(Roundtable #3: Technology & Innovation)
PART ONE: THE VIEW FROM TOMORROWLAND
We’re blogging to you live from the future, and it’s very exciting here!
I mean, we’re having this meeting at Google HQ, in the middle of Silicon Valley — the place embodies much of the hope and imagination for the future of our democracy, our economy and our world.
It is — or will be — better here in the future. As soon as we can figure out what it’s all about. As soon as we can figure out how and why people use information technology, we can build the perfect device that will seamlessly integrate their information needs with hyperpersonalized delivery mechanisms — speaking of which, can’t you wait until the iPhone costs as much as a transister radio?! — then everything will be fine.
The economy will grow robustly and sustainably, because in the future it will all be running on clean tech.
Deepening efficiencies will drive down costs — which means all the lower-rung workers who have been effectively organized by Raj Jayadev to join unions will be earning the wages necessary to fully engage with the immersive mediaweb through affordable wireless technology.
That’s the problem with the future. It’s look-at-the-stars solutions are indeed thrilling, but it’s ankle-deep in the mud of today.
PART TWO: A MOVING TARGET
Forget about the future. The future is not where it’s at. In the future, we are going to be in the exact same place that we are now — Planet Earth — but things are going to be worse. The climate is changing, the oil wells are drying up.
We can’t be living in the future, when there’s so much that needs innovation today.
Living in and for the future can bite you on the behind.
Panelist Chris O’Brien notes that the ambitious Mercury News project to “blow up the newsroom” and reinvent how a print paper navigates the new media economy was canceled in January.
Most of the folks guiding the project have, in fact, been let go, he told me over lunch.
Was this a vision of the future that simply didn’t match reality? Or did the great powers of the Merc’s parent company get cold feet? Was the approach too topheavy, too sweeping, or too half-hearted?
It would be fascinating to delve into the conflicted internal process that led to both the newsroom reinvention project and its cancellation.
The Merc’s misfire brings to mind the same sort generalized ambition but inadequate ground-level implementation that makes KQED — so well-financed and connected — paradoxically so out of step with the majority of the Bay Area’s diverse communities.
The problem is that these top-down enterprises, guided by the strategic goals and profit expectations of Wall Street and its satellites, may not be appropriate to the new media economy, which is massively decentralized, multisourced, and generally, from a content-production and -consumption perspective, non-cooperative with the monopoly production model.
PART THREE: INNOVATION DAY BY DAY
Chris also noted that news media thrives when it is a center of innovation — which demands the question of what, exactly, are the conditions that encourage innovation?
Independence, for one thing.
All of the successful strategies and scenarios described by the panelists emphasized the ability of media producers and consumers alike to post and access material spontaneously, without the barriers erected by the traditional gatekeepers.
This is not about technology — it’s how people use it. It’s about the social phenomenon of technology. And therein lies the keys to innovation.
Danah Boyd, one of the Knight commissioners, noted the amazing success of local blogging and text-messaging around Hurricane Gustav in New Orleans, an unmediated phenomenon that occurred in an open information architecture without interference from monopoly gatekeepers.
She further elucidated the point by noting advocacy campaigns around specific legislative issues, in which interest groups mobilize their constituencies via cellphones and text messaging to spark a flurry of calls, emails and faxes aimed at key elected officials.
Holmes Wilson of the Participatory Culture Foundation is singing a similar tune with his Miro project, an online video platform that aims to “eliminate gatekeepers” and make everyone a content producer.
We are already seeing what this can do on the blogosphere — the achievements of which are considerable, and matched only by its excess.
As Amra Tareen of AllVoices.com notes, most blogs don’t get read, which hearkens back to the initial panel’s concerns about the information glut — something that at once distracts from access to meaningful information, and fragments dialogue around it.
Her solution is to opportunistically merge media (Web, SMS, email, etc.) to produce up-to-the-minute coverage of news across the world.
Using some cool widgets, AllVoices.com triangulates on topics, pulls together a variety of coverage, and represents it dynamically on a world map on the site’s home page. Click on an indicator, and you’ll wind up with a cluster of related stories and blog postings
This approach places all its eggs in the crowdsourcing basket, and it’s good that they’re taking the chance on it.
Whether it’s the solution remains to be seen — but it’s encouraging to see the money behind the media warming up to the idea of empowering producers and audiences, and appreciating them as interchangeable.
PART FOUR: AD-MODEL INVERSION
This is a key concept — that producers and audiences together can successfully guide access to and creation of relevant community information.
The relationship between the audience and the media outlet has inverted, also, to the detriment of the ad-sales department.
Mike McGuire, a research VP at Gartner and a mainstream media guy, pointed out that content really is king, and if so, why are the content producers the ones getting the short end of the stick?
Why not start cutting sales staff at the failing media outlets instead of reporters and editors?
He asked this and grinned, and the audience laughed, as well they should.
But it’s a serious question that has yet to be answered satisfactorily.
The State of the News Media 2008 report noted that increasingly, the newsroom is the place recognized as the wellspring of innovation in media companies — and the ad-sales departments are the ones most bogged down by the failed assumptions of the past.
What sort of innovation is required to make a future we can all live in?