John McCann

Archive for March, 2006|Monthly archive page

Importance of communities

In Culture & society, Human nature, Video on March 30, 2006 at 1:54 pm

As evidenced in an earlier post, I have discovered the writing of Henry Jenkins and I will be writing more posts about his research, including this one. In a Technology Review article titled “Taking Media in Our Own Hands,” Jenkins focuses on the importance of supportive communities in spurring innovations by amateurs.

He uses an example of the filmmakers who use a Pixelvision camera that was marketed by Fisher-Price from 1987 to 1989, a $100 camcorder that was created as a toy for children. Although Fisher-Price abandoned the camera, it has become a tool for use by amateurs and avant garde filmmakers who use it. It seems to produce unique images that may only appeal to a small niche, but one that seems to be very enthusiastic. More information about the camera is available on the Internet, including this site.

Jenkins tells us how the Pixelvision camcorder provides a window into the grassroot communities that spring up around such tools.

Andrea McCarty, a graduate student in MIT's Comparative Media Studies program, is studying the Pixelvision movement to better understand how grassroots creativity works. She told me: "Pixelvision's endurance and popularity prove that it was not a failed technology. The fascination with Pixelvision belies its obsolescence; collectors are seeking the cameras, artists are creating with them, technology fans are modifying them and fans are watching the films at the PXL THIS festival."

This is what a lot of us had hoped would happen in the digital age: the technology would put low-cost, easy-to-use tools for creative expression into the hands of average people. Lower the barriers of participation, provide new channels for publicity and distribution, and people would create remarkable things.

Think of these subcultures as aesthetic petri dishes. Seed them and see what grows. In most, nothing really interesting will happen. We can pretty much count on Sturgeon's law holding for amateur cultural creation: 90 percent of everything is bad. But if you expand the number of people participating in the making of art, you may expand the amount of really interesting works that emerge.

I have never heard of Sturgeon's law but I find it appealing because it rings true based upon my own exposure to the work of amateurs. If such amateurs work alone and in isolation from others doing similar work, they can easily become discouraged when others react negatively to their work, perhaps with comments such as "Who would want to watch THAT?"

And people working alone tend to encounter technical difficulties with their digital tools and have a major problem overcoming such obstacles. Jenkins provides insight into the importance of a community of people dong similar work with similar tools.

Amateur artists do best when they operate within supportive communities, struggling with the same creative problems and building on each others successes. Amateur creativity should be valued on its own terms, judged by the criteria of the subcultures within which these works get produced and circulated.

Such supportive communities were once limited to geographical hotbeds of activity. Today a community can form on the Internet and use its communication capabilities to provide support to other participants.

Terabytes in your home

In Technology on March 28, 2006 at 2:00 pm

In Terabytes and petabytes, I wrote about the coming explosion in the amount of storage that will be available to us. A recent USA Today article contains a forecast for the amount of digital data stored on various devices in the typical U.S. household. After estimating that the typical household had about 40 gigabytes in 2004, the forecast for 2010 is 4,430 gigabytes, or 4.43 terabytes. Only a few years ago, it would have been difficult to imagine having this amount of storage in our homes.

The article indicated that this storage would be in our cell phones, MP3 players, portable video players, computers, game machines, and digital video players (DVR). DVR ownership is expected to explode. A Forrester Research vice president was quoted in a New York Times article to say that DVRs will be in 43 million homes by 2010. I imagine that these devices will account for a large fraction of the 4.43 terabytes of storage in our homes.

From producer to viewer

In Culture & society, Long Tail, Media involvement, Television on March 27, 2006 at 12:51 pm

An article by Henry Jenkins, a scholar who studies media and fan cultures, wrote an article titled “I Want My Geek TV” in which he tells the story of an un-aired TV show’s (Global Frequency) pilot that generated a “fan community” that supported the release of the show. Warner Brothers decided, however, to drop the series, much to the disappointment of John Rogers, the show’s producer and head writer.

The article talks about the problems that producers have in getting their work to actually air on the networks, and then to stay on the air while the shows build an audience. Viewers of those shows face a similar problem with often unresponsive network executives. The results of these frustrations may be a movement to bypass the networks. All of this leads to Rogers' fantasy of media producers selling cult tv shows directly to their niche publics, leaving the networks out of the picture altogether.

Jenkins provides an estimate of how selling episodes via Internet download might work from a financial viewpoint.

If you sell access to each episode at roughly $2 a pop and assume that the average television episode costs 1 million to produce and half a million to distribute (a ballpark figure), then you could recoup your costs and make a profit with a few million viewers, far short of the Nielsen numbers you would need to stay on network television. Of course, such numbers would not allow you the revenue of a hit network show, but they might be much closer to a sure thing -especially in the case of a series like Global Frequency which had "cult" written all over it. After all, most network shows get canceled before the end of their first season and thus never make money for their producers.

This is a Long Tail argument that is based upon the existence of substantial niche audiences that will pay reasonable prices for access to entertainment that fulfills their particular interests. Such a world would likely operate with many different financial models, with the $1 million episode cost being at the high end. As I mentioned in an earlier post, shows such as Rocketboom, with its $20 per episode cost, likely represents the other end of the financial spectrum.

Jenkins uses Global Frequency as a stepping stone to write about other changes in the distribution model, with BBC’s new practice of offering all BBC shows for download after they have aired. He quotes Ashley Highfield, Director of BBC New Media and Technology talking about the new media culture that will likely evolve, a culture in which people mix together broadcasters’ content and their own productions.

“At the simplest level – audiences will want to organize and reorganize content the way they want it. They'll add comments to our programs, vote on them, and generally mess about with them. But at another level, audiences will want to create these streams of video themselves from scratch, with or without our help."

This is clearly what more and more people want to do. And it is clearly the opposite of what TV and movie executives want them to do. It is surprising and encouraging that a major network like BBC would encourage such involvement in their intellectual property. If this proves to be a trend, it will lead to a lovely day for those who want to participate in new and different ways.

Communicating with photographs

In Uncategorized on March 23, 2006 at 3:18 pm

An article in USA Today tells the story of the formation of Flickr by Caterina Fake and Stewart Butterfield. The passage that struck me the most was about how the couple tapped into the Internet community’s interest in sharing.

Butterfield says Flickr’s biggest innovation came from recognizing the social nature of photography. “It’s meant to be shared, talked about, pointed to, saved, archived and available by as many means as possible,” he says.

A photograph is a form of art and a form of communication. A photograph is a composition of what you saw and what you thought was interesting enough to capture in a camera. Historically you would print it, put it in an album or a box, pass it around for others to see, and perhaps revisit it every now and then when you dig out old albums or boxes. Looking through your pictures, you can recall the occasions when they were taken. They “jog your memory” so that you can relive your past for a brief moment.

I have two of those boxes in the bottom of one of my closets, boxes that I acquired when my mother died. They are full of pictures, some pasted into albums, many just loose in the boxes. I look through them every few years and I always, always wish that there was more to each picture than the picture itself. Who are those women with my mother? When was the picture taken? One picture shows my mother as a young woman riding a horse; where was it taken? Why did she never mention horses to me? Several of the pictures show my half-brother with his grandparents, the Easleys. What were their first names?

These photographs are not very good communications, at least not for someone who wants to know the story behind the photograph. Or even the basic data about each picture: who, what, where, why, when. They do not “jog my memory” because I have no memory of them. A picture without a story is an art form, but not an effective communication to anyone who does not know its story. A photograph without a story is only an effective communication to someone who knows its history. When such people are the intended audience, then the picture is an effective communication; to all others, it is ineffective.

Additionally, these photographs are not communicating because they are buried in a box in the bottom of my closet. But that’s another issue for another day.

Lifebits project

In Technology on March 22, 2006 at 3:09 pm

Gordon Bell, a 71 year old legend of the computer world, heads a small Microsoft research center in San Francisco where he is inventing a new way for us to use our computer and gadgets. Total Recall, an article in IEEE Spectrum summarizes his work.

His project, MyLifeBits, is the digital distillation of, almost literally, his every waking minute. It started out as an offhand experiment, but today its goal is nothing short of changing the way we use computers, and by extension, the way we live. At its heart, MyLifeBits is a big database on a personal computer, into which go the correspondence, keyboard-based chores, and even the sights and sounds of everyday life. It automatically swallows up and indexes e-mails, keystrokes, recorded phone calls, images, video, and every Web page that graces its user’s computer’s screen.

One of the ways he captures his daily life is via a small camera that he wears around his neck. Sensors tell the software in the camera when to snap a picture. At the end of the day, the camera contents and the sensor data (e.g., GPS data) are transferred to a database.

Every electronic device he touches seems to generate data for database:

Today, every keystroke on his computer is captured as it is tapped. Office phone calls are not only logged but also digitally recorded in their entirety. Every Web page is stored when it’s viewed—not just the URL, but the entire image is jammed in there.

The database is also populated by everything that Bell has collected in his life: the contents of his file cabinets, photo albums, video tapes, books, academic papers, correspondences, medical records, etc. The result: a terabyte repository of his lifebits.

The article ends with a nice summary of where this research is going.

We’ll find out, soon enough. By 2015, all your life bits will fit into two or three matchboxes, about 50 bucks’ worth of data. Your smartphone-sensecam will dangle casually around your neck, snapping away. Want to know what you wore on that blind date you went on last month? How many glasses of chardonnay you drank, which Web pages you viewed the next morning, whom you called on the phone and what you talked about? Where you were for every minute that weekend? Let’s take a look.

A Powerpoint presentation about LifeBits opens with this slide:


I love this slide because it depicts what most of us have in common: cabinets, boxes and digital devices stuffed with things we have collected during our lives. Gordon Moore has shown us that we can put all of this information into digital form so that it can be indexed, cross-referenced and searched, thus making it much more valuable to us and those who follow us.

Creating common experiences

In Culture & society, Early Predictions, Human nature on March 21, 2006 at 9:08 pm

Almost 10 years ago (October 22, 1996), Bill Machrone wrote an article for PC Week titled “The End of Common Experience”

“We don’t sit out on the front stoop any more. We don’t watch the first 15 minutes of Carson before we hit the sack so we can laugh together at work the next day. We don’t all watch the Ed Sullivan show on Sunday night. Our local newspaper is beleaguered by the pressures of steadily decreasing readership, higher costs, and less advertising. We don’t even work in the office any more. Between telecommuting, time on the road, and staying in hotels, the once-reliable office routine is a vanishing reality for more and more Americans. Dozens of other common experiences have disappeared from our lives, but I’ll focus on the changes driven by technology. The advent of 50 or more channels on cable has completely stratified our television viewing experience. Our community is defined as never before by our age and our interests, not by our physical location. The evening newspaper is extinct, and the televised evening news may be on the endangered list, supplanted by all-news channels. As people begin to turn to the Internet for news or to future sophisticated hybrids of television and the Internet, the advent of personal pages and customized views makes any commonality of experience even less likely.”

I find this situation to be worse today than it was in 1996 with the advent of new media, the continual decline in newspaper reading, the increasing number of cable TV channels, etc. I really like his statement that “Our community is defined as never before by our age and our interests, not by our physical location.” I pursue most of my interests on the web, rather than in conversation with my friends because I do not share their interests.

But on the other hand, I participate in groups that have been created to bring together people with common interests. I have a fishing group that goes to the beach in the Spring and Fall and has lunch every other week; a Sunday School class that reads and discusses the same book; a movie club that sees and discusses the same movie; another couple who we visit weekly to watch and discuss an HBO show; I teach a course on technology because it gives me an opportunity to discuss one of my main passions with other interested people; I play cards once a month with friends as a way to “shoot the breeze” about topics of common interest; I hike with a group that meets every Saturday and goes on weekend outings every couple of months.

What’s the point? You can have a common experience in today’s world but you have to create or find the structures. They no longer occur naturally because there are simply too many choices in our lives. This seems particularly true as we get beyond our youth, a period when such groups seem to occur more naturally.

Participate and sell

In Early Predictions, Television, Video, Vlogging on March 19, 2006 at 4:07 pm

The lead story in the Business section of Monday’s New York Times blasts an invitation to us to get off our butts and create something of value that the big media companies can buy:


The article seems to be driven by NBC Universal’s purchase, for $600 million, of iVillage, an Internet company that appeals to women. According to the author of the article, this interest by media companies is driven by their recognition of the need to reach niche audiences. His take is that this purchase illustrates

“the continuing interest by media companies in adding new Web sites to reach and connect with consumers, hobbyists, parents, investors, car buyers, Scrabble players and virtually every other niche audience.”

This reminds me of a lecture I delivered in the mid-1990s to a classroom full of MBA students. I suggested that they might be able to make more money traveling around the world with a video camera recording tennis matches, volleyball games and chess tournaments. I was not at all surprised that the students scoffed at the idea with statements such as “Who would want to watch THAT?” Perhaps recent events indicate that the large media companies think that at least some people might want to watch just about anything.

Well, there are now about 1 billion people on the Internet, and there will likely be 2 billion in a few years. And there are already 2 billion mobile phone users, headed towards 4 billion. An audience whose size is a very small fraction of those people can be very valuable if it is an audience that some advertiser finds valuable.

Terabytes and petabytes

In Technology on March 17, 2006 at 3:18 pm

An interview in USA Today with SanDisk CEO Eli Haran ends with Haran’s 20-year projection of the capacity of memory chips on small cards:

We believe that in 20 years time, we will be able to fit 10 terabytes of information into a card that’s as small as a quarter. Ten terabytes is the amount of memory we have in the human brain. Ten terabytes could fit 5,000 movies. When you have that kind of memory, you could store a human lifetime’s worth of memory into one of these cards. You could implant a device like this in your head to restore memory.

Ten terabytes is 10,000 gigabytes, which is 10,000,000 megabytes … which is a lot of capacity.

Another interesting part of the article is that prices are dropping very rapidly. Today, a memory card costs $0-50 per gigabyte (GB) of memory. With the newer chips that are becoming available, this price will drop to $10 per GB within the next two years.

So, before long we are going to have practically unlimited storage capacity in our hands. And that is only in the memory chip space. By 2026, what will we have in terms of hard drive space? Whatever it is, it will likely be measured in petabytes (a petabyte is 1 million gigabytes). Joseph Mercola gives us a way to think about a petabyte:

The one kind of content that might possibly overflow a petabyte disk is video. In the format used on DVDs, the data rate is about two gigabytes per hour. Thus the petabyte disk will hold some 500,000 hours worth of movies; if you want to watch them all day and all night without a break for popcorn, they will actually fill up your petabyte drive if you have a lifetime of video on it as it will give you 57 years of video.

He also tells us that you could have 50 Library of Congresses on your drive

One researcher indicates that we might have such a drive in five years, and that it will cost less than $1,000.


In Technology on March 15, 2006 at 5:09 pm

I was contacted via email by a local newspaper reporter who was working on an article about what our area will be like in 2030, particularly in terms of commuting and the workplace. He wanted to know what computing and communications technologies will allow us to do in 2030.

I sent him the following email and then spoke with him on the telephone about the future.

Going out to the year 2030 is challenging unless you think exponentially. I suggest you read stuff by Ray Kurweil, perhaps the first few chapters of his new book The Singularity Is Near.

You mentioned wireless Internet and cell phones … two technologies that we have only used for about 5 and 15 years, respectively. What new things will the digital revolution bring us 24 years from now? Neither of these are innovations by the telephone companies, and I expect that today’s telcos (Verizon and the new AT&T, in particular) will be bankrupt by then. As may Microsoft. We may be living and working in a world of fiber and wireless that does not have centers (e.g. no telephone switch in the middle; nor a cable front-end). The devices that hang on the ends of this communication cloud will be many, many times more powerful than today’s supercomputers. Some of us may have chips embedded in our brains that augment our intelligence, and other chips that better regulate other parts of our bodies.

Other things will change very little, particularly mechanical things (I used to be a mechanical engineer and saw a long time ago that I should have been an EE). We’ll likely still have the sound barrier to limit air travel, and the bow wave to limit ships. But digital things and optical things will change a lot and the key to getting a glimpse is to understand the nature of exponential change.

I should explain my bankruptcy comment. Microsoft has a profit model that is based upon selling software that people install on their computers. Technology developments during the past few years are pointing to an alternative computing model in which we use software that runs in our browser, instead of installing similar software on our computers. Google’s Gmail and Writely are examples of the former; Microsoft’s Outlook and Word are examples of the latter. If this new model prevails, then it is unclear how Microsoft can sustain its present profitability and perhaps even its viability as a corporation.

Verizon and AT&T are facing a similar problem: old technology with an old business model. Kevin Maney recently wrote about this situation in a column about the Bell South purchase by AT&T:

The local phone companies’ biggest tribulation — and this includes AT&T, BellSouth, Verizon and Qwest — is that their main business is built on an expensive infrastructure that’s quickly becoming obsolete. They are like railroads at the dawn of the jet age. They send calls around using circuit-switched networks when the world is moving to Internet-style networks. They have millions of miles of skinny copper wire underground and on telephone poles at a time when whole cities are starting to build wireless broadband Internet systems that are better and cheaper.

The year 2030 is very far away in terms of the speed at which digital technologies evolve and business models fail. So it is not a stretch to think that some of the very big and very profitable firms may not exist in 24 years. Twenty four years in this digital technology world may be similar to 100 years in the business world that firms like Procter & Gamble operate.

I occasionally get intrigued by such long-range predictions about technologies, and writing this email has piqued my interest once again. So I will likely be posting several pieces about this topic over the next few weeks.

Create, share, consume

In Human nature on March 10, 2006 at 4:01 pm

Back in 2004, Robert Scoble wrote something about human nature that I find very profound.

“The impulse to create is strong. The impulse to share is strong. The impulse to consume is strong. These are the trends for the digital decade.”

Many of us want to create something new. Once we create it, we want to share it with others. And we want to consume (use, read, watch, listen, etc) the creations of other people. That seems to be the true nature of the Participation Age, as opposed to the mass age when we seemed to only have an impulse to consume.

When I look back at my professional life, I see that I have followed this path since I got out of college and started working as an R&D engineer at GE where I worked on the creation of new products for deep space flight, nuclear reactors, and gas centrifuges that separated the isotopes of uranium.

My academic career was all about creating and sharing. I created a couple of dozen different courses and then taught them to thousands of students. I wrote dozens of papers and several books which I shared through the publication process. I consulted with several dozen firms, sometimes creating new knowledge for them and always sharing what I knew as part of the consulting assignment

Consuming in the academic world involves reading the work of others and providing them with feedback. You do such reading continually, whether reading referred journals or working papers which are sent to you or conducting formal refereeing of papers submitted to journals.

I find it very interesting that the blogosphere has a culture that is similar to the academic one. Bloggers create something new in their compositions and share it via their blogs. They consume the blogs of other people and comment on blog posts in their own blog.

I also find it interesting that the desire to create, share and consume are the elements of human nature that are driving the Dawn of the Participation Age.