g r o t t o 1 1

Peeve Farm
Breeding peeves for show, not just to keep as pets
Brian Tiemann
Silicon Valley-based purveyor of a confusing mixture of Apple punditry and political bile.

btman at grotto11 dot com

Read These Too:

USS Clueless
James Lileks
Little Green Footballs
As the Apple Turns
Cold Fury
Capitalist Lion
Red Letter Day
Eric S. Raymond
Tal G in Jerusalem
Secular Islam
Aziz Poonawalla
Corsair the Rational Pirate
Ravishing Light
Cartago Delenda Est

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Wednesday, December 22, 2004
11:29 - Things you never knew you never knew

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Well, I guess this little item is thought-provoking, if nothing else. Nicely put together. Well conceived. I'm just not sure it actually says anything, though.

The premise being that a combination of Google, Amazon.com, blogs, and "social networks" like Friendster will join forces in the very near future to drive both traditional software makers (e.g. Microsoft) and, more importantly, the "fourth estate" of the major media, out of business. The New York Times, by the year 2014, is supposed to go offline in protest against Google-ified bot-generated news and become a newsletter for "the elite and the elderly". And EPIC, a collaborative reporting medium and collective consciousness driven by billions of people with blogs and cellphones and vast automated filter-bots, will rule all.

As a piece of speculative "future history", it's an interesting little mental jaunt—but not a very visionary one, I'm afraid. It's a good synthesis of events up till the present day, but then it sort of loses its footing and starts casting about in surprising directions. Googlezon? For all its purported heaviness, it doesn't seem to really have a good understanding of what ingredients make up the modern Internet, and what trends are showing themselves to be the things that will shape our lives in years to come.

The piece identifies blogs as a revolutionary tool giving voice to people as content creators rather than consumers, all right—that's all well and good. But then it shoves that aside in favor of automated filtering networks like Google News and Microsoft's Newsbot, which are "edited solely by computers", to the chagrin of the human-owned media. Apparently, we're supposed to be clambering on board the emotionless filtered news-clipping feeds of Google and Microsoft and bailing out of the traditional media outlets, both global and local, and why? Because, evidently, coupled with social networks like Friendster, all news can be tailored to us individually by computers that know our search histories, personal details, buying habits, and friends' vital statistics.

An interesting idea. But I see no evidence that it's happening. Didn't Friendster go out of business or something? I certainly don't hear many people talk about it anymore, except to make fun of it—that and Orkut. Remember Orkut? Me neither. And who actually reads Google News, for any reason other than to castigate its nonhuman editors for including "news sources" like Democratic Underground? I've never even heard of Newsbot.

Here's a dirty little secret about news organizations that the author of this piece doesn't seem to grasp: People like bias. They may not say so, but they do. Why do you think even the most non-editorialized of coverage of news stories always includes on-the-spot quotations from passersby or people involved in the situation? It's so the news story can tell the reader how to feel about it, without being explicitly editorial. These people feel this way about this fire or that murder or the other political maneuver. The reader doesn't think in these terms, but when he reads the quoted feelings of people on the ground, he thinks, "Okay, so I'll feel that way about these cold facts too"—or, less frequently but just as importantly, "I don't agree with how this quoted person feels, so I'll develop a strong opinion about this matter." This isn't a matter of agenda, it's a critical background of context that must be had—otherwise how do we interpret a column of numbers? Without knowing how people are reacting to a development, we as humans don't know how we should react ourselves. This isn't a failing, it's part of who we are. Why do you think people read blogs? It's because we crave to have our news reported with a ready-made layer of analysis and opinion, so we know how to feel about it. We construct elaborate filters made up of the bloggers and commentators whose worldviews we find compelling, and while I hesitate to say we're all dittoheads (I don't think we are), we engage ourselves in a news story by catching that first whiff of either enthusiasm or annoyance in the voice of whoever's reporting it, and tailor our expectations accordingly. It's how we're constructed to operate. We humans are tribal in nature; we seek out tribes to ally with. Not one of us can exist without ideological compatriots; we'd go mad. Suppose a person were raised in a Skinner box with nothing but totally unbiased news reports fed to him for a period of years. Can you imagine what kind of politics such a person might develop? He'd be all over the map. He'd develop all kinds of wild theories. Without other like-minded people to bounce ideas off of, and to point out perspectives he hasn't thought of and historical examples of why certain things don't work, you'd end up with an anarchist-Marxist, or a Hitlerian environmentalist, or a free-market absolutist who wants to kill everyone not fluent in Ancient Greek. No moral compass, no historical perspective, no personal investment, no global or local familiarity by which to tailor one's opinions. And why do we follow the news if not to form opinions?

Eric Hoffer, according to a piece of fortuitous spam I just received, said that "When people are free to do as they please, they usually imitate each other." (Is that a testimonial for the bright future of spam as a consciousness-elevating infrastructure?)

This EPIC story overstates people's willingness to put up with news as an interactive medium. Most people aren't as engaged in current events as bloggers or news junkies are. They want to know whether the world has exploded, and then go back to their lives. Google and Amazon and Friendster and such systems might change that a little, but from what we've seen thus far, they're not going to change the basic nature of humanity. And in painting a picture of a future where humanity is so engaged in the news that the news' very humanity is lost, this piece loses its handle on the very reason why we're keeping track of this stuff in the first place: to be personally and actively involved, not to entrust our consciousness to automated filters tuned to our personal preferences. It's nice when a store suggests something we might like, but if we filter out everything we don't know we like, we'll never find it.

The magic of the Internet is discovering things you never knew existed. That's going to continue to override any impulses that would create a system like this EPIC, whose purpose—whether designed that way or not—seems to be to make sure nobody ever stumbles upon something they don't like or weren't expecting. Clearly EPIC isn't presented as "utopia", but its dystopia is founded on entirely the wrong idea. In the filtered future, we won't be wrestling with trivia and erroneous information; we'll be coddled by an environment that shields us from hearing anything we don't like, which will rob us of even the desire to be content creators in the first place.

UPDATE: Lileks says this:

In a sense, blogging is so 2004. The next big thing will be videoblogs. You can fit a rudimentary TV studio in a suitcase -- a laptop, a camcorder, a few cables, and a nearby Starbucks with Wi-Fi you can leech onto to upload your reports. This too will be good. One hundred thousand pairs of eyes looking high and low, versus CBS' staring monocular orb. We'll all turn to the nets to see what they think we should think. And then we'll hit the blogs for the rest of the story.

Hmm. I keep hearing the big guys confidently predicting the rise of the videoblog; but I'm not so sure, frankly. Looking at it from a user-interface standpoint, what's the benefit of video over text? You get pictures and sound and a much richer view of what you're looking at. But what are the intractable downsides? You have to direct and edit video, for one—a badly edited video is way harder to watch than a clunky, confused essay like mine above. Text is just naturally much easier to digest, too, than even the best-edited video. If your mind wanders and you miss a sentence of what someone says in video, it's a pain to go grab the scroll knob and roll it back an indeterminate few seconds to listen to it again, and that's not counting rebuffering and video codecs and all that rot. In text, all you have to do is flick your eye back to the previous line.

And more importantly, when it's text, you can visit a blog and within two seconds know whether there are new posts or not, and within five seconds know whether the new posts are worth reading. You can skim a headline instantly. What's the equivalent ease you get with video? Um, none. You have to watch the thing in order to see what it's about, how long it will take to see it, whether it contains any information you'll find useful, and so on. How many TV news reports have you watched where you got to the end and the reporter said, "Back to you, Diane," without covering anything you were actually hoping to see? You've wasted five minutes. If it were a text blog, it would have taken you a sip and a half of Diet Coke and a stroke of the scrollwheel to process the same information. Not to mention that it probably took the author 1/1000th of the time and effort to produce it. Whence the vaunted immediacy of blog debate once it's all video? How long would it have taken a bunch of videobloggers to break the Rathergate story? A long bloody time, and much fewer people would have had the patience to pay attention to it, let alone do the actual work. Video can't achieve critical mass the way text can and has, in everything from the explosion of e-mail and the Web on forward. Text is the low-tech, low-barrier-to-entry equivalent of papyrus in the CD-ROM age: unsexy, but it'll always work, even after the power grid fails and we're all eating each other in the desert.

Besides, how are you supposed to quote a videoblog? Let's see anyone deny that quoting and cross-linking and fisking is the very heart and soul of blogging. How is that even possible with video? Think how many fiskings there would be of Fahrenheit 9/11 if it'd been text; the only big one we have is the result of one man's obsessive job at deconstructing and transcribing the points of the video into a much more malleable medium, text. Maybe I'm stubbornly refusing to be visionary enough to imagine the stream-of-consciousness, effortlessly editable VR World of Tomorrow, but video and text haven't materially changed in decades, as far as their consumption goes; I can't see that changing anytime soon. Meanwhile, text remains far more flexible and can be molded to the whims of anyone, reader or writer, hence the equalizing nature of the blog where there's essentially no disconnect between the blogger and the discourse in his comments. Once the blogger becomes a director, his readers and fellow bloggers can't respond in kind anymore. And the whole essence of blogging's collaborative nature is lost.

And let's not even get into trying to do a Google search on something someone said in a videoblog. I'll leave that as an exercise for the, um, reader.

I'm skeptical, in short, of the claims so commonly issued by Glenn and the like that videoblogging will inevitably take the place of text blogging, that it will open up huge new realms of discourse and so on. I'm sorry, but looking at it from the standpoint of an analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of the medium itself, I just don't see it. It's like how I can't quite see an iTunes for movies; the medium isn't as much of a slam-dunk. It takes a lot more shoehorning to make it fit. The discrete pieces of media aren't in such perfect, bite-sized chunks, and lack the natural, built-in organizing criteria we've come to know and love. There are benefits, but they only qualify it as an adjunct to the real steamroller of a medium that we already have, not as a new medium in itself.

We'll undoubtedly see more people posting videos, often very good ones, to support their existing text columns and blogs. But can you seriously, honestly, picture going to a blog on a daily basis whose only content was a QuickTime/WMV window that you had to click Play on to see what it had to show you today?

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© Brian Tiemann