Isolation and technology

From an NYT magazine article, “The Price of Free” by Nicholas Carr:

The communal mode of TV viewing isn’t gone, but it’s becoming less common. As screens proliferate and shrink, and as the Web allows us to view whatever we want whenever we want, we spend more time watching video alone. That’s one funny thing about the Internet: it’s an extraordinarily rich communications system, but as an information and entertainment medium, it encourages private consumption. The pictures and sounds served up through our PCs, iPods and smart phones absorb us deeply but in isolation. Even when we’re together today, we’re often apart, peering into our own screens.

Communication as a business, an industry, depends on isolation, not on bringing people together. The technology it researches and produces and disseminates all will serve that purpose as well. The industry wants us to be incapable of creating community outside of its confines.

Carr seems to believe that a media industry is ultimately necessary to guarantee quality control on content. If there is no capital (collected, presumably, in big firms) for expensive programming, then the market will be flooded with amateur productions and their reality-TV equivalents.

The smartest, most creative TV shows, from “Deadwood” to “Mad Men” to NBC’s own “30 Rock,” tend to be the most expensive to produce. They have large, talented casts, top-notch writers and directors, elaborate sets and generally high production values. If the changes in our viewing habits stanch the flow of money back to studios, producing those kinds of programs may no longer be possible. In their place, we’ll get more junk: dopey reality shows, cookie-cutter police dramas, inane gab fests. The vast wasteland will become even vaster.

The alternative vision is that production will shift outside the commercial media industry and be taken up by nonmarket players with a peer-production sort of model. It’s cheap to make and distribute content, and talent comes for free, since there are so many talented people willing to volunteer there services in exchange for public recognition.

Production costs will drop to the point that capital accumulation in big firms will become unnecessary. We will all be our own media companies, if we have the time and desire to make our own content, program our own channels.
Unlike Carr, who in this case seems worried about the fate of big media companies, I think that the individual being able to find that time and desire is the real problem. An attention deficit, not a capital deficit. Another way of putting it: There is not enough social recognition to go around. The media decays into a series of tubes all jammed with pleas of “notice me!”

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