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Farewell Information, it's a Media Age

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Paul Saffo
Director, Institute for the Future
Friday, June 23, 2006; 11:00 AM

Futurist Paul Saffo recently wrote in his essay(pdf) that "the Web is at the center of an emergent Personal Media revolution in the same way TV in the 1950s was at the center of the Mass Media revolution that shaped the latter half of the 20th Century." What will come of this is a new social dynamic "for shared knowledge and information [which] is the glue that holds civil society together"?

Paul Saffo, director of the Institute for the Future is a forecaster and strategist exploring long-term technological change and its practical impact on business and society. He serves as a Consulting Associate Professor at Stanford's School of Engineering and is a Fellow at the Royal Swedish Academy of Engineering Sciences. His essays have appeared in The Washington Post and other publications such as Business 2.0, Fortune, The Harvard Business Review, The Los Angeles Times, Newsweek, The New York Times and Wired.

About this series: Beyond the Future is a weeklong series of live Web chats with noted experts and Washington Post reporters examining the kinds of technological advancements the world could see in 20, 50 or even 100 years. Related news on the subject can be found on the Science and Tech Frontier pages of washingtonpost.com.

A transcript follows.

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Paul Saffo: So, my take is that everything predicted by enthusiasts during the bubble -- and then dismissed when the bubble burst-- is arriving late and in unexpected ways. This revolution is every bit as big as expected, but it isn't an information revolution at all. It is a media revolution, and moreover, a shift omparable to the arrival of TV in the 1950s

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Houston, Tex.: Do you think that technology is a leading cause of social change or major technology trends are caused by new social needs?

Paul Saffo: It is a bit of both. First we invent our technologies, and then we turn around and use the tecchnologies to reinvent ourselves -- as individuals, as communities and ultimately as entire cultures.

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Fairfax, Va.: I would argue that as a result of our continuing "breakthroughs" in technology that one major net loss is "think time". Instead of having the time and ability to really think about a complex problem, we appear to more and more require and be required to provide instant answers and instant gratification. While it can be argued that we have more information available to us, can we really say that we are receiving quantity and quality in information or just quantity? Is this the future?

Paul Saffo: I so agree! I think the problem is the hidden time-tax of time-switching, not the taxks themselves. For ex, if I have 6 tasks to do in an hour, common sense says that I have 10 minutes for each task. BUT... the hidden part is the time spent switching between tasks... and I'll bet it is about 3-5minutes per switch, so that means that if I am to do the 6 tasks in 1 hour, I really have only 5 minutes or so between task...

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Houston, Tex.: I am a professional business owner who can no longer work due to my obsession about these topics. I have so obsessed over this that I have lost 75% of my income due to working on scripts and reading and reseaching this topic. Can you tell me if there is a place for me in your business? I want to work someplace in this field.

Paul Saffo: Well, actually, Houston is a great place to be because there is a terrific futures studies program at the univ of houston Clearlake. I suggest you network with the faculty there to start exploring. More generally, I advise against going into futures work exclusively, as I think the whole futures field is going to disappear as a stand-alone discipline over the next decade. Futurists will be busier than ever, but they will be embedded into other organizations and businesses

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Los Angeles, Calif.: What do you think of the role of technology in film and entertainment? Seems that filmmakers have more options to have their films made and seen via the likes of YouTube and vMix. Even film festival like the "third screen film festival" are getting in on the action giving filmmakers more visibility. Even viewers, more than ever, are demanding where and when they want to watch their entertainment choices i.e. cell phones, iPods. Do you think technology has put give the people more power and more choices?

Paul Saffo: The role is utterly huge, and comparable to the impact TV had on films in the 1950s. Back then TV displaced the big screen as our visual habit, and hollywood had to go from delivering films feeding a weekly habit to bigger films serving a new taste for less-frequent movie visits.

This time it is the tiny screen of cellywood that is going to be most full of surprises...

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Reston, VA: Will there be any privacy or personal space left in this brave new world? What will be the impact on society as a whole?

Paul Saffo: Well, some years ago, Scott McNealy of Sun tartly observed, "Privacy -- get over it." His comment was a bit bleak, but the trajectory may be correct. Even leaving out all the terrorist hysteria and the astounding over-reaching by various govt authorities, technology would be erasing traditional notions of privacy.

We worry about Big Brother, but personally, I am much more worried about lots of internet-empowered Little Brothers snooping around...

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Arlington, Va.: With consumers increasingly getting their news online instead of from newspapers or the networks, and cable TV atomizing the viewing audience, will the mass media survive, and in what form?

Paul Saffo: Mass media is certainly in freefall, but it won't disappear. Rather, it will reinvent itself to fit into the new order. This is how it always happens -- there is an intrinsic convervation of media in which nothing ever disappears. Typewriters didn't eliminate the pen, tv didn't kill movies or radio, and computers won't obsolete paper.

So though there will be some spectacular shifts and extinctions of very specific media forms -- think the end of the photo-weeklies like Look and Life in the 60s/70s-- and some spectacular company failures and mergers, at the end of the day, I think the media giants that remain will be bigger than ever, but they will get big in a new way: by giving platforms to small players.

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Arlington, Va.: Paul -- do you believe in the "Web 2.0" hype? That new Web based technologies will totally tranform our lives?

Paul Saffo: Web 2.0 is certainly hype, but it is constructive hype because it focuses people's minds on the fact that the web is still growing and evolving and we need to think about what it becomes so we can help shape it in the right way.

Hype generally is not a bug, but a feature, to use a phrase frequently heard here in silicon valley

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Guangzhou, China: The Mass Media seems to thrive to an enough degree. Will any new innovative forms of Media emerge in the future?

Paul Saffo: Absolutely! This is a moment when we will see a host of new media forms. Instant messaging... MMORPGs like Everquest and Second Life are just two examples of new forms that have already appeared. Oh, and of course blogs! Blogs are hugely powerful, but mutating rapidly into something even newer

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Tallahassee, Fla.: I'm disturbed by the erosion of the concept of "the commons". Not only are Americans unable seemingly to agree on solutions to problems, or on identification of problems, but increasingly also on "facts". Witness the belief by some, based on what they watch and read, that "the WMDs have been found".

Do you see a way out of this conundrum? Are smart people thinking about how we'll sustain at least a minimal commonality of understanding as information providers multiply?

Paul Saffo: I share your concern. With the shift from mass to personal media, we lose an intellectual commons. Once upon a time, Americans all watched one of a few news shows (and they all trusted Walter Cornkite) -- that was the basis for common conversation. Now everyone is reading just the stuff that reinforces their pre-exisitng biases and the common space is disappearing. It reminds mf of the refrain in an old Emerson Lake and Palmer song: "Everyone came, but they all sat alone..."

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Washington, D.C.: What about the folks left behind? Unlike the switch from radio to TV, many jobs these days require you to have some skill with computers etc. How does this cultural shift impact those people who may not be computer/media/digitally-literate?

Paul Saffo: Revolutions are always hardest on ordinary people, and this revolution is no different. Well, actually, it may be a bit beter than other revolutions because the rlentless economics of Moore's Law means that today's expensive computer will be tomorrows give-away. And access to tools is critical. Which is why I love what Nick Negroponte is doing to build a robust $100 computer for the developing world.

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Washington, D.C.: What are your thoughts on current developments in print media? I've heard now that Post journalists are now being asked to carry cameras to take digital photos and video, for example.

Paul Saffo: It is a tough time for print media reporters. Once upon a time the daily news business produly considered itself the fast-reactors to events. But now bloggers are reacting even more quickly and editors at the dailies are all putting pressure on their staffs to match the sprinting of the blogosphere (oh, how I hate that term). And that means not just faster, but more media forms.

The good news is that some reporters are discovering their true voice with video. Look at David Pogue's videos on the times site -- very elegant. So this is a new star-making machine like the shift fromsilent films to talkies. New reporter stars will emerge.

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Arlington, Va.: What role do you see for news editors in the future? Will newspapers and other providers simply put out content in RSS feeds, letting readers decide what's important to them?

Paul Saffo: Bigger and more challenging roles, definitely. ANd part of that role will be teaching the public how to become sensible editors/consumers of media

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Laurel, Md.: Many people to a greater or lesser degree believe that the standards and paradigms of professional journalism today lean left in some sense. For instance, the Matthew Sheppard killing is indicative of societal attitudes about gays that need changing; but AIDS has to be portrayed as a universal problem not concentrated in that community.

Is the availability of media to anyone who cares to write having an effect on the ability to gatekeep news?

Paul Saffo: Personally I don't think there is a leftwards leanding, so muh as a clustering at the extremes. The biggest shift was to the right (e.g. Fox News) over the last decade, which was met by a shift of others to the left (Salon, Air America). Waht is missing is reportage that attempts to stay in the sensible middle. But the middle is unappealing because sensible level-headed reporting doesn't sell ads. So with the exception of the NewsHour and some other public radio/broadcasting programs, the middle is empty.

There is an old saying in Washington: there is no such thing as a raging moderate. Well, I think the new opportunity is for news professionals to stake out the middle ground as raging moderates willing to take on the extremists on both left and right who are causing so much havoc.

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Oxford, U.K.: Let's talk a bit more about blogs. In your opinion, are they still the 'outsider' platform for unheard grassroots voices, or are they now merely another way into the system (witness the 'first annual YearlyKos convention' of late)?

Paul Saffo: I lvoe the observation -- nothing annoys bloggers than telling them that they are mainstream. Blogging today reminds me a bit of desktop publishing back in the late 1980s. Many of the players are a bit giddy about changing the world, changing the rules, etc. This is how media revolutionaries always feel at first, but a decade or so later, their statements look as ridiculous as looking back at fashion fads a decade later. Blogs today are a trainsitional stage in a whole new media form. It will become mainstream... it will develop social and reportorial conventions, and these will come out of today's period of wild experimentation. But some bloggers hsould beware, as their flighte of enthusiasm today may one day look as dated as a Nehru jacket or doubleknit trousers. And unlike old clothes, one can't hide one's excesses by shipping htem to Goodwill...

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Arlington, Va.: How does this issue play into how we get our news. Now that the news we receive is so customizable online and in the recent proliferation of niche magazines, is there a concern that we're reading the news we want to see, as opposed to the news that we perhaps "should see." Has the proliferation of bloggers and tailored media outlets made us more exposed to different ideas and sources of news, or less?

Paul Saffo: you put your finger on what I think is the great social question of our age. How do we create a common dialogue in an age of massively personal media? I wasn't at the Kosvention in Las Vegas, but I certainly hope this topic was discussed.

Meanwhile, I suspect that this loss of a news commons is actually one of the forces weakining the bonds of the United States. The US may not exist as a nation in a meaningful way 50 years from now, and personal media may be one of the causes of this . BTW, for more on the future of the us as a nation, check out the book "The Untied States" by Juan Enriquez -- very provocative.

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Munich, Germany: As far as "Getting over privacy" is concerned, as more data is accumulated on my Internet viewing habits and as more household chores and activities become wired, won't more and more of my habits be scrutinized and analyzed?

Will modern man be at the mercy of professional psychologists, who, by analyzing our online activities, will have a greater chance of success at selling us some object or persuading us of some political or religious concept?

Paul Saffo: It certainly seems where things are heading. And scrutiny by commercial entities interested in buying patterns, etc scares me more than snoopy governments. Consumers in the US at least seem strangely indifferent to corporate snooping -- they may omplain, but when it becomes evident that the consumer is getting some benefit (no matter how small), they generally happily spill their deepest secrets.

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Upstate N.Y.: "Farewell Information, it's a Media Age" - can it be assumed that 'media' is essentially the packaging of information to make it more digestible? Which, in order to appeal as widely as possible, typically means diluting information as much as possible?

Paul Saffo: Well stated, though I take an anthropological view: Media is information after it is embedded into our lives. When something is new, we spend all our time talking about it -- but once it becomes part of our lives, we don't notice it. For ex, back in the '80s, PCs were a big deal and everybody was remarking about their PC. Today only nerds will tell you about their new PC; normal people don't even notice that they have a pc anymore. It is like phones -- no one even notices a phone in a room unless it rings. Or they notice it if it is missing be someone has opted for cellular only.

BTW, being a nerd, I have to say how much I love my new 13-inch MacBook. I've used computers for decades (I've had an email address on my business card since the early '80s) and thus am a bit indifferent about hardware, but Apple's new machines are astoundingly good.

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Paul Saffo: BTW, if anyone wants to read my essay on media, it is at:

http://www.saffo.com/essays/essay_farewellinfo.pdf

and there is also other stuff on my site (www.saffo.com) that touches on the topic and other technologies. I don't blog, but I do keep an online journal with short observations about what is happening -- just click on "journal" on my site.

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washingtonpost.com: Farewell Information, It's a Media Age

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Bethesda, Md.: Do you envision each of us having a option setting on our news with which we can designate what our desired truth-vs-tellmewhatIwanttohear balance is? For instance, a Fox viewer can keep hearing that the Iraqi Civil War is somehow related to the war on terror, while a PBS viewer can have his coverage of the president's remarks point out that only 5-10% of the insurgents are foreign fighters. What a split-reality populace that could make for. Oh wait, we have that already.

Paul Saffo: This sounds like the start of a cool product idea! I want a slider on my browser where I can go from hard left to hard right with the same program. Imagine, say, Jon Stewart (or, better, Rush L!) walking away and the slant changing in real time as I pull the slider back and forth...

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Paul Saffo: oops! I meant "talking away" (not "walking away") on that last post.

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Paul Saffo: Well, great to hang with y'all. I really enjoyed the questions and insights, and would love to hear about any weird and interesting media phenomena you observe; just send me an email (my address is on my site).

best

-p

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