The Internet and the Social Impact of Local Media

Luc Sala

More bandwidth into the home will probably lessen the impact of the mass media, networks, and media conglomerates. Available advertising and subscription dollars will have to be shared by more television channels and also by Internet providers, and in 10 years the difference between television and the Internet will be far less, as the Net will evolve into the main video-on-demand medium and the turnover per channel/site/program will decrease dramatically. This is a threat to the large media enterprises but possibly a enormous opportunity for local media. With nearly unlimited choice of content, the consumer might pick more and more local material, as this is real and contains practical information as opposed to the mostly virtual data on the World Wide Web. In the wave of new media there are many experiments, many new forms and marketing ploys, but basically the two main trends are these:

  1. More channels in local television
  2. More Internet

In fact, given the rapid increase in bandwidth for the Net and interactivity for the cable networks, both trends go in the same direction and might in fact converge in five to seven years, when full-motion video via the Net will be more or less equal to the video-on-demand supplied by cable networks. If the public (and the politicians) become aware of the waste of capital and other resources in two full-service networks with the same functions, there might in the end be only one. This is not to say that there are not a multitude of services from various and independent organizations, but the basic infrastructure will be a full-bandwidth (10-50 Mbps switched, 200-400 Mbps broadcast) social impact system, using copper, fiber, air, satellite, or power cables.

Let's translate this into practical terms: Middle-class citizens in the year 2000 will have access to 100-plus broadcast channels in various classes, some billion pages/files/movies/worlds of Internet/Web content, and switched services including full video telephony and electronic meetings in virtual reality (VR). They will use agents to cruise this sea of data and fetch what they like but will still crave the human companionship and real communication of the heart.

However, they will not spend more than 5 to 10 percent (typically 7 percent) of their income on entertainment, including electronic communications, as that has been a fairly stable figure through the ages. It might jump because of a new and exciting medium, but it will level off again.

This seems to be true for time, too: People will probably spend the same amount of time in front of a screen (or in a VR helmet or multisensory armchair) as they do now. And do they respond better to the exploitation of their underinformed egos through advertising? Because marketing is really the art of disinformation, it will find ways to reach buyers, even under the guise of "independent" advice and information. The computer industry, with its ever-slimmer margins, became the victim of its own success, believing in the magazines and media that made the markets and products ever more transparent, thereby reducing the possibility that they would be able to sustain profit margins and thus innovation. A totally transparent market will become very dull and only marginally profitable.

So what are the basics? There will be an enormously expanded offering of content but roughly the same spending power (or advertising share of the end-user price), so each channel/network/site/world/service/bit will go for a much lower price. And if you don't want to offer your services nearly free, your competitor will, in this economy of the prisoner's dilemma.

Do I project doom for the mass media? Yes, if they don't understand that their share of the total pie is diminishing rapidly. They believe that there is some magical 80/20 rule, so that the top performers will be in the clear. But the rest have to survive too, and they will have to do with a far smaller piece of the pie.

So what to do? Start working on content-generating techniques that produce adequate interactive video/3-D/4-D content at a cost an order of magnitude lower than the present betacam/digital avid/broadcast-quality stuff.

Where will it go? The expanded offering in local content--as long as the necessary business and infrastructure to develop more local content emerges--will have (I hope) a positive effect on the coherence of the local community, will help integrate the social/racial/economic strata and lead to a more rooted and less alienated feeling for the citizen of the third millennium.

Example of marketing in 2000: After responding to any of the myriad feeder ploys, the president of Apple Computer (a division of Wal-Mart) will call you on the videophone and will personally address you, in your language, responding to your personality and spending profile, and will offer you a tailor-made solution for your workstation/VR room/sex tool. He (or it, since it is a guided animation) will do anything in the book to make you happy, content, a satisfied customer.

This is positive, as it is more individual and less impersonal, and at the same time we must be wary of the dangers of manipulation, hypnotizing, and a society where the form and the spectacle are more important than the content.

To safeguard the positive influence of the digital evolution of Internet/cable/interactive TV toward small-scale democracy, tribal and neighborly awareness, and city-state economics, and to fend off the negative aspects of supermediapower cultural homogenization, it is necessary to support local Internet and cable initiatives, support local media, support electronic offspring of existing local media, and boost the involvement of minorities in the electronic cyberspace decolonization.

Point of advice: Data becomes only information, when the bit bytes!