Friday 11 July 2008

Is the increase in choice bad for society?

"Content is King"

Since getting my N95 8Gb I've been listening to a lot more podcasts (I set them to download overnight) and have been particularly enjoying Stephen Fry's Podgrams, which are basically random musings by Stephen Fry, who I've always found intelligent and witty in equal measures, a rare combination. I'm met him too and he is very down-to-earth. Anyway, this isn't a Stephen Fry fan blog, I have a serious discussion point to raise, so without further ado..

Podgram #4 "Broadcasting" consists of Stephen delivering a speech that he gave in response to OFCOM's proposal that the UK TV licence fee should be shared between the BBC, Channel 4, ITV and five. (For more info on this, check out these links - [1],[2],[3]). This is a worthy topic for debate in its own right, I can see both sides but ultimately think it's a bad idea and would agree with the point of view "If it ain't broke, don't fix it"

The thing that I found most thought provoking though, was not the licence fee issue, but the idea that "Content is King". Stephen talked a lot about this; the idea that we have completely changed the way we consume recorded content - be it television, film, radio, podcasts, music or audiobooks. He makes the point that we do not think in "channels" any more, thanks to 24 hour channels, digital TV and its hundreds of niche channels, PVR systems, DVD-rental-by-post services, digital downloads, torrents, podcasts, iPlayer and the like.. As viewers we simply seek out the content we are interested in, get hold of it in whatever form we can, and watch it. In general, we do not care about a channel in its own right, we are far more interested in particular shows or types of shows that appeal to our interests. Hence the phrase "Content is King".

Stephen argues (I hope I'm summarizing his view correctly) that this is not a good direction for television, and that the BBC is one of the last channels that people have brand loyalty to because of its reputation for good quality programming across a wide range of areas - not just the big audience "entertainment" shows like Doctor Who and Strictly Come Dancing, but wildlife shows, current affairs, documentaries, science, religion, arts, music etc. He argues that this would be eroded by the so-called "top-slicing" of licence fee revenue, because we then would be totally abandoning the idea of channels, abandoning the BBC as a viewing destination in its own right and reducing it to a producer of public service content.

He paints a picture of a future world where there are no broadcast channels - everyone has their own "narrowcast" personalised channels, with only those shows they like, catered to their exact demographic and interests, with advertising tailored to them. You can really see this happening already, with services like TiVo in the broadcast space, and with RSS aggregators for podcasts & blogs in the Internet space. The only real difference is that we form our personalised channels manually at the moment, by our selections from the plethora of content that is out there. It won't be long before it's done for us (TiVo is already ahead of the game on this one).

This really struck a chord for me, especially when I consider how my own viewing habits have changed since Sky+, V+ and BitTorrent. I'd already observed that I really don't watch live TV anymore - with all the Series Links I have set up, as well as the shows I can only get via BitTorrent (such as Lost), I have such a choice of things I am interested in, which I rarely get to the end of, and this has meant far less "random" viewing - I watch a lot more of the things I know, and a lot less of the things I don't. At first glance this seems a good thing, but if I'm honest I know that I watch far fewer documentaries, current affairs programmes and the like, even though I sometimes set series links - because why would I watch Dispatches or Newsnight when I have a backlog of The Gadget Show, Top Gear, QI or The Apprentice to watch? I am as guilty as anyone else of going for a short term highs rather than something that will be more mentally exercising but better for broadening my knowledge.

It's when I think of this in terms of how much entertainment television is now watched versus "public service" programming (think of the rising popularity of Big Brother, X Factor and Shipwrecked and the declining audiences for current affairs programmes), and the wider picture of how these changes affect society as a whole, that I begin to be a bit more concerned..

Personalization of content - More of what we want, but at what cost?

The whole point of public service broadcasting is that it raises the level of education of the population, covering issues and spreading knowledge on topics that would be not be commercially viable to produce programming about. For this to succeed, it seems there needs to be some element of "chance discovery" of content - like when you turn to a channel you know produces good content, like the BBC, and find something interesting that you weren't looking for. I'd not really thought about it from this angle before, but it seems that this is something that we are all overlooking with the abundance of seductive and appealing content before us, not just in broadcast media but on the Internet too. (Maybe this partly explains the appeal of StumbleUpon!) We need exposure to things we were not seeking and did not know about, in order to challenge our thinking, expose us to new ideas and general broaden our minds.

And there may be other disadvantages too, to the personalization of content - because the more we are drawn to specific interests, given the raise of social media, we are likely to form communities around those interests as well... So the viewers of a highly personalised channel, be it fishing channel, a goth music channel, a single mums' channel, a Christian prayer channel or a new age spiritualist channel, will form communities around those channels and only interact with those people and those ideas. And just like we see ethnic minorities or social classes clustering in certain areas of cities, seldom mixing outside those circles, we will start to see an intellectual, or rather an "information" segregation, where people polarize into different specialized groups that do not cross paths or spread knowledge, potentially resulting in even more segregation, discrimination and "tribal" problems. This can't be a good thing for society.

This struck me as a really important message - and I know I have gone way beyond the point of Stephen's speech, but for me this debate about public service broadcasting and the BBC licence fee was just the tip of the iceberg - This "Content is King" ethos that we all eagerly feed on, perhaps without realising, is something that could spell a real "dumbing down" of society if left unchecked. We need to make sure we continue to be exposed to new ideas, unfamiliar subjects and a balance of public service and entertainment content. And we need to remember that more and more content on the Internet is written by individuals or corporations with their own agendas, and thus, the truth will be harder to find. (Relevant book: Cult of the Amateur - I confess I haven't read it yet)

Choice in news media - is it a good thing?

So, we can now see that the abundance of choice we have today encourages us to select & personalise content we find most attractive, and that while this has advantages it also has some dangers to society as a whole.

It seems to me that there are other potential pitfalls of too much choice, particularly when you look at the effect that 24 hours news channels and websites have had on the quality of journalistic output, and on public opinion.

Overwhelmed with news stories, and often feeling too busy to read stories in depth, it seems we often believe that which is easiest to believe - a story about someone who is being questioned in connected to a crime, gets summarized as "so and so is guilty of that crime", and then that story spreads around the net, and before you know it, the person is guilty. The truth as commonly believed and the truth as based on actual facts, diverge. We are no longer innocent until proven guilty. Similarly, a story about a scientific development gets exaggerated by the media, and by people believing what they want to believe - extrapolating an early step in the right direction through to the technology that might be possible if developed further (e.g. "OMG! Scientists invent Holodeck")

Is society dumbing down?

In our rush to consume as much information as possible in a an ever growing sea of information and content, we over-summarize and cut corners. We forward heartfelt e-mails of tragedies and brushes with death without checking them for authenticity or accuracy. It's ironic really that the the Internet gives us more power to research the accuracy of information, and yet we seem even more inclined to just believe what we read without doing so. Children are losing the skills to analyse the relevance and accuracy of information.

Negative feedback loops

It's really concerning to me as well, how there is now a feedback loop between media stories and reality itself. 24 hours news reports come out every hour for days that Northern Rock is in crisis - and a panic is created, making a possibly recoverable problem into an unrecoverable situation that spreads out to affect the whole industry.

Newspapers report that a politician is "tonight under intense pressure to resign" even though he only pressure is from the media, suddenly they are under intense pressure, and resign. TV reports that "people are up in arms about a possible emissions tax" and people are put off the idea before they even get the chance to work out the facts of how it will actually affect them. Constant reports of problems in the property market make people even less inclined to buy property than they were before. Collectively, the media and newspaper outlets notice (or create?) trends in public opinion or public behaviour, and report them in a sensationalised, exaggerated way, designed to have the maximum emotional impact, because the most sensational stories are those that will be easiest to digest, and will stick in our minds most - this usually means those stories most likely to induce negative emotions such as outrage, distrust, fear or disgust (Good news reporting has died out) Before you know it, the media reports has affected what people behave, which in turn affects how we act, and what started as nothing more than a story or an idea has actually affected the reality of the situation itself. It's like some sort of societal version of Heisenberg's uncertainty principle.

The other effect of this is that even though there is more choice of media sources, there is less breadth in coverage, everyone jumps on the bandwagon and the same stories get regurgitated for weeks on end (think Princess Diana inquests, 10p tax rates or Madeline McCann hunts - Was the public really so interested in those stories or was it just the media getting into a frenzy and feeding off each other?).

The media believe they are giving us what we want, so they produce more of the same, and the repetition of the same type of stories again and again forms a vicious circle, reinforcing the nation's out-of-proportion obsessions with child protection, fear of terrorists, suspicion of immigrants, distrust of government, and so on.. (I recommend Noam Chomsky's book Media Control for more on this topic)

In summary

It must be time for me to get off my soapbox now! :-) I hope that I am wrong that the overwhelming choice we have won't mean the dumbing down of society, and that we can find a way to be less affected by media coverage in what we think and believe.. I'm very interested in noticing trends in society and this does seem to be one possible way things could go if we continue on the current course. Let me know what you think!

Disclaimer: This is very much an opinion piece, which I will have on my blog from time to time. It is not my intent to force my point of view - just to share ideas & stimulate debate - which I welcome through the comments, whether you share my concerns or think I've got it all wrong, provided it remains courteous! I look forward to reading your comments!