Marshall McLuhan and the laws of the media

I have been a long-time fan of Marshall McLuhan. Some of his well-known insights and aphorisms are immensely powerful. It is profoundly true that media are extensions of man; they extend our senses to take us to distant places and perspectives. McLuhan’s best known tenet, the medium is the message, is something that we all implicity understand in our media-rich world, though we rarely express it. When I first read The Medium is the Massage, which came out in 1967, it looked to me almost exactly like the bold typographical style and layout that Wired magazine was thought to have pioneered in the late 1990s. McLuhan had been there three decades earlier, and he was acknowledged as the “patron saint” of the magazine.. His influence has been profound, but now 26 years after his death, his thinking is embedded into the way we think rather than being broadly acknowledged.

While I’m not a big reader of biographies, I have just finished reading Marshall McLuhan: The Medium and the Messenger , by Philip Marchand, who did an outstanding job at capturing the life and whimsy of the man. One theme that comes across very strongly through the book is how incoherent most of McLuhan’s speaking and writing was. This is not a surprise to those that have tried to get their heads around even some of McLuhan’s more mainstream work such as Understanding Media, however this seems to have been pervasive through almost all his work. The thing was McLuhan had no interest in being coherent or consistent – his approach was to spin off a million ideas and see which ones landed. Many of those that worked with him recognized both his genius, and that he was virtually crazy.

One episode that illustrates McLuhan’s extraordinary prescience is that in 1955, well before he became famous, he set up a company called Idea Consultants. One of their slogans was “A headache is a million-dollar idea trying to get born. Idea Consultants are obstetricians for these ideas.” The company never sold any ideas or got any work. However one of McLuhan’s often brillliant ideas at the time was to create a TV program that would select a business problem, build it into an interesting format, then offer a reward for the viewer who came up with the best approach. McLuhan thought that this would be far more likely to result in a good solution than hiring any group of consultants, however good they were. Today, this would be considered an innovative, pragmatic, and viable project. Maybe it will happen in the next few years. Fifty years ago, clearly the world was not quite ready for it.

One new thing I learned about in reading the book was what McLuhan called the Tetrads, or the “laws of the media”. it stirkes me that these “laws” are actually highly relevant to strategic analysis of any industry which is undergoing rapid change. I still have to dig up the original material to interpret it properly, but the following is my loose interpretation of McLuhan’s Tetrads.

1. Any innovative technology enhances or accelerates some of what existed before.

[Q: What does it enhance or accelerate?]

2. Any innovative technology erodes or renders obsolescent some of what existed before.

[Q: What does it erode or obselesce?]

3. Any innovative technology retrieves something that has become obsolescent.

[Q: What does it retrieve that has eroded or become obsolescent?]

4. Any innovative technology, when pushed to the limits of its potential, reverses or flips into something entirely new.

[Q: What does it reverse or flip into?]

McLuhan used the telegraph as an example. Again adapting his work:

1. The telegraph amplified the reach of events, and changed daily news to instaneous news.

2. The telegraph rendered opinion based, local broadsheets obsolescent as people sought faster, broader news.

3. The telegraph brought back group involvement and discussion around events, which had been fading.

4. The telegraph flipped from one-on-one communication into multi-point broadcast, and reversed the corporate hoarding of information.

I am a strong believer in strategic questions (as briefly illustrated in the Future of Media report). Asking the right question is most of the way to getting the right answer. The strategic questions raised by McLuhan, if applied effectively as part of a strategy process, can be immensely valuable in understanding how specific new technologies will change us, and the opportunities they create. I will play with these questions more around some current issues, and will share anything interesting here.

Global discussion on the future of media

The Future of Media Report 2006 has certainly achieved its intention of generating discussion with dozens of posts and also good media coverage. So far there has been discussion in five languages from Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Chile, China, Croatia, Germany, Italy, Peru, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Switzerland, Thailand, UK, and the US (these are representative links only – in most of these countries there have been many references to the report).

Here is the full list of links to the report and Summit website (Technorati).

[UPDATE: Over 7,000 copies of the report have been downloaded.]

There were two particularly thorough and thoughtful analyses of the report, the first of the reviews from Robin Good at Master New Media, and another one from Sanjana Hattotuwa – these are both very much worth reading. I’d like to pick up on and respond to just a few of their comments.

Robin says:

The report is way too US-centric. The revolution in the making is a global one, not an American one. Do you think that if by accident the US had a sustained black out this would somehow stop? Many other local and regional realities are at work, and often with a much greater impact on society and with a faster evolutionary speed than what the US content and advertising marketplaces have done.

Given the highlights and the relative majority of research data focusing on the US-UK-Australia triangle only, ironically the report could have been better titled something as The Future of American and Anglo-Saxon Media.

Absolutely a fair comment Robin. The reason we limited the research focus of the report to US, UK, and Australia was primarily one of resources. While Future Exploration Network is a global organization, these are our “home” countries. In creating the report we considered whether to include other interesting media markets, which could have included China, Brazil, Scandinavia, or many others. However the report was pulled together very quickly, and we simply didn’t have the time and resources to extend beyond these three markets for the research portion of the report. The other themes and issues, such as the strategic framework, absolutely apply in all media markets, and it’s certainly been encouraging how global the response to the report has been. We would love to do a report either truly more global in scope, or addressing specific markets such as East Asia, continental Europe, or Latin America, however this would require some resources. So if any organizations are interested in sponsoring or getting involved in a report that would go further than the original one, definitely get in touch with us.

Robin says:

Global media market highlights.

32 years [for the media and entertainment industry to double its share of the global economy]? I think it will take much less time than that, and looking at the report I get no reference or URL to verify and deepen my understanding. The data reported to support this point say only: “based on 1999-2004 trends” (page 3 of the report).

Sorry, yes this is worth elaborating. In 1999-2004 the global media and entertainment industries grew by 28.5%, while global GDP increased by 18.7%. If these growth rates continue, the share of media and entertainment of the global economy will double in 32 years. Since these years include both the dot-com boom and subsequent bust, they may not be representative. I too believe that it will take less than 32 years, but it’s an interesting extrapolation. While the global economy is likely to grow at a strong pace (barring disasters), the shift to intangible value will definitely accelerate.

Robin says:

Read more

Mobile traffic data will pressure local radio

Google has just released maps for use on mobiles, that indicate traffic congestion with four color levels from green to red, across 30 US cities. This is one of those applications that has been obvious forever, and it’s only been a question of time until it’s implemented well (which is not quite yet). When people are navigating traffic and choosing alternate routes, they have until now been guessing which way to go, having available at best a trickle of information in from the radio. In fact, traffic information is one of the main reasons that people listen to local radio. Once you can get far superior traffic information from other sources, you might as well go to the radio that gives you your preferred music or talk, which is unlikely to be local radio. Next steps include not just current traffic intensity, but also predicted traffic intensity. As I wrote in my book Living Networks, UK company Applied Generics has a product called RoDIN24, that anonymously monitors the movement of mobile phones relative to cell towers in order to provide extremely detailed and live views not just of where traffic is slow (mobile phones moving slowly), but also where traffic is converging to. Beyond that, computers will be able to predict reasonably accurately how long different routes will take, enabling drivers to make route choices without gazing at screens too much. Of course, these predictive devices will play off against each other – if every one made the same recommendation to their drivers, that route in turn would become congested. But in the long run, in congested urban traffic we will see the different possible routes taken even out, so that it takes a similar time whichever of the major possibilities you choose. Resource Shelf gives an overview of other traffic data resources. The US dominates, with some services also in the UK. As with good GPS mapping, there will be a several year lag for effective mobile traffic services to reach most other developed countries. As with many of these applications, it is the cost of mobile data that is a key driver. Cheap mobile data in the US is driving these kinds of applications. In countries where mobile data is very expensive, including Australia, it will, unfortunately, take a long time for mobile applications such as traffic data to take off.

Being in two places at the same time

I really like this. A Japanese researcher has created a lifelike doppelganger robot of himself, which he uses to do lectures at a university an hour’s drive away from his home, thus saving himself the commute. He is the live voice of the robot, and can see through its eyes. Pickups on his mouth and lips control the movement of the robot’s mouth while it is speaking. Apparently the robot looks very human – certainly the photos are hard to pick as a machine (though the machine does look less friendly than the man). While the cost of creating this kind of robot will never get very low, as every one must be custom-made, the implications are staggering. If the robot really is good, this is a big step beyond videoconferencing, and arguably even teleimmersion. Robot duplicates could be put on airplanes in lieu of people to go to distant meetings, for example. I will definitely explore the possibility of using one of these for keynote speeches I’m asked to deliver in distant lands, though I suspect it will be a good while before I have a duplicate of myself, unfortunately. Who hasn’t dreamed of being in two places at the same time?

The social nature of Search 2.0

Richard MacManus has part 1 of a very nice overview of “Search 2.0” companies and technologies, written by Ebrahim Ezzy of Qube. There are many facets to this category of search, however to my mind almost all of them are social or collaborative in nature. Google of course already implements this through the way it aggregates user behaviors in its ranking. However you get the same results when you do a search on Google, whoever you are. Central to the next phase is that you start getting results that are relevant to you and your interests. While there are many approaches to this, I believe that doing this well is most likely to be based on understanding people’s profiles relative to their search and information usage patterns – in other words social networks and collaborative filtering. These approaches can be self-selecting, for example in forming peer groups to share search results, or through algorithms. However it is clear that effort must be minimized – several of the current generation of Search 2.0 are still require too much manual input. This whole space is just opening out now, and will take many years to evolve. But those who can truly help people get better search results in a world of infinite information, will undoubtedly do extremely well.

Experimenting with a large group blog

Haven’t posted here yet on yesterday’s Future of Media Summit, as I am now spending more time over on the Future of Media Summit Participant Blog – go check it out. This is kind of an experiment – we’ve set up a blog that every Summit attendee can write posts on. All attendees received a personal login and password, and were given a participant blogging instructions page. We didn’t get a whole lot of blog posts during the event, partly because of WiFi problems in Sydney, but it is now picking up a little as people join the discussion. There has been a lot of discussion globally on the Future of Media Report (more on this later), which is beginning to be reflected in the blog. In addition, there were 14 “audience panels” at the Sydney event, where participants gathered around their chosen theme. (It’s interesting to see the top themes people chose.) The Drivers of Mobile Content and User Generated Content panels have already posted a summary of their discussions on the blog – hopefully some of the other panels will report back too.

So this is what you could call a Large Group Blog. Around 175 people have logins to the blog – everyone who physically attended the Future of Media Summit in either Sydney or San Francisco. While not many have posted yet, more may do so. I’ll invite a few other people who couldn’t make it to the event, to join in if they choose. Starting points for blog discussions are of course the general theme of the future of media, the Future of Media report, the blog discussion around it, an article on the Summit in the Sydney Morning Herald, other media coverage, with more content to come very soon, including a videostream of the event, a video summary, and more articles. So if you have anything to contribute to the discussion, whether or not you were at the event, just email us at fen [AT] futureexploration [DOT] net and we’ll set you up with a blog login. No idea what will happen with this, but I think it’s time to experiment with blogs with large numbers of people around a particular theme. In the past this has been done on forums and discussion boards. Blogs have usually been for one or a few authors. An event seems like a reasonable starting point to get some interesting people to discuss things of common interest, especially since they’ve met before. It’s also an opportunity for people who have never blogged before to try it out, especially when you have not only the die-hard fanatics in the audience. It seems kind of obvious, but I’m not sure anyone’s done it before quite like this. So whatever happens with the blog, be it small or large, it will be very interesting.

Live videostream for the Future of Media Summit

The live videostream for the Future of Media Summit is now available for pre-registration. Just go to the registration page, then at the time of the event login to the videostream. The live conference videostream is available free to anyone who cares to join us…

Live videostream times (first 3:30 hours from Sydney; last 2 hours from Sydney and San Francisco)

Sydney: 19 July, 8:30am-2pm

San Francisco: 18 July, 3:30-9pm

New York: 18 July, 6:30pm-12

London: 18 July 11:30pm – 19 July 5am

Hope you can join us…

Talking about the future…

Last Thursday I was interviewed by Tony Delroy on the Nightlife program, an ABC program broadcast nationally. We talked about the future in a broad ranging interview and talkback session spanning 40 minutes, covering topics including the digital divide, video everywhere, social response to technology, commoditization, doing business virtually, infinite content, virtual environments, and even teleportation. The entire interview is available as an mp3 download (14MB).

No astroturfing around here!

Astroturfing” is the practice of corporate PR agents artificially creating what appear to be grassroots movements. Astroturf is a product used on the grounds of sports stadiums – so it may look like grassroots, but it ain’t. Examples of astroturfing include paying people to put comments on blogs or websites, bloggers who purport to be other than who they are, and paying people to flock to events covered by media to look like people care – plenty more examples from the Center for Media and Democracy. Trevor Cook and Paul Young have kicked off an AntiAstoturfing campaign, complete with logo for PR agencies that declare themselves astroturfing-free. In a world where new communications technologies are giving power to the many to express themselves and gain influence, there is no question there will be more and more astroturfing. People will become increasingly sceptical about whether an apparent groundswell of opinion is real or not, though I also believe that it is well-nigh impossible to hide these kinds of activities on any scale for long. There is the real potential for the PR industry to divide along the lines of those happy to do this work, and those who refuse. Trevor and Paul have stated where they stand.

Launching the Future of Media Report 2006

From the start, a key part of the idea for the Future of Media Summit was to create some interesting content that would provide a basis for discussion at the event. Something that would help people think in a structured and productive about what’s really happening in the world of media. The Future of Media Report 2006 is NOW! officially launched.


Download Future of Media Report 2006

The Summit is on next July 18/19, simultaneously in Sydney and San Framcisco. Get thee along! It will be a mighty fine occasion, with well over a 100 people in Sydney, nigh on 50 in San Francisco, and a whole bunch globally on the live videostream. Check the website in the next couple of days about the live videostream. There’ll also be some kind of “audience blogging” at the event, including people in all locations. If not, just read the report, and the event will leave a trail of participatory content behind it.

Some of the things you’ll find in the report:

Global media market highlights. In 32 years media will have doubled its share of the global economy. Newspaper revenue is stagnant, but television, driven by cable subscriptions, is growing healthily. The US is heavily overrepresented in the global media markets, boasting 42% of all revenue. However China’s media appetite is exploding.

Global media comparisons. Other countries are catching up to the US in online advertising, though classifieds is a particularly strong source of revenue growth in the US. Teens spend more total time with media than adults, but less time watching TV.

Emerging media relationships. The Washington Post far outstrips other major US newspapers in blog references per print copy, but still lags The Guardian. Almost half of all “mashups” are based on location. PhotoBucket outstrips the growth pace of MySpace.

Content creation and usage. Eighteen percent of Americans over 65 years old have created content on the Internet, showing it’s not just for teenagers. 37% of all blog posts are in Japanese, more than in English.

Media industry networks. Microsoft remains the company most central to global media alliances and joint ventures. Yahoo!, Apple, CBS, Viacom, and Sony Ericsson are among those that have become more central over the last five years.

The Future of Media Strategic Framework. A framework to pull together some of the many threads that make up the future of media, including the symbiosis of mainstream and social media, the consumer/ creator archetype, content, formats, revenue, distribution, globalization and localization, and intellectual property.

Five ideas transforming media. Key ideas include “time compression,” describing how people’s media consumption habits change when they get busier, and “infinite content,” about a world in which limitless media is available.

Media snippets. In 1892 there were 14 evening newspapers in London. Today there is just one. 36% of US high-school students believe that newspapers should get “government approval” before stories are published.

The main intent of the report is to build a conversation. So very interested in any thoughts, comments, additions, disagreements, other stimulating stuff in this space. Actually I need to check my comments function is working properly. Email me if it isn’t. Speak later!