TOC Autoimmune diseases Your Turn

March 31, 2009

"I look out of the window at things that are going on, things that have already happened that people pay no attention to." If I mention again Peter Brucker's definition of future gazing quoted by Mark Williams (1), it is because it is opened to two interpretations. People pay no attention to what seems insignificant, and we will offer another example below, but isn't it the same if the meaning of what catches their attention escapes them?

It is hard to ignore the gradual passing of the Industrial Age media, whether newspapers, music recording companies or television networks. But do people truly grasped that simply distributing public information is no longer sustainable, no matter how hard you try to tweak the business model? So, for the benefit of the slow learners, we repeat here future models must be based either on timeliness, convenience or reputation.

Robert Thomson for one understands what timeliness is. Since information leaks in proportion to popular demand, it is a losing battle to extend its exclusivity period or attempt to delay publication. Timeliness is all about speeding up delivery to those who need to know now. "Feed the wire", the managing editor tells his Wall Street Journal reporters according to Richard Pérez-Peña (*). If publishing takes a whole day, it must be a book.

Consider the GlobalPost start-up as a extended variation on timeliness. Besides breaking news, Elizabeth Jensen explains it expects part of its audience to pay to "suggest article ideas" and get access to "conference calls and meetings with reporters" (**). The more widely distributed one's work, the more value in one's live performance, when genuine. Successful singers go out of the recording studio and draw crowds to their concerts.

Concluding their review of music distribution (***), Joseph Menn and Tim Bradshaw quote James Heckman. "This is a transformation period and I think there will be some winners". Indeed! The issue is, when it comes down to convenience the winner is already known. It's Google. Convenience is all about finding the right information on demand and how else do you search for it except through Google's properties, YouTube included? And by the time you get to the content, its capacity to sell user attention, what we call its extrinsic value, has already been depleted.

Beyond their capacity to source information, hemmed in by independent search engines, information publishers are left to trade on their reputation. In Xavier Ternisien's words (****), "get leverage from one's brand to develop e-commerce solutions". Amazon and eBay will be hard to beat. Sales however are only one possibility and the spectrum of recommender models is much wider, as we saw last week. But as they ponder their choices, media strategists should ask themselves if spying on their users under cover of behavioral advertising enhances their reputation. Where the consumer is concerned, true confidentiality coupled to financial independence from those who are recommended remains my favorite formula

If the future deafens us with too much noise, it can also come creeping upon us. Take the essay Rebecca D. Elon wrote on her experience of taking "a recertification examination in geriatric medicine at a computerized professional testing center" (*****). Should we dismiss it as the gripe of a privileged member of society mortified to find herself "tested along with bus drivers, beauticians, and electricians"?

Yes we could. She complains to a readership of physicians and riles against the American Board of Medicine. But it would be an error of diagnostic. Were I a reporter at one of those endangered newspapers, I would try out for the privilege of being a bus driver or an electrician, take the test and, with her permission, republish her essay by substituting her profession with my new career choice for the benefit of the public at large.

No matter one's standing, the disease is the same. In the name of efficiency, society turns to computers to test skills. But computers are unskilled at recognizing people and people highly competent at fooling machines. So to deter cheating society must resort to a "security process [...] more befitting professional criminals". Unfortunately photographing, fingerprinting and close surveillance may be the least of it. As Adam Liptak reminds us, the US Supreme Court is currently debating whether to condone strip-searching in high schools (******).

Please pay attention to Dr Elon's story. Strip an individual of the moral support one finds in "the collegiality" of being among his or her own kind, and unpleasant treatments which would otherwise pass as some rite of initiation (2) are now rightly resented as "insulting and demeaning". It is as if our modern society were bent on attacking its own cells as it would any suspect foreign body.

Beware of democracies with the soul of a machine, they are in danger to succumb not so much to germs as to autoimmune diseases.

Philippe Coueignoux

  • (*) ........... Newspaper Staff Told to Feed the Wire, by Richard Pérez-Peña (New York Times) - March 23, 2009
  • (**) ......... A Web Site's For-Profit Approach to World News, by Elizabeth Jensen (New York Times) - March 23, 2009
  • (***) ....... Double blow for music sites from ads and labels, by Joseph Menn and Tim Bradshaw (Financial Times) - March 30, 2009
  • (****) ..... Les journaux cherchent le moyen de faire payer leur contenu sur Internet, by Xavier Ternisien (Le Monde) - March 24, 2009
  • (*****) ... The Professional Testing Center, by Rebecca D. Elon (Annals of Internal Medicine) - March 3, 2009
  • (******) . Strip-Search of Young Girl Tests Limit of School Policy, by Adam Liptak (New York Times) - March 24, 2009
  • (1) see "Mark Williams" in the Author references index of these fillips.
  • (2) compare with the practical organization of imperial examinations, formerly used in China to select officials.
March 2009
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