John McCann

Archive for the ‘Culture & society’ Category

Current transition

In Culture & society, Early Predictions on August 4, 2006 at 11:56 am

In cleaning my office at Duke, I ran across a book I had read several years ago: Nicholas Imparato and Oren Harari, Jumping the Curve: Innovation and Strategic Choice in an Age of Transition (Jossey-Bass Publications, 1994). I plan to re-read it again to see what I can learn about the transition to the Participation Age. I will relate one passage here that I had underlined during my first reading because it sets the stage for understanding the history of major transitions.

The authors consulted the work of historians and philosophers to identify major historical transitions.

“They traditionally maintain that these dramatic transitions have occurred only twice in the entire history of Western civilization, thereby breaking history into three periods. The first period is called the Classical Age, the second is called the Middle Age, and the third is called the Modern Age. … the first age goes from early civilization to the years 313-476, a time that marks the fall of the Roman Empire. The second age stretches from that point until medieval life declines and gives way to the rudiments of modern social structures. This process spans different years in different parts of Europe, but began in Italy during the 1300s and continued through the scientific revolution of the 1600s. The third period that began then continued until sometime in this century. None of these changes, therefore, was abrupt or sudden; each dovetailed with a wide array of human activities. Graham Greene once remarked that there is always a moment in time ‘when a door opens and lets the future in.’ Nietzsche, more directly, called these moments of epochal transformations ‘new dawns.’ Today we are in a period of similar transformation, a source of both turbulence and renewal.”

After this discussion of the past, the authors begin to address the present and future, warning us that our current transition is likely to be much faster than those in the past.

“We should be mindful that the current transformation will occur more quickly than did previous transitions. The Middle Ages lasted one thousand years and the Modern Age has endured half of that. Events today will compress into an even tighter time line. As historian Arthur Schlesinger has noted: ‘A boy who saw the Wright brothers fly for a few seconds at Kitty Hawk could have watched Apollo II land on the moon in 1969.'”

What, the authors’ opinion, is at the root of this current transition?

“The most dramatic driver, of course, is the revolution in communication and information technologies.”

I will continue to read this book as well as look through some of my own earlier work to see what they have to say about our current “new dawn.”


Participating via delivery

In Culture & society on April 27, 2006 at 3:28 pm

On occasions, I lecture about how the nature of work has changed in my lifetime. The following is a Powerpoint slide that I have used to illustrate that, when I was a kid in the mid-1940s, a large number of workers would visit my home on a regular basis.

This slide lists the workers who participated in the economy by going door to door to deliver products, provide services or take orders. The pictures on the right were used to illustrate what part of my world looked like in those days.

  • Doctor: doctors made house-calls. I remember the day that I woke up with severe pain in my lower back and legs, and my parents thought I had polio. They called our family doctor and he showed up in the early afternoon. I was still in bed and had not moved, afraid that it would get worse if I rolled over or sat up. He examined me, grabbed me by the shoulder and rolled me from my side to my back. Amazingly, most of the pain went away. (He may have done more but I only remember his rolling me over). He said I had some kind of muscle spasm.
  • Milkman: every evening my mother would place empty milk bottles in a wire basket on our stoop and she would leave a note about what we needed. The next morning, the milkman would leave our order.
  • Ice truck: every few days, a large truck would come by our house with block ice in the back. We would buy a block and put it in our ice box. Kids would follow the truck, begging the driver to chip off a piece of ice for them.
  • Ice cream truck: every day during the hot part of the year a small truck would drive down our street with the driver ringing a bell. He would stop when anyone appeared and sell them ice cream.
  • Coal truck: most people heated with coal, as did my family. The truck would come to our house on a regular basis and dump a load of coal in our coal bin.
  • Farmer’s truck: a local farmer sold produce from his truck on a route that included our street.
  • Newspaper boy and mailman: the only ones still common today.
  • Grocery delivery: once a week my mother would order groceries from a small grocer in our neighborhood. Later in the day, a small, black panel truck would stop in the alley behind our house and bring the bags of groceries into our kitchen.
  • Door to door salesmen:
    • Insurance: my parents had three insurance policies (death, health, burial). Once a month, three different insurance salesmen would come to our door to collect the monthly payment for their policy.
    • Encyclopedia: once a year or so an encyclopedia salesmen would call upon us. My parents never bought anything.
    • Hoover: my parents bought a vacuum cleaner from a Hoover salesman; he would return occasionally to sell attachments or an upgrade.

Almost all of these jobs are gone now and people who had them had to find other ways to participate in the economy. They might come back someday if gas prices continue to spiral upwards. It could become cheaper for a few people to bring products to the consumer (as we do today with newspapers, mail and packages) rather than every person traveling to an array of stores.

I.M. Generation

In Culture & society on April 11, 2006 at 12:01 pm

An article in the New York Times tells us that the business world has been invaded by the I.M. generation and that it will never be the same again. Prior to their arrival, business correspondences were conducted via email and voice mail, which are now on the decline in more and more firms due to viruses and spam as well as overflowing voice mailboxes.

Now a generation of office workers who grew up with instant messaging has gained control. They have made I.M. the new black, the latest trend in information technology. Along the way, they have changed how the corporate world converses and have built a series of new communication applications.

"With I.M., I know that someone is available, so I can take rapid action to support more real-time operations," said Ashley Roach, a server product manager at Jabber Inc., which sells open-source instant messaging server software.

Instant messaging is becoming an important ingredient for corporations that want to respond rapidly to demands from inside and outside. They are using it to tie customers closer together and to enable workers to communicate across the globe.

I look at this as just one example of the changes that are coming as youth enter the job market and bring along their tech habits acquired in high school and college. They simply participate in life in ways that differ from their elders, and they will participate in the work world in similar ways.

Teens create content for the net

In Content workers, Culture & society on April 6, 2006 at 12:17 pm

Recent research by the Pew Foundation focused on content creation and the resuls are reported in the report "Teen Content Creation and Consumers." The report makes the point that it is increasingly common for teens to create content for the Internet. The key here is for the Internet. As outlined in a previous post, we all create content as part of our daily lives. But creating content for, and distributing it on, the Internet is the new phenomenon. This point is clear in the following material from the report:

Thanks to the Internet, American teenagers can engage media material and create their own content in ways their parents could not. Today's online teens live in a world filled with self-authored, customized, and on-demand content, much of which is easily replicated, manipulated, and redistributable. The Internet and digital publishing technologies have given them the tools to create, remix, and share content on a scale that had previously only been accessible to the professional gatekeepers of broadcast, print, and recorded media outlets.

Create, mix and share … those are the common activities. The report tells us that over one-half of today's teens participate in this practice through several activities.

More than half of all online teens who go online create content for the internet. Among internet-using teens, 57% (or 50% of all teens, roughly 12 million youth) are what might be called Content Creators. They report having done one or more of the following content- creating activities: create a blog; create a personal webpage; create a webpage for school, a friend, or an organization; share original content they created themselves online; or remix content found online into a new creation.

The practice of remixing online content has created a "remix culture" that is championed by many people, including Larry Lessig, a Stanford law professor. Wikipedia contains an entry about his position.

Remix culture is a term employed by Lawrence Lessig to describe a society which allows and encourages derivative works. Such a culture would be, by default, permissive of efforts to improve upon, change, integrate, or otherwise remix the work of copyright holders. Lessig presents this as a desirable ideal and argues, among other things, that the health, progress, and wealth creation of a culture is fundamentally tied to this participatory remix process.

The beauty of a remix culture is that creativity feeds creativity. You create something that spurs me to create something that builds upon it. I may put your creative expression, your creative content, together with mine to produce something entirely new.

Whether through pure creativity or some form of remix, today's teens are participating in the Internet-based content creation in new and exciting ways. I wonder where this will lead when they move into their twenties.

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.

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.

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.

Amateur revolution

In Culture & society, Technology on March 4, 2006 at 2:32 pm

In the October 2004 issue of Fast Company, Charles Leadbeater wrote about the Amateur Revolution. I mentioned this article today in my course Technology and Life but did not get a chance to cover it in a meaningful way. Here is a key passage from that article:

“Passionate amateurs, empowered by technology and linked to one another, are reshaping business, politics, science, and culture. Pro-Am activity will continue to expand. Longer healthy life spans will allow people in their forties and fifties to start taking up Pro-Am activities as second careers. Rising participation in education will give people skills to pursue those activities. New media and technology enable Pro-Ams to organize. Pro-Ams could fuel mass participation in formal politics and in social entrepreneurship. They will play important economic roles as co-producers of services and sources of ideas. Democracy will be livelier, innovation more vibrant, social capital stronger and individual well-being more securely grounded. After a century in decline, amateurs will rise again. And they will change the world.”

Digital technologies are enabling people without extensive formal training to participate in all forms of occupations that were previously reserved for professionals. As Leadbeater tells us, this was a 20th century phenomenon that is under attack on many fronts, be it rap music, computer operating systems or astronomy.

“These far-flung developments have all been driven by Pro-Ams — committed, networked amateurs working to professional standards. Pro-Am workers, their networks and movements, will help reshape society in the next two decades.”

I thought about this movement as I was upgrading to iLife 6 on my Mac. iMovie, GarageBand, and iPhoto are just three of the thousands of available tools that one can use to create near-professional quality video, music and photo books. It’s pretty amazing what a dedicated amateur can do with such tools.

Mass culture

In Culture & society on February 27, 2006 at 5:29 pm

In my lectures about the Participation Age, I include a segment on mass culture and then contrast it with the emerging culture of participation. The following is a summary.

We can trace mass culture to the industrial revolution and World War II, as depicted in this graph:


The industrial revolution brought us interchangeable parts that were produced by machines. Once an investment was made in a machine, the cost of producing one part or product with that machine declined as the number of parts increased because the fixed cost of the machine was spread over more and more items. This gave us the declining cost curve which dictated that mass production would be the most efficient form of production. Thus we entered a period in which larger and larger factories produced larger and larger quantities of goods.

When World War II was over, the United States entered a new period characterized by pent-up demand, the building of massive roads, and the invention of new products and services based upon the vacuum tube. Soldiers returned from the war with money in their pockets while people not in the war had been earning high wages producing war products. They could not spend their money during the war because the supply of consumer products was limited due to rationing of goods so they could be used in the war effort. Thus we had mass demand for cars, appliances, houses, etc.

After the war, General Eisenhower returned to the U.S. from Europe where he had led the Allied forces against Germany. He had been very impressed with the German highways and the ability of the Germans to move their tanks, trucks and missiles all over the country. He wanted the U.S. to build similar highways so that we would be better prepared in the case of another war. When he became president, he got his wish with the creation of the Interstate Highway system. The result was a modern road system that tied the cities together as well as connected inner cities to suburbs. As a result, companies could build massive stores and massive collections of stores in malls.

Vacuum tubes had been perfected during the war and firms such as RCA saw that they could create new products with them. Thus we had the arrival of television, which so captured our interest that before too long almost all households had a television set. This led to an era of mass communication in which advertisers could place one ad in a popular television show and reach 30-40% of the population. Mass communication flourished.

Mass production, mass demand, massive stores and mass communication created the mass culture that dominated our society for many decades of the 20th century.

The mass culture depicted so far is only part of the total. The following are some other mass elements of our society and the technologies or developments that enabled them: One aspect of a mass culture is large entities. Another aspect is the same product or service for everyone.

Elevator and massive cities: The development of the elevator allowed builders to construct very tall buildings that had a small footprint. Once they could place many buildings in a small space, they could grow a city to a very large size without much additional land. The resulting skyscrapers enabled the creation of cities that could house millions of people in offices, apartments and condominiums.

Transportation and mass distribution:Interstate highway system, and the associated feeder roads, enabled the movement of goods and products all over the country.

Malls and mass retailing: The advent of the mall allowed retailers to build versions of their stores in all parts of the country. As a result, people shopping in a mall in Seattle are likely to see the same stores as a shopper in Atlanta, or Miami, or Boston, or Chicago, etc.

Public schools and mass education: Back in the day, schools were run by churches as a means of insuring that people could read the Bible.. Then towns and states took over the task of educating the population so that democracy would flourish. Today, we have a mass education system that strives to give the same education to all the children in the U.S. That is the very definition of mass education … the same education for the all of the masses.

Automation and mass leisure: During the early decades of the 20th century, products such as refrigerators, washing machines, electric ranges, and vacuum cleaners made it much easier for families to meet their daily living requirements. As a result, people, particularly women, had much more free time. In the work place, factory automation led to the concept of the 40 hour work week and the two week vacation. Both of these developments yielded the opportunity for people to engage in leisure activities such as radio listening, TV watching, travel, attending sports events, playing games, etc. Mass leisure thus joined the mass culture.

Electronics and mass computing: Our early computers were built with vacuum tubes, a technology that dictated that the most efficient form of computing would be the large centralized computer. The period from 1950 to 1980 or so has been termed the era of mass computing.

Older adults today witnessed parts of the formation of this mass culture. Thus their views of the world are likely to be strongly influenced by their acceptance of the mass culture as normal. This means that most of them tend to view themselves as members of the masses. In terms of passive versus participation, they tend to be passive.
Baby boomers grew up when this culture was well established and are likely to have similar acceptance. But the following generations, sometimes called the Gen X and Gen Y generations, appear to see the world through a different lens and are thus more eager to participate in it in different ways.

Today’s youth, high school and college students, are the ones who seem to be turning away from the products and services of the mass culture and paying far more attention to those offerings that allow them to participate in some form or other. For instance, they tend not to read newspapers and their TV viewing is lower then previous generations.
But they seem very eager to share their own experiences in blogs and social network software, and to read the stories of their friends and peers. Thus the extreme popularity of services such as MySpace among this group. The culture that surrounds MySpace, Facebook and Friendster is definitely very different from the mass culture of the 20th century.