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March 09, 2011

The Public Interest, The Commons, and the Market-Driven Wasteland

I recently watched the movie The King's Speech, and I realized that the characters portayed in the movie were talking about the new technology (radio) as something that would change the nature of governing, of politics, and of communicating - using the exact same terms that people use today for the Web. "We've all become actors now", says King George V. Perhaps the politicians will all become tweeters next. iDebate question: Mr. Prez in 140 characters or less, hw wl u solv th3 Middl East thng?

When I was young, people talked about television as a game-changer. The televised Nixon-Kennedy presidential debates - in which the tan, young Kennedy contrasted the sweaty, pale Nixon with a five-o'clock shadow - changed the course of the nation. Television changed politics, and television certainly changed society - the 60's were a decade of television, from civil rights marches, the summer riots, antiwar demonstrations, VietNam on the evening news, and the Apollo programs.

Today, our President is arguably a the winner of an internet-mediated campaign, which might have votes taken in voting booths but which was certainly contested on the web, and the television, and the radio.

Each medium has it's attributes and applications. (see John Barth's Click) It may be true that Left/Liberals/Democrats/Blues have the edge in television while Right/Conservatives/Republicans/Reds have the edge in radio, which would make the Web the tie-breaking medium.

And then what's next for the web? Television bifurcated into open access (broadcast) and proprietary access (cable). The Web was the open, standard platform. It seems that what's next is the closed, proprietary iWeb, with Apps mediating access to the media, and the businesses that control the App Stores get to be the gatekeepers selling the public's attention. In television, the schism between open and proprietary was deleterious to the "open" system; it seems likely that the nascent "proprietary-app-store-mediated" internet will have the same effect.

I think Smart Phones will be the next new frontier; they're ubiquitous, they're powerful, and they're ready for initial exploitation. Some demographic groups, mostly less affluent segments, don't buy computers as much as they do buy smartphones. A politician's (or party's) investment in smartphone presence will return access to a voter block that is underrepresented on the (computer-based) web.

So, I think:
  • the web was the next best thing, it's post-peak and ready to slide downhill
  • the proprietary app-mediated internet used over smartphones is the next big thing that will change politics, hence government, hence society.

But While I'm extending radio into television, and television into web, and web into smartphones, why stop there?

Fifty years ago today, Newt Minow (the other Newt) gave the Wasteland Speech to the convention of the National Association of Broadcasters on May 9, 1961. It was Minow's first major speech after he was appointed chairman of the FCC by President John F Kennedy. In the speech, Minow referred to television programming as a "vast wasteland" and advocated for programming in the public interest.
"When television is good, nothing — not the theater, not the magazines or newspapers — nothing is better.

But when television is bad, nothing is worse. I invite each of you to sit down in front of your own television set when your station goes on the air and stay there, for a day, without a book, without a magazine, without a newspaper, without a profit and loss sheet or a rating book to distract you. Keep your eyes glued to that set until the station signs off. I can assure you that what you will observe is a vast wasteland.

You will see a procession of game shows, formula comedies about totally unbelievable families, blood and thunder, mayhem, violence, sadism, murder, western bad men, western good men, private eyes, gangsters, more violence, and cartoons. And endlessly commercials — many screaming, cajoling, and offending. And most of all, boredom. True, you'll see a few things you will enjoy. But they will be very, very few. And if you think I exaggerate, I only ask you to try it."
Mr. Minot tried to get us to think about the public interest. He was concerned that market forces would ruin the commons (the public's RF spectrum) and that we had turned the commons into a wasteland.

Television returned the favor by immortalizing Mr. Minot by naming the unfortunate wrecked charter boat on Gilligan's Island (the SS Minnow) after him.

The Atlantic Monthly recently interviewed Newt Minot and asked about his speech. My favorite Q&A in the article was:
Q: What do you think of the current calls to eliminate public funding of public broadcasting?

A: We've been through that before. Years ago when I was chairman of PBS and would testify in front of Congress people would say, Why should there be public funds? I would say,
Why should there be public parks? Hospitals? The market doesn't serve everyone with everything.

Is an Omnipotent Market also Omniscient?

I'd like to follow up on Newt's thought (last time you'll hear those words put together), and extend it to the current Democracy Versus Unions struggle. The market doesn't provide everything. The market doesn't provide social justice. The market doesn't provide the good life. Leaving all decisions to market forces is an abdication of leadership and moral activity.

Who wants to live in a world where the market decides everything?
What would that world look like?

If you were behind the veil of ignorance, and were about to be placed into a market-decides-all society without knowing where in the economy you'd be placed, would you find your situation acceptable?

Do you want your children to live in a world where the market makes all decisions? The unfettered market eventually results in serfdom and slavery. As Americans, we were once about life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.


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