You and Andy Warhol fighting for bandwidth

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You can get more money or more stuff. But you can’t get more time. Or so the old adage goes. And it’s true; despite modern health care, we’re only here for a short time.

So it comes down to making choices about what we value. But how do we make those choices? And what influences those choices?

There’s a cool website I’ve mentioned before: www.worldometers.info. It will show you that the world’s population is growing by one person every split second. By the time I finished writing this sentence and checking the site again the world’s population had grown by 325 people. There are a lot of new customers out there.

Worldometers tells us that there have already been 180,263 new book titles published so far this year—that in just a little over two months. It seems that since the advent of the personal computer everyone is a writer. Given that maybe only one in 10,000 manuscripts gets published, how can the poor editor choose the best manuscripts, and worse yet, how can the hapless reader choose a single good book from this tidal wave of publishing?

In 2004 the New York Times reported: “Everyone is reading the same 20 books,” Paul Slovak, the associate publisher of Viking, complains—a problem most attribute to the shrinking press coverage for new books. “It's become a winner-take-all situation.”

This year alone the world audience will have a choice of over 1 million new titles, and yet only 20 books will hit it big. Those are pretty poor odds for a writer. No wonder an endorsement from Oprah is so important. Her choice makes the difference between the remaindered bin and a best seller.

But why is Oprah’s selection any more valuable than, say, yours? No surprise. Oprah has access to bandwidth. By bandwidth, I mean a very large pipeline to the public.

As most of us know, bandwidth is a technical electronics term for the carrying capacity of a communications system. Thin telephone wires of have a bandwidth limit, or a limit to the amount of data that can be pushed through that narrow pipe. Engineers work hard to design work-around solutions to increase the carrying capacity of existing wires—so we can get more information into hour homes.

Today’s telephone system runs on basically the same wires it did 50 years ago. Yet today’s high speed service will deliver high speed internet service to two computers as well as an online movie to my Blu-Ray device and a long distance telephone call—all at the same time. Somehow that ‘twisted pair’ of phone lines got a big dose of steroids. That’s bandwidth increase.

Your brain has bandwidth, too. You can only absorb so much before your brain overloads. It’s like drinking from a fire-hose. So in today’s high-information world, we’re all forced to edit.

And there’s a tremendous amount of competition for the bandwidth that actually gets inside our heads. But that’s increasingly difficult to do in an ever-diffusing and atomized media universe in which we can choose between print, radio and TV, telephones and the galaxy of tools on the Internet—e-mail, Skype, Facebook, Twitter, blogs, websites and so on.

Not only that, we’ve become our own content generators. While just 20 years ago we sat passively in front of a TV, we now create our own things to narrowcast to the entire world. Our Facebook pages transmit our impulses, interests and idiosyncrasies, minute-by-minute to anyone who’s watching.

All our history, all our present and much of our future plans are available online. There is so much weird and wonderful personal creativity on the Net that it makes Andy Warhol look like a rank amateur. But for the fact that he’s famous, he’d barely be noticed today.

That said, we’re now awash in information no one actually wants—or knows how to process. What happens to a global society in which the communications bandwidth is completely stuffed to the max?

Well, most of it becomes irrelevant. Like Warhol—or the 20 best selling novels this year—only a handful of mega-brands will sell. Last year’s best seller was Stieg Larsson. Next year, who knows?

Ironically, even though we’ve never before had so much choice—from communication to travel destinations to consumer products—we’re more susceptible than ever to group behaviour. Our massively interlinked communications networks may actually amplify the effects of mass behaviour, rather than increase personal choice.

What we are losing over time are qualified, independent arbiters of choice, that is, the people we can trust to help us make informed choices. Sure, these reviewers still exist. But there’s no way they can keep up with the tidal wave. They’re drowning and disappearing. Only big corporate interests have the complex systems necessary to keep up with trends and exploit them. And this includes big governments.

Their well-funded special interest agencies—aimed at reshaping the messages—are now filling up our bandwidth. We’ve successfully moved from Andy Warhol’s experimental world to Glenn Beck’s one-dimensional universe. Unfortunately, that adds up to a few big influences and a whole lot of noise.

Comments

  1. YOU HAVE TO WATCH 'EXIT THROUGH THE GIFT SHOP'!

    You'll like it. Really.

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  2. Yes, I'll have to give it a view. You've mentioned it before, the Banksy movie. I'll also have to figure out how it fits into the context of this week's column...

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  3. And for those interested and don't want to sit through the entire movie, here's a decent review. (So Banksy's on about ethics in art and a gullible public...and filling up every available public space (the bandwidth of the commons) with creative expression. Thanks Dar...

    http://www.cbc.ca/news/arts/film/story/2010/05/06/f-banksy-exit-through-the-gift-shop.html

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  4. What movie to see, television program to watch, or book to read, is sparked by interests. This is also how I choose sites to visit on the Internet. Interests motivate the searches and with a little click, I have an almost limitless world of information readily available. Marvelous.
    I believe, and I have a feeling I’m not alone, that the Internet has shifted our civilization’s collective mindset. As the space and pace of online technology increases and propagates more deeply into worldwide communities, tribes, and cultures, the sharing of ideas, the easy and low cost availability of education, the broadening of horizons and the widening of opportunity can create new desires in people.
    We as Web users, must employ, emphasize, and embody those prime attributes of consciousness, being awake and aware, in our online presence, our communication, our e-commerce, and our media offerings. Conscious Internet Visibility may range from Twittering during the protests in Iran to MIT putting courses online free, from massive aid marshalled amazingly fast as news of the disaster flies worldwide on electronic wings, as customers rant and business responds in hyper-realtime.
    It’s the truth that sets you free, it’s the story that you tell so you’re no longer a stranger, its blog posts that receives comments that start a connections that inspire more comments and a web forms that brings humanity emergent, evolving, connecting, and enriching together.

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  5. I couldn't agree more. The new media is everything you say, and as McLuhan would say, the medium is shaping the message—and, our behaviour. The new global interconnectedness does build new instant relationships, and I particularly like the altruism (free MIT courses and the like) that springs up from this new well-spring.

    What I'm trying to reconcile in my own mind is the overlap of technologies, especially communications technologies, and the effects on mass group behaviour.

    What we're losing is as interesting as what we're gaining. On the loss side, we're seeing the declining influence of authoritative broadcast and print news—especially with the younger generation. That means we're becoming diffused as a society, so while instant networks can form more freely, instant response to major events may be slower. (Even 10 years ago, most people were connected almost full time to television networks. Not so today.)

    So the things that shape society's behaviour are viral (networked) rather than instrumental (on a broadcast mechanism with only three competing sources).

    Big corporations are adapting rapidly to the new viral mode. The problem is, viral methods of communication are not authoritative, they aren't necessarily vetted by experts or fact-checkers. So we can easily fall victim to all kinds of Faux News...

    These trends are, of course, patterns, and not likely of interest to ordinary people, who are just happy to have more good media tools to play with. But I am sure sociologists must be having a field day with this, or should be...

    The times they are a-changin'. As always!

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  6. Since the beginning of communications, any communications, ruling interests have highjacked the medium (whatever the medium was) to shape the message to their ends.
    What is of concern to me, is the fact that the concept of ethics and moral behaviour are alien concepts in young people’s minds. Neither seems to be part of the modern school curriculum. When I questioned highschoolers on these issues they said, that they did not know what I meant. When questioned if it was moraly objectionable to tell a deliberate lie, or steal in order to gain an avantage, the answer was that there was nothing wrong as long as nobody was caught, after all isn’t this what Wall Street and Washington do all the time? The message starts with us no matter who is the messenger.

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  7. Yes. Now we're talking about a more fundamental structure: ethics. That's the thing about the old print-broadcast arrangement. It was so publicly visible it HAD to conform to ethical standards. Walter Cronkite and Dan Rather aren't the same source material as Glenn Beck.

    Outside of media, I don't really have a wide connection with youth, especially American youth—though I get a snapshot when my kids tune into old TV shows on Netflix (we don't have regular TV in the house). But I suspect you're right. Moral atomization is happening as rapidly as media atomization... and the two trends are linked.

    "Situational ethics" or expediency truly becomes the rule of the day when business models are the foundations of a society. (Business has no ethics. It is merely obliged to obey the law, and to find the holes or advantages in the law to assist in profit-making.)

    So, yes again. The message does start with us. How do we begin to practice ethical consistency in a media environment that is so inconsistent?

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  8. There's a connection just beyond the framing of art/media. Reading a review will not tell the story of the movie more than a book review is reading novel. Besides, here I am on the internet trying to recommend a brilliant independent film-- isn't that what this entry is about? :P

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  9. Sure, instant access to media is what this entry is about. It is also about the effects of new media—as in short-circuiting actual reflection (e.g. reading a quick review instead watching an entire move)—and the atomization of attention span along with in-depth discourse.

    The review, however, did give me a more or less authoritative outside opinion of the movie, which I found valuable. So the new media can deliver old newspaper columns, which broadens access to quality information (to Ms. E's point earlier).

    On a personal note, I've got 4 kids at home on March Break, I'm a hour and a half from the nearest movie theatre, the theatre only shows commercial, first-run stuff, and "Exit Through..." is not available on Netflix yet. So, until I find the time to find it on a crap, low-grade online vid site, it'll have to wait.

    Meanwhile, other things will fill my bandwidth. But thanks. Your suggestion and the review gave me good place-markers for the movie, which I do intend to check out.

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