Tuesday, April 1, 2008

April is the cruelest month

In explaining the rationale for the MIT Media Lab, founder Nicholas Negroponte used to show a slide of a Venn diagram, three overlapping circles labelled Computing, Broadcasting & Communication, and Publishing & Print. The idea was to convey the inevitable convergence of these three then distinct forms of communication.

Twenty years later, this seems almost laughable, as the overlap of these domains is so complete and obvious. Unfortunately, the result of this convergence is that all communications have sunk to the lowest level of the three ... TV. Former FCC Chairman Newton Minow declared TV to be "a vast wasteland," and this has become true of the Web as well. Essentially, the Web has adopted the business model of TV: put some crap out there to get people watching, and making money by putting ads in their faces.

This has much to do with the history of the medium. Telephones and wires were proprietary from the get-go. Phone companies could charge you for the service, so they had no need to be in the content business. Businesses and residents alike would pay just for access to the communication medium.

TV, broadcast over the air, couldn't really charge for access, and so had to fall back to the sponsorship model, whether from commercials or the public. To maximize profits, networks had to reach the widest possible audience, and programming went from short-lived urbane programming to bland, inoffensive pablum that could be digested anywhere. This is the wasteland of which Minow spoke.

Later CATV and cable reverted to the pay-for-access model. The result: Exciting programming like The Sopranos, Sex and the City, and Six Feet Under. And that's just the S's!

Interestingly, although Internet service providers have always charged for access, the Web itself still appears to be in a broadcast model. Net neutrality advocates have strongly opposed any attempts by government or ISPs to regulate content, and rightly so. Certainly the Internet as we know it should fulfill the promise of cheap, unrestricted access for anyone to publish content for anyone who will access it.

But maybe there's also room for an alternative, a somewhat more restrictive network that could offer things like secure, spam-free email, ad-free browsing, and maybe a pay-for-content model that would allow good (i.e., successful at attracting an audience) creations to flourish.

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