are transforming the news from a lecture into a conversation, and generating faster feedback to all participants. They allow consumers of the news to become producers. In the case of blogs, the publication is done in real time, to a global audience that has opted in to read the independent and unadulterated reports of news all over the world. Even a simple Web-enabled cell phone can allow two-way Internet publishing.

People unfamiliar with the Internet sometimes assume that anyone signing up to read New Media output will be inundated with unwanted or irrelevant material — not unlike the spam that fills there e-mail in-boxes. Fortunately, the power to flood is made possible only by mechanisms that give one the power to filter. For instance, several blogs are now emerging as top-quality consolidators of other blogs, thereby helping to separate the wheat from the chaff. In the realm of news syndication, users of RSS aggregators can specify which news feeds they want to sign up for, and which entries in those feeds they actually want to receive. The freedom to control what type of information is received, is an elemental aspect of sustainable and valued media.

At the same time that people are increasingly utilizing the Web for learning the latest news — and telling others what news they think is important, through their blogs — they are also using it for meeting other people with similar interests. Online social networks, such as MySpace and Facebook, have captured the interest and eyeballs of millions of members, who can post pictures, blog entries, links to friends within their network, etc. With page customization, each member's page is effectively a personal website — freely hosted, and yet with less advertising than the free hosting services used in the 1990s for creating personal sites.

Free Media in Free Markets

At this point in our ongoing Information Age, the Internet is the most private, free-market of all media platforms. In many ways it stands in stark contrast to Big Media, which is traditionally owned by powerful multinationals controlling information (and propaganda and advertising) to the tune of millions of people and billions of dollars. Consequently, old line media giants more resemble governments than community journals or centers of discourse. The Internet, despite its similar global reach, is actually more community-oriented, because it is a free platform that allows communities to flourish within its sphere, with participants quickly gravitating to those communities that best serve their interests.

The Internet allows us to find free information offerings at all levels — from a single blog written by an individual, to a virtual media network featuring hundreds of essays, streaming audio interviews, and streaming video presentations. Online news networks can reach people all over the globe, 24 hours a day. Staff members do not have to be working round-the-clock to provide content on a "push basis" (as with traditional businesses), but instead can post resources on the organization's website whenever they are ready, and allow viewers to "pull" those resources whenever and as frequently as they wish.

While we honor the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, there is more to "Free Media" than freedom of the press, though that is essential. It is the freedom and ability of all to participate in news gathering, dissemination, and evaluation. This is the ultimate free-market solution to the decades-old public problem of Big Media filtering and manipulating the information we need to make decisions. The key to all of this is the Internet. Internet-powered media are slowly yet inexorably replacing — or at least significantly complementing and perhaps eventually displacing — the collection of TV networks and other traditional news distributors. Big Media has been put on notice, and will need to move faster than the dinosaurs in order to survive this tremendous upheaval in how we gain and create the news of our world.

The revolution may or may not be televised, but it will be blogged.

Copyright © 2004, 2008 Michael J. Ross. All rights reserved.

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