TOC The medium needs no message Your Turn

November 27, 2007

"Names, addresses, dates of birth, bank account and national insurance numbers" concerning 25 millions Britons are among the small details lost in transit by the UK's Revenue and Customs office last month, report George Parker, Jimmy Burns and Alex Barker (*). John F. Burns tells us about how such things happen (**). "The unencrypted disks carrying [the data] were lost after the tax agency's headquarters dispatched them by mail courier to an audit office. A 10-day police search has so far failed to find the disks."

We look forward to their ultimate recovery, to be met with a Godiva reflex. Meanwhile the US Congress will have to bury its head deeper in the sand, all the while tapping credit report agencies to finance reelection campaigns next year. It is unrealistic to hope each company and government agency would narrow their id process to isolate the consequences of an id breach. This would be counter to the trend towards linking all individuals' activities to a single ID and a global personal profile, so easy to sell, so easy to steal.

ID theft provides an ostinato for these fillips. Other, less rhythmic beats enliven the partition. Such is the strike organized by the Writers Guild of America. According to Brooks Barnes (***), "[the writers are] having a great time". They also have my sympathy. Analyzing what a future deal could be, Edward Wyatt (****) tells us writers seek to link their compensation to the revenues from Internet ads associated with their content. This is a smart move if one considers how the nature of content value has shifted from intrinsic, paid by consumers, to extrinsic, paid by advertisers. Overall the dispute is about sharing the spoils of collective creation, a difficult case since, without our utopian formula, the spoils belong to the stars.

Despite all parties' legitimate interests the whole episode has a fin de siècle atmosphere. It has not escaped commentators that our Information Age is undermining the future of traditional media models, based on the manufacture and distribution of physical copies. In a twist of fate, live performers are now better positioned than reproducible content creators, who had eclipsed them at the dawn of the Industrial Age. As Joshua Chaffing and Andrew Edgecliffe-Johnson remind us, it is why live sports events have become so valuable (*****) and some singers offer free track downloads to fuel attendance at their concerts (******). Writers of America, remember Shakespeare earned his living as an actor.

The true situation is slightly more complex. I assign three sources to truth. Have they not each some specific affinity with the three ages of civilization? Primacy in the Agricultural Age went to truth based on authority. As the witness speaks, the audience is convinced by the emotion it feels to trust, or not, his or her message. The Industrial Age shifted primacy to scientific truth. Based on a critical reading of the expert's proof, reflection leads the public to confirm, or contradict, what is affirmed. Our Information Age today emphasizes truth based on popularity. Through the incessant web of their live connections, people signal their preferences, which data aggregators observe to reveal what counts, or not. Reality TV and social networks are the true voice of the future. Media no longer needs intelligent design.

According to Joshua Glenn (*******), Douglas Rushkoff assigns the reality of today's media power to the corporations which set up and control the networks which we, the masses, "program". Aren't both his model and mine illustrated by Facebook's strategy to let us generate buzz at will so as to aggregate our online interactions into personal profiles and further package and resell these profiles to advertisers?

McLuhan(1) would have relished studying how power reasserts itself under the mask of popularity. Truly today the medium needs no message.

Philippe Coueignoux

  • (*) .............. Massive data loss hits UK and starts fraud alert, by George Parker, Jimmy Burns and Alex Barker (Financial Times) - November 21, 2007
  • (**) ............ Loss of Tax Data Rocks British Government, by John F. Burns (New York Times) - November 24, 2007
  • (***) .......... Laugh Lines in the Hollywood Strike, by Brooks Barnes (New York Times) - November 26, 2007
  • (****) ........ Webisodes Of 'Lost': Model Deal For Writers?, by Edward Wyatt (New York Times) - November 20, 2007
  • (*****) ..... Sport adds pace in new media battle, by Joshua Chaffing and Andrew Edgecliffe-Johnson (Financial Times) - November 20, 2007
  • (******) ... Why it's all in the mix as music industry changes its tune, by Joshua Chaffing and Andrew Edgecliffe-Johnson (idem) - October 12, 2007
  • (*******) . 'Social Control as a Function of Media', by Joshua Glenn (Boston Globe) - November 4, 2007
  • (1) see Marshall McLuhan in the Wikipedia
November 2007
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