Sunday, January 22, 2012

The Sands of Time

Last week's very public, very digital confrontation over SOPA and PIPA may well have marked the moment when the "digitally dependent" drew a line in the sand and declared "here you may tread, but no further." And America's politicians, ever the facile navigators, hoisted their sails to run swiftly before the prevailing winds of public opinion. In this instance I approve of their self-serving agility.  The bills address issues of import, but both were penned by the lobbyists of the same dog in the fight - big content. Rupert Murdock's craggy visage became, no doubt to the horror of Hollywood's sleek elite, the poster child for "fighting Internet piracy."  The plucky hobbits arrayed against this Sauron of the cinema were the youthful scions of the united wiki-worlds, the google-eyed champions of the keyboard-tapping children of a brave new world.

It is probably not that simple. Despite the narrative clarity offered by depicting this conflict as being one of young versus old, that is an analogy which in itself affirms a misconception I feel driven to dispel: The sands in which this line has been drawn are not the sands of time; this battle is not, despite appearances, at its core generational.  It is about the nature of the media, and the conflict is evolutionary, not revolutionary.

"The media" themselves have always been rather mundane containers: a flat space on the cave wall, a plane of rough paper, canvas or wood, grooves on a spinning disk, and now pixels on a glowing screen, vibrations in the air.  The tools of communication have always been inert products, clever constructions of capable machinists and engineers.  They are animated only by the magic of human communicative intent.  When they come to contain and distribute the product of human minds and imaginations, then they acquire value because then they enable art and artifice, power and profit.

Mature media are those containers that have come to dominate the manifestation, distribution and marketing of those contents, contents that enable the acquisition power and profit through the distribution of information, influence and entertainment; their contents define the broad sweep of the culture in which they exist. Cave paintings, symbols on stone and mud, papyrus, paper, illuminated images dancing on silver screens, electrical bursts fleeing along copper strands, cathode ray tubes, all these containers - and the companies that controlled them - have had their days of dominance. None passed the torch willingly.  In every era the guilds, unions, and corporations whose power and profits depended on the dominance of a particular container sought - usually by seeking the succor of the current crop of rulers - protection from emerging forms of containers.  Old media companies always oppose new media companies unless they can co-opt them and maintain their hard won place in the world of power and profit. The current hue and cry over SOPA and PIPA is the latest iteration of the grinding of gears and the gnashing of teeth that have forever accompanied the inevitable turning of the wheels of change.

What concerns me in the current discussion of the nature and mandate of the media, of the nuances of our immediate transition into "digitally contained culture," is the increasing presence of a new "elephant in the room."  We have a grand tradition in American cultural discourse of choosing to - if I might invent a word - "obliqueocize" important but uncomfortable issues.  Race, gender and sexual preference or identity have all been genteelly ignored while people at the "adult table" blithely made paternalistic policy for "the kids in the next room."  I would like to draw our attention to another group of "OAs" -  "obliqueocized Americans" - folks over 55.  That is 25% of the population, with a disproportionate amount of leisure time and expendable income.  I suppose there are certain businesses and industries that can ignore that demographic group - we don't buy a lot of hip-hop music or toy helicopters that we control with our cellphones.  We shouldn't buy spandex.  But the seeming marginalization of those over 55 by the new media moguls is a significant strategic faux pas.  Finding references to seniors in tech-based advertising, websites or other dominant forms of digital content is a lot like trying to find people of color or women outside a kitchen in 1960s TV – “Oh, look there’s one! Aren’t they cute?”  Now, as then, a huge resource, and a huge market are being overlooked.

The FacewikiTweet+ demonstration of online political moxie demonstrated by the technorati blunting, at least for the moment, SOPA and PIPA should not persuade those actively shaping the digital environment that they have got it right.  Actually, they aren't even asking the right questions.  You don't know the world better by simply knowing it faster, by just keeping the systems open and speedy. That notion is so 27 seconds ago.  There is a difference between successful media and mature media – and you can have one without the other.  Successful media generate revenue, sometimes massive amounts of it as reflected in the economic muscle of Google and Facebook. Sometimes the money is accumulated by profiting unethically or illegally from the work of others like the folks at Megaupload or Pirate Bay demonstrate, and the legitimate commercialized web, with its high profile start-ups and publicized IPOs, certainly gives more than passing kudos to acquisitiveness.  But despite the cool T-shirts, the person who dies with the most toys doesn't really win, they just die like everyone else, only a little more foolishly.  Bling doesn't do much for a casket, and often trivializes the significance of its contents.

The point is this, mature media are those that enable, distribute and archive the wisdom of the culture in which they exist.  Despite their current fixation with the quick and the glib, there is certainly nothing to prevent today's new media from maturing.  Examples may already exist, they just haven't been in existence long enough to demonstrate that they will have lasting cultural legitimacy.  It is inevitable that today's new media will become tomorrow's old media.  But the mantle of tomorrow's mature media is not inevitable, just as wisdom itself is not mandated by age. Both require effort and study.  Without effort and study we simply grow old.  My hope is that new media will seek new ways to address and benefit from more mature audiences – our cultural reservoirs of wisdom and literacy - and that those mature audiences will find creative ways to return the favor by taking a more active and attentive role in the development of the next iteration of mature media.

1 comment:

  1. "My hope is that new media will seek new ways to address and benefit from more mature audiences" I agree, even just from my point of view with Facebook. I have many cousin's in middle school and younger that have entered false information to get a profile. Most of them have been deleted because of the vulgar language and inappropriate comments I've read that they've posted.