27 June 2006

Understand the Ground, Understand the Speaker

A great object lesson in figure and ground, and the importance of the latter to understand the former. Via boingboing out of John Batelle, comes mention of a speech given by one Leo Hindery at the Convergence 2.0 conference in Washington, D.C. In this talk, Hindery predicts the demise (and/or acquisition and assimilation) of the "portals" (Yahoo, Google, MSN, AOL and eBay) in favour of the the content aggregators (big networks and media content companies like Time Warner and Disney) and the distributors (cable, satellite and the few RBOCs remaining). While conference attendees lap up Hindery's content (the figure), and Batelle and others deconstruct it, let's consider Hindery's ground and the ground of the conference itself, to understand what it is he is actually telling us.

Leo Hindery ran AT&T's broadband division for a short time in the mid-1990s, and was head of a content distribution company that distributed New York Yankees and New Jersey Devils games via cable. He also headed the National Cable Television Association (a Washington lobby), and is now involved in the merger and acquisition business involving content and distribution companies. Little wonder, then, that he views the Internet in the same way that most of the content and distribution companies do, that is, as only a communication channel. The conference itself is concerned with "consolidation in broadcast, cable, telecom and mobile." Little wonder that his talk focuses on the demise of those elements of the 'net that promote interactions that are not part of a broadcast model.

Irrespective of whether what he says would tend towards being an accurate or inaccurate prediction on its face (figure), what is more useful is to assess how the speaker perceives (or rather, conceives) the world (ground). As I say in a talk that I'm doing tomorrow (more about this on Thursday - stay, uh, tuned)
Our intense focus on precisely what we have been trained to do controls what we believe. And what we believe controls what we are able to see. ... We have been trained to ignore anything that does not support our preconceived point of view or expert opinion. ... We have been conditioned to believe that the world exists only in diametric opposites.
Hindery may make a logical and reasonable argument within the limited ground of his worldview, and that of the conference attendants. I wouldn't, however take that to the bank.

Update (27 June 2006): Jay Rosen over at PressThink has what turns out to be a great response to Hindery - The People Formerly Known as the Audience:
The people formerly known as the audience are those who were on the receiving end of a media system that ran one way, in a broadcasting pattern, with high entry fees and a few firms competing to speak very loudly while the rest of the population listened in isolation from one another— and who today are not in a situation like that at all.
  • Once they were your printing presses; now that humble device, the blog, has given the press to us. That’s why blogs have been called little First Amendment machines. They extend freedom of the press to more actors.
  • Once it was your radio station, broadcasting on your frequency. Now that brilliant invention, podcasting, gives radio to us. And we have found more uses for it than you did.
  • Shooting, editing and distributing video once belonged to you, Big Media. Only you could afford to reach a TV audience built in your own image. Now video is coming into the user’s hands, and audience-building by former members of the audience is alive and well on the Web.
  • You were once (exclusively) the editors of the news, choosing what ran on the front page. Now we can edit the news, and our choices send items to our own front pages.
  • A highly centralized media system had connected people “up” to big social agencies and centers of power but not “across” to each other. Now the horizontal flow, citizen-to-citizen, is as real and consequential as the vertical one.

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