News, media & communications

A digital dark age?

Are you worried? Well you should be. How would you feel if everything that was on your home computer suddenly vanished? This is unlikely but it's not impossible.A much more likely scenario is that all of your family photographs, old financial records, old emails and home videos will slowly disappear - so slowly that you will hardly notice it's happening. Could this really happen? It already is. Just try finding a new computer that can play a 3.5 inch disk or, even worse, a floppy.One of the problems with our digital age is that our technology keeps accelerating. This is a good thing in some ways (cheaper technology, more storage capacity, ease of use) but new is often incompatible with old, which means users must actively preserve digital files or risk losing them forever. (As someone said to me recently when I mentioned that I had something on audio-cassette, 'What's that?'). And the rate of technological change is certainly impressive. A single digital photograph can occupy more space than was available on an early IBM PC and the US Library of Congress estimates that the amount of digital information now being produced every fifteen minutes exceeds the total amount of information stored in the Library of Congress. And it's not simply a compatibility issue either. Hard disks store information using magnetic charges and these weaken over time, thereby corrupting the data. DVDs and CD-ROMs are no better, these storage formats hold data by etching tiny lines into a film of dye that also fades over time. Disappearing ink in other words. And if this is a problem for you and me imagine how an organisation like a library feels. Indeed, imagine how the librarian at the Library of Alexandra felt after it had burnt down with no back-up. The solution is of course to regularly transfer data or to keep archives online. Photographs, for instance, can be stored on Flickr or Shutterfly, which people assume is safe because it's so easy and everyone is doing it. But who's to say how long these companies will last or how tight their security really is? Ironically, of course, the best storage mechanism is paper, which can easily last hundreds of years, so print anything of value our right now.
Ref: The Atlantic monthly (US) September 2006, 'File not found', J. Fallows.
Search words: Digital preservation, libraries, content, digitalisation
Trend tags: Digitalisation, Too Much Information, file sharing

An age of awards

Did you know that there are now more prizes for movies each year than films produced? Around 9,000 prizes in fact, which is roughly twice as many awards as films. Or how about the fact that the pop star Michael Jackson has won 240 music awards? Once upon a time there were winners and losers but these days it seems that everyone is a winner - eventually. Prize giving for the arts probably started around 1901 with the Nobel Prize for literature (winner Sully Prudhomme, loser Leo Tolstoy for War and Peace). The Oscars were invented in 1929 and the Emmys started in 1949. There are also countless awards for architecture, modern art and just about everything in between. Indeed the arts are starting to look like sport with podiums and high-profile winners and losers. So what's going on here? The answer is too much information. It is now impossible to read all the reviews let alone the actual works produced by writers and artists, so prizes have become cultural currency along with lists of 'things to see and do before you die'. Prizes can create instant popular recognition in every industry from graphic design to classical music. They tell us what's worth seeing, watching, hearing and reading. They are also tied up with globalisation (superabundance and instant transmission) and are a spin-off from our obsession with celebrity. Wordsworth observed a long time ago, 'Every great and original writer, in proportion as he is great and original, must himself create the taste by which he is to be relished'. But in a time-starved culture we are no longer so patient, so prizes are an instant shortcut for both the creator and the consumer.
Ref: The Observer (UK), 22 October 2006, 'And the winner is ...' by J. Cowley
See also The Economy of Prestige: Prizes, Awards, and the Circulation of Cultural Value by James English.
Search words: too much information, awards, culture, arts
Trend tags: recognition, speeding-up, globalisation

The other digital divide

Someone said to me recently that the difference between Generation X and Generation Y is that Gen Xers' parents knew precisely where they were and what they were doing and didn't like it one bit. In contrast, the parents of Gen Y (generally Gen Xers) have absolutely no idea where their kids are or what they're doing.The Internet in general and social networking spaces in particular are a case in point.What parents think their kids are doing online and what they are actually doing are often very different things. MySpace is the obvious example of online living but other sites such as QQ in China (78 million members), Orkut in Brazil and Cyworld in South Korea are others. These are virtual worlds were Gen Y hangs, shops and flirts safe in the knowledge that their parents have no idea why they're there. So why are they there? The reason is that these are places where self-expression is encouraged. These spaces are vitally important because fewer and fewer physical spaces allow individuals to behave exactly as they want (try walking into a mall in the UK wearing a hooded top, for example). They are also spaces where adults generally fear to tread. Virtual worlds such as Second Life (population 300,000) allow people to define in public who they are and try on various personalities in public to see whether they fit. This is a crucial point. What we are possibly seeing here is the willingness of a new generation to express itself in front of millions of other people and this could represent a watershed in terms of societal attitudes to privacy.
Ref: Financial Times magazine (UK) 28-29 October 2006. 'The high priestess of internet friendship'. G. Bowley.
Search words: virtual words, Gen Y, Gen X

The future of interactive entertainment

The video-game industry is now worth in excess of US $31 billion per year worldwide and should overtake the music industry in revenue terms by around 2010.However, according to some commentators, the industry is currently stuck in a single genre - that of the action movie. So what if other genres were to develop using artificial actors? Or what would happen if video games were to develop into interactive drama experiences combining the graphic realism of contemporary video games with the emotional impact of great art? The result could be genres like comedy, mystery and tragedy. This, of course, would require players to develop true connections (and in some cases, empathy) with virtual characters, which would in turn require a level of artificial intelligence that doesn't yet exist. It would mean that players would have to care about the characters and dialogue would have to be at times complex and subtle. And that's a difficult problem to crack. Games like The Sims, Spore and Fa´┐Żade are to some extent the shape of things to come but surely there is also a market for character-rich stories and narratives that in some way describe or illuminate the nature of real life? For example, can a video game make a player cry, and if so, would a gamer want to create the environment in which this happens? There is also the question of whether big budget blockbuster games can survive when what many people seem to want are instantly downloadable disposable games that can be played on portable devices. But perhaps the biggest question of all is, what are games like these doing to our collective imagination and intelligence? For example, according to Lara Brown, Professor of Political Science at California State University, some students have lost the ability to initiate or hypothesise because they have become used to questions being provided. Equally they cannot imagine an alternative reality (history, for instance) unless it is accompanied by a starter picture and sound. The contrary argument is that it is our Aristotelian education system that is out of sync with reality. We now live with complex systems and uncertainty, and navigating through this quagmire requires intuition, an acceptance of ambiguity and failure and, above all, a trial and error approach to learning - all of which games teach.
Ref: The Atlantic Monthly (US), November 2006, 'Sex, lies, and video games',
J. Rauch. See also the New Yorker (US), 6 November 2006, 'Game master', J. Seabrook.
See also The Ultimate History of Video Games by Steven Kent.

Goo tube or the future of television?

Google is clearly successful in text-based search but can it replicate this success in video search? Thanks to Google's purchase of YouTube the answer is probably yes. Computers were originally machines that were supposed to save us time but they are morphing into machines that help time to disappear. They are, in other words, slowly replacing the television as the opiate of the people, especially people less than 25 years old. For example, fewer and fewer members of Gen Y are watching television because they can watch what they want, when they want, on the Internet - including episodes of blockbusters like House or Lost a year before they will air on TV outside the US. And it usually doesn't cost them a cent. Furthermore, if the Internet is this disruptive to the media industry now, how disruptive will it be in the future? The answer is, very. At the moment video search on sites like YouTube, Google Video, MySpace, GoFish, Video Egg or Revver depend on tagging - the adding of keywords to clips to describe its content - but we are on the cusp of a brave new world where viewers will be able to search for still and moving pictures using speech- and image-recognition technologies. This could revolutionise the use of the Internet and further cement Google's dominant position, both at the expense of other Internet portals and at the expense of more traditional broadcast media like television. At this stage it's obviously too early to speculate about whom exactly will lose or win from this but it's certainly going to make for great viewing.
Ref: Red Herring (US), 23 October 2006, 'The quest for search',
New Yorker (US), 16 October 2006, 'Idiosyncratic and personal, PC edges TV',
D. Carr.