Archive for July, 2008

The word ‘Otaku’ is derived from the Japanese for ‘house’ or ‘household’, and originally meant, ‘one who does not leave his house’. I haven’t been able to get out of the house much lately, but that hasn’t translated into much blogging. Excuses follow: I’ve still had painful back spasms, my family’s suffered a disappointment after months of waiting to hear back about a job, and I’ve been trapped in a compulsion, reading through the archives of Fans!

All three of which are truly unforgiveable excuses for losing focus on the notion of a better tomorrow, as you’ll know if you know the comic, know the details of the disappointment, or dream of a world where machine-human fusion has corrected humanity’s greatest design flaw, the spine.

The broadcast regulator’s latest document on the future of Public Service, for example. ITV and Ofcom disagree about when ITV’s legal Public Service obligations will no longer be worth their benefits (i.e. nationwide free analogue broadcast), but agree it will be soon. On these grounds, and ultimately under threat of ‘handback’ (where ITV sheds its Public Service remit and its channel status, and becomes another fully commercialised channel holder on digital distribution systems like Sky, next to Living and Virgin TV), Ofcom appear to be leaning towards allowing the channel to cut its regional coverage and current affairs.

Meanwhile, Channel 4 looks ever more likely to get a slice of the license fee on a competitive basis, as overseen by a proposed new Public Service authority, according to the Ofcom document that’s been leaked. This may be the most significant change proposed, which would realistically only come into force with the signing of a new Communications act around the end of the decade.

As the only fully-funded public broadcaster the BBC has always had its own internal processes and philosophy act in place of a regulator, with Ofcom as a sort of independent complaints board. And those processes and philosophies are undoubtedly are part of why many see the Beeb as isolated, bloated and absurdly lavish. But the complaints people have the power now, and seem resolute on locking horns with the BBC.

If ITV Plc. can stomach the notion of becoming just another channel and ultimately, inevitably losing brand recognition, this should wake up any remaining sleepers as to the future. The Ofcom document rings with the assumption that by the time a new communications act comes out, after an election, the license fee will already appear to most as an anachronistic tithe. Anachronistic, because as a form of taxation it won’t represent a connection between the commodity taxed and the manner in which either the commodity or the money is used. In the ‘storyline’ document that’s been leaked, Ofcom consider (and dismiss for the immediate future) a tax on distribution hardware, i.e. a literal ‘license’ added to the purchase of a television. This would represents a resolution of the fee with the service provided by the appliance and by the government. But Ofcom dismisses this to be considered again “in a few years”, by which time you’d think it would be obvious to everyone that a tax on ‘distribution hardware’ would have to include computers as well as closed distribution boxes like BT Vision and Sky.

Or would it? this returns us to the argument of whether viewers of the future will sit down for their nightly viewing with a keyboard or a remote control. I and many of my generation will have spent too many evenings in with TV-On-Demand (mostly, and let’s face it, pirated) to ever let it go, but it would be foolish to deny the appeal that an entertainment box which limits content to that which can be scrolled through.

I have a long screed about this as regards to BT Vision, a closed-box (or, in Zittrain’s terms, ‘sterile appliance’) digital distribution system with on-demand elements, navigable by name with an alphanumeric keypad. The system thus represents the partial habilitation of the mobile-style SMS keypad into the modern communication skillset, and also a bridge between usage styles, between scrolling a menu and browsing an unlimited field. I predicted a while ago that the two will likely co-exist for many years to come; the alphabetical browsing and limited field navigation serve different purposes. Many will never be fully acclimatised to an unlimited field, just like many never felt fully at home watching four channels, whether they knew it or not.

(A fascinating essay, with the Katz media thesis spelled out: Katz fears that the proliferation of channels (instantly in this case, from one channel to more than forty in Israel in 1994) means that television will lose its “agenda setting” role. No longer will it be able to exercise a unifying influence or concentrate the public’s interest around national goals.)

The BBC argues that it alone should recieve benefit from the license fee, and maintain its supposed ‘special relationship’, between broadcaster and population. A relationship bonded through the medium of fees. Sitting their argument alongside Katz’s thesis we’re reminded that whether or not Katz’s thesis is sound or relevant to this country (which it is not), there is no getting back to a one-channel world, no matter what anyone wishes for. And the inevitable consequence is a gradual, now radical, obscuring of what the license fee payer is actually paying for.

It’s not that I don’t believe the warnings about what the internet could be made into. I no longer believe (who in my generation can?) that liberalisation is a gradual, inevitable process. It must be fought for and defended by vigilance. In a sense the battle for the freeing of data has already been won: proliferation of mainstream media is the next battle ground for the information-sharers and the network they’ve built. And by its very nature it will be neither as quick nor as straightforward as the fight for the free full publication of academic material, mathematical and scientific collaboration, conspiracy theories and Star Trek jokes.


G.K. Chesterton said that poets do not go mad, but chess players do. Mathematicians could conceive of the internet, could crack their heads open; they knew what it meant and built it without the need of interest from outsiders, and they will fight to the death to stop it folding in upon itself. Media creatives might not. Creatives might reasonably be nostalgic for the era of restricted distribution, where intellectual property could be ring-fenced. Artists make much better salespeople, and as such they might sell the internet without ever having really understood it. They are all geeks, chess players and poets alike, and as such they have a share in the idealism which is their heritage. But it’s media people who make conservatism into nostalgia. It might be these people, those who should have the largest stake in the freeing of publication and community, who allow it to be stonewalled and try to contain it within an economy that’s no longer apt.

As a stopgap piece, it’s inevitable that the Ofcom document smacks as much of nostalgia as it does of readiness for the big, radical decisions that would make a new communications act meaningful going into the next decade. It prompts me to ask who Ofcom would want to staff a PSB regulator, and what powers would be involved in consolidating Public Service material online into a ‘coherent strategy’.

When I walk past that Vodaphone ad, ‘Surf the mobile internet’, I know that it’s someone like me, probably an English graduate, who came up with that brilliant piece of doubletalk. It’s the small, overtaxed and underappreciated scientific part of my brain which thinks “but I don’t want ‘a mobile internet’. I just want the internet. No doubt the phone companies have found plenty of takeup for plans which allow access only to Youtube, Myspace, Facebook and a handful of others; for many young folks on the move, that’s basically all they need.

But I don’t want an appliance; a handful of applications is not the network. No matter how good the navigation or peer-review system is, I want nothing less than an unrestricted browser. It’s possible that my tastes may become the new indie; it’s possible, but still hard to believe, that real use of the internet might return to the relative underground, while applications which operate on the network with a limited or translucent frontend fulfil mainstream demand and take up most of the bandwidth. It’s possible. And if necessary, I would go back to 56k to stay on the real network, and not only for the nostalgia. But it shouldn’t be necessary. Geeks- otaku- have already gone outside, have already shown that their obsessions are not an illness, not anti-social. They should be able to take their creation, the internet, the quote whole unquote internet, outside with them. And keep working on that better tomorrow.

It’s time for another revolution in public service. And once again, Britain can lead it. If we make the choice.


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For those interested in the concept of cultural conflict: In this country (Britain) Fox’s actions/entertainment/imports funnel FX plays The Colbert Report, followed by To Catch A Predator, followed by a week-old Colbert Report. Now, I saw The Dark Knight tonight, dressed to the nines myself with pink shirt, green hair and all, but I still wasn’t quite in the right frame of mind either for that degree of juxtaposition or for the ongoing experiment in participatory social bearfighting that is To Catch A Predator. The title gives much of it away: like a cross between a le Carre novel and a Lifetime movie, it combines action-packed cg title cuts, rough footage and taut pacing with exploitative, agonising nonsense. And like both, it is designed makes you fear your neighbours.

It reminds me of Hazlitt’s ‘The Fight‘, and Barthes’ ‘On Wrestling‘, and my of friend Ben who without reading either essay formulated essentially the same theory: that pro wrestling is the purest form of theatre remaining to us. We know it is choreographed. And we love it for it. Boxing, by contrast, is a story constructed frame by frame; it is worth betting on, it is a contest in the strictest sense. Barthes quotes Beaudrillard on the transcendant reality of wrestling: “the grandiloquent truth of gestures on life’s great occasions”. It gives us its heroes and villains, and I used to wonder, watching my cousin’s WWF tapes as a child, why the guys I rooted for always seemed to win, villain or hero. It is exactly as contrarian, as venal, as it decides we can stomach. And To Catch a Predator goes a step beyond, because it is perfectly chorographed on the only side that matters, the side that controls the narrative.

It is a mix of Candid Camera and public execution. The figure wriggling on the end of the lens, be he mere deviant or prominent San Francisco physician, is the only one who doesn’t know how it ends: the terriers have been released, the bear chained and blinded, and you are set in the juror’s seat and spoken for, more eloquently than you yourself could manage. Its smear pattern is perfect, leaving just that tinge on you, the viewer, to bring you back: there’s a reason that in the UK cut they leave in the pedal-pusher’d girl who lead the daily deviant into the hot-tub-studio, along with the hideous irony of the middle-aged ‘deputised’ perversion agents who pose as thirteen in chat rooms. The men they snare are scrape-pated maniacs or have faces like tin openers or worse, look just like your uncle. It is terrible, nightmarish programming. And it’s placed next to the Colbert Report by people who don’t see any particular difference between the two, and buy and sell it as such.

And this should serve as an object lesson to those who object to Fox on the gounds of its supposedly consistently naked ideological bias. Those people simply aren’t paying attention: they haven’t noticed that Fox pays more attention than anyone, because they weren’t paying attention. Fox’s alignment is chaotic money. It plays anything that will play in Peoria, or whatever the equivalent moon-faced town in the UK is. Colbert is popular in this country for the ill-informed but clearly vaguely transgressionary yuks it provides; and there is clearly a demographic crossover somehwere with ‘Home Improvement vs. Predator’. Though this is late night television, where demographics may arguably start to break down. Nielsen has long acknowledged that its audience diary system starts to degrade after the watershed- after all, who wants to record their interest in this stuff?

To take an example, FX appears to be, bizarrely along with ‘Fox Crime’, the only non-Star Fox channel available in Vietnam, including even Fox News. My point is that the internet obviously breaks down these supposed demographic barriers, but only so far in that people are interested in it doing so. You may have got the impression from the way I write (if like some anachronistic odder you’re reading these entries from first to last, as they were written) that I’m the type who believes that broadcasters have a degree of power, and that with it comes a certain responsibility. Or that an equivalent principle can be applied to the internet, or should at leats be applied by a few organisations. I am indeed a public service nerd.

It’s not that I don’t think the responsibility model should be applied to the internet, it’s just that I know inertia when I see it. And I know commercial forces, most of all the unstoppable grind of convenience. Convenient confirmation: that’s what the internet offers, in a form probably even more tempting than the means Fox has employed for years; you can bet that they’ll be the ones to figure it out first, but you’d be betting on a won race: MySpace is just the start. I have a number of cheery theories on how the internet will not cause us ourselves to demolish what we’ve counted as humanity for years with the sheer weight of our collecive fascination with car crash porn and lulz, many of which theories I’ll be exploring over the coming weeks. In the meantime, I’d like to end this broken-down late night post with a line from Rimbaud, because I can.

Distend your nostrils wide in nausea of disdain,

Steep the fine tendons of your neck in poison-brew;

Upon your childish necks the poet’s hands are lain:

“Cowards, dare to be mad!” the poet says to you.

(Of the dark knight, I cannot recommend it highly enough. Especially the bit with the pencil. My god, the pencil.)

Victory gin

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An alternative tack on the imperative of moral humanism in Will Hutton’s defense of PSB I wrote about a while ago. I emphasised this approach of Hutton’s because it’s identifiable with but should be distinguished from his approach to an economic analysis of China.

I saw him speak once after his book came out, and while he was late for one reason or another the MC and a Chinese-American economist took the opportunity for pre-emptive rejoinders which cast him as more a proclaimer of neo-Yellow Perilism. Whether or not he detected this when he finlly took the stand, he was on the defensive and spent much of his time defending his argument that ‘Western’ economic and governance systems should be adopted by China. He doesn’t shy from tracing these systems back to Enlightenment ideals or forward to First World economic success, which is more than enough to get one branded a monoculturalist. But he convinced me that without governance reform and particularly developing accountability in local government, China’s economic grind may stall or turn in on itself. Indeed, it’s not been in national movements but in local land disputes over intense direct pollution from chemical plants or putrid levels of bureucratic corruption that China has seen its most marked acts of rebellion.  Getting people assembled to protest against something as ephemeral as national injustice or liberty is tricky as hell, and more so in modern China. But the entrenchment of bullies with both impunity and the motive to threaten people’s homes is a certain way to convince them their system is sick.

China has a wonderful opportunity to make environmentalism a central tenet of their late development, without the aura of penance or of reversal of standards-of-living it has in the West. And they’re rightly pretty proud of that opportunity, among with the other G5 and the nations that used to be called the Asian Tigers. China is also experiencing the opportunity -and, Hutton argues, the imperative- to smooth its economic transition with democratic reform. Vietnam makes for an interesting comparison (non-sub link, more available on subscripiton): while technically still socialist it’s grown enthusiastically into a sort of national venture capitalism, and is ripe for the several multimedia developers poised over it, which will probably all aim to pop around the time the Intel factory opens outside Ho Chi Minh City. In theory it’s possible to get Fox’s Star Asia’s flagship local-content channel ‘[V]’ in Vietnam, though only with a bigass dish, and certainly not with any local content. No doubt there’ll be several firms with a vested interest in preventing Fox from gaining the kind of cable monopoly it has in India in South-East Asian tiger-ettes, not to mention the Middle East.

“China cannot thoroughly be understood from either a Western or a Chinese viewpoint. To grasp its nature requires an orbital, historical view of both the West and China,” -Wei Wang, author of The China Executive.

“Orbital”- this is the point of view I’m aiming for.

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A couple of days ago the muscles of my back seized up almost completely, which meant that I was nearly immobilised for a day or so and have spent the time since in a diazepam- and painkiller-induced haze. The plus side is that finally I had the time and was in the correct frame of mind to sit and finish watching series one of Heroes, my failure to do so thus far having almost caused me to be disqualified from most of my friendships. The unfortunate side is that I haven’t really been keeping up with technology and media news or working on developing a cycle of blogs, and so rather than post another piece discussing issues which have frankly already been talked to death, I thought I’d cull a few choice sites from what I’ve been looking at recently, with a few comments when relevant. Fun though it would be to write a rambling, indulgent post and put it down to the drugs, I’m going to try to keep those down to one a month.

The spectacle of the male ape copulating with the female cyborg is always good for a laugh. It would be possible, I think, to overstate the importance of Zizek’s thought to the ways by which academia has tried to predict the effect of the internet on communication. Possible, but difficult.

the new shelton wet/dry is a gloriously syncretic collection of interesting things, accompanied by beautifully irrelevant lomo-style photographs, home movie stills and off-duty mannequins. I use syncretic the way Diderot tried to claim for it in the Encyclopédie, a meaning closer to éclectique than to the Biblical sense of blasphemous synthesis.

The four million

The four million

An old article here critiques Malcolm Gladwell’s notion of ‘supermavens’, hyperinfluential individuals who are able to build or reanimate brands simply by adopting them: Gladwell’s example is Hush Puppies, a dead brand which a select group of Manhattanites brought back from the dead in the mid-nineties.

‘I have heard among this clan
You are called the forgotten man’
‘Is that what they’re saying? Well did you evah.
What a swell party this is…
‘Have you heard- it’s in the stars-
Next July we collide with Mars…’

A man called Ward Mcallister was the self appointed arbiter and the puppy doyenne of NY society, the ‘knickerbockracy’, from about 1860 to 1890. He coined the concept of ‘the four hundred’, the number of New Yorkers and satellites who really mattered, supposedly the number who could fit into Mrs. William Backhouse Astor’s ballroom. (Not THE Mrs. Astor, though McAllister knew her too, calling her his ‘Mystic Rose’. Becket tells us “no gardener has died comma within roseceous memory”, but in this case Ward, who thought himself the society cultivator, was outlived by his roses. I shit you not in the slightest about ‘Mrs. William Backhouse’. Former marm made good? Must remember to investigate.)

Ward died “dining alone” at the Union club: there is room on Wikipedia for irony, and obvious relish. His list, which he is supposed to have actually written out, was top-heavy with his allies and the neuveau riche; he was disgraced when a tell-all book pissed off actual magnates with little interest in gasping and fluttering encouragingly at the Really Too Much. Ward’s relentless pursuit was to surround himself with the ‘Tong’, which he translated as ‘cream’, raising people up to nearly his own seat, which he probably imagined to be absolutely solid, sandbagged in with his outrageous selfconsciousness and his power as a maven, a connector.

(Tong are in fact chinese gangs, also called Triads: at roughly the same time Ward held his carnival court the Tong Wars shredded certain quiet neighbourhoods of Chicago, LA and particularly San Francisco. Machete street battles decided the control of sex and opium in whole cities. Anecdotes of the blood culture are fascinatingly gruesome: the film ‘Kung Fu Hustle’ isn’t far off. I remember I got heavily into it while researching a presentation on ‘crime’ for the Hong Kong Polytechnic University’s English Club a few years ago. In the end I cut it all, and went for Italian-American stereotypes instead, easily translatable.)

The point is that networks of influence are very real, and the people have a kind of power who -by tacit mutual agreement- occupy what the media determine to be the top spots. These people may even move in worlds among those who have real power. But they, no more than marketers or the media, should not labour under the illusion that they themselves create: these people are not important, and are becoming less so. They are not the ‘cream’, the most visible, by any particular merit; they are gangs like any other, but ones which have maintained a monopoly over people’s attention. And that is breaking down.



Consumers are faced with a democratisation of interest, and content providers are starting to realise that the people who make the best tastemakers are not always those who can be predicted and deployed, but those who love what they make and want others to do so to. These people can make trend not imitation but participation. And in theory, that should make them easier, not harder, to coolhunt. But not with current techniques.

This isn’t to say that there aren’t still and won’t be many, many people who follow trends because of the appeal of community: top-flight trend idols are the barometer for what everyone will be talking about in the mall or Monday round the cooler. Equally, those who get into and stay in niche trends may do so for the community, for its sense of insularity, of having discovered something others can’t, whether it’s Heroes or The Wire.

But exact uniformity is a niche, perhaps the most fetishistic of all. Digital participation, in the form of forums, of online video fashion consultations, is going to seep its way into all trends. And online, exact duplication is instantly, globally obvious. Certain types of trend leader are still going to have disproportionate amounts of power, so long as there are still common standards for success. But trend idols already acknowledge that a trend is a genre within which fans operate and personalise; this is why rappers start clothes labels as well as music. The music has become a soundtrack to the environment they create: in many ways the least commercialised component. In the era of Primark’s economic eruption, personalisation may well become the new sign of wealth, like plumpness in the middle ages and slimness five years ago and environmentalism today. Harajuku is the centre of world fashion but that’s because it’s ‘style’ is a community of competing eclecticism. Meantime, TV content providers are acknowledging the value of cultishness, encouraging fans to go deep, to find a balance between a sense of community and coterie, and finally to personalise.

Don’t get me wrong, there will always be cliques. Perhaps I think this way because of a bias towards geekdom. But though I’m losing faith in the term ‘geek’, obsessive interest in your chosen subject will always be cool as far as I’m concerned. And the net has made certain that choice will survive the age of abundance, even if abundance does not. Maybe one day soon we won’t have to talk about ‘coolhunters’ or ‘mavens’ or maintain the illusion that those people have to be the ‘coolest’ of all. Maybe we’ll be able to talk about coolgeeks.

“How dare you. ‘One in a million’ means there’s eight of me in New York City”. Downs trousers, exits left.

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All right let’s do this

A few weeks ago, in a lecture for the BBC on the future of Public Service Broadcasting Will Hutton argued that in the Reith era, the early days of the BBC when bandwidth was scarce, it was vital (and enforceable) that those granted it were held to the highest standards.

An obvious answer for today occurs: in an attention economy so vast that published space can be given to any jumped-up oik with a grudge, it is vital that someone holds themselves to those same ideals, rising out of the mass of wholly marketised information trading. I am with Hutton to this point. The BBC is the jewel of public service in many ways (including its being glossy and expensive, and having regularly to be cut smaller to improve its sheen), but there are a couple of reservations which occur to me when people argue, for example, for a BBC which makes itself a pinnacle of the web, providing a gateway or a consolidated set of services, providing not just news but a ‘trusted guide to the web‘.

One problem is that Hutton associates the sprawl of ideal-less media about the BBC’s feet with the democratisation of truth, a doctrine he associates with former BBC and Ch4 exec Michael Jackson’s onetime argument that everyone has an equal, because non-existent, claim to truth and objectivity. Personally, having just come out of an arts degree I dealt with this, todestrieb’s sneaky cousin, every day, and have largely made my peace with it. Hutton asserts as an alternative to total subjectivity what might have been the motto of a Victorian-era society of cricket umpires: “there are truths about matters“. Hutton knows that few things can be founded without holding a few truths self-evident, nor can they usually be maintained without occasional reminders: without them, they are not matters: they do not matter.

Don’t get me wrong: Hutton’s sic probo for the Corporation is a fine piece for its conscience, well analysed and well put; I also greatly admire his work on China. I assume, perhaps unfairly, that the more technically-minded who propose a model of the BBC as a ‘trusted guide’ (‘BBC presents: the Internet’ reminds me of this*) are not the sort of ballsy public intellectuals who take it upon themselves to champion what Hutton acknowledges are slightly atavistic ideals of the Truth of Matters. These guys are more likely to be freedom of information idealists, which lends itself more to the subjective side. But the same problems occur.

Even if the BBC were to host a popular frontend, a gateway to the internet, we must acknowledge that it can only do so really by hosting or linking to content not its own, including others’ news and interpretations. The BBC can afford to be open-handed with its programming, and it might be best suited to the notion that an open-door approach to news, where you acknowledge the competition and link to differing accounts or citizen journalists wherever relevant. Denying the existence of the mass of contradicting material surrounding any story is underestimating the audience. Link-farming may be the new objectivity.


Always consider the source

There are two appeals of citizen journalism: one is that it adds more, or more authentic material to the mass of material available for interpretation surrounding an event. The other is the sheer excitement of the mobile phone footage of the guy who was actually there, the prospect of someone having got inside the sphere of bullshit and interpretation into the event, (or into the vents) This in itself is misleading. I once saw a high security barrier collapse in a gale and crush a couple of people: I helped many others lifted it, but then I hung about, chatting to people and taking surruptitious camera shots of the injured. I have never felt more simultaneous shame and exhilaration.

Like other News sources, the BBC’s need to have a Man On the Scene, in order to give the impression of reporting the truth of matters, is as false as it’s always been. They’re usually, notoriously, on the roof of the hotel. But if we can get excited about citizen journalism and its supposed authenticity, it’s only because we haven’t read very much of it. The deprofessionalisation of journalism is another way to look at it: we may have to read even more, not less, to feel we have a reasonable grasp of a news situation if we start to include the eyewitness accounts of anyone who can type. Some notorious pieces of citizen journalism, I agree, can convey a situation better than anything professional, like this hypnotic video, which still makes me feel ill. (video opens in player). But these things also contribute to the opaque sphere of information which forms around an event the instant it’s digg’d. The mass of comment and reportage shows the outline of the story, but the endless permutations of phrasing and interpretation obscure whatever reality it had. It’s possible to be more informed than ever before, but we are no closer to being ‘at the scene’.

It becomes harder everyday to crawl across and appreciate even a fraction of the surface of the information sphere around an event (though thank God for RSS). All we can really do is read so much that we begin to feel that we have grasped the outline of a story, built up from the minor variations between wire service accounts and the rabid semantic contradictions between mainstream reportage of an event. Or we can pick our news source, or sources, and stick with them. Some want to see the Beeb as a spike of decency on the surface of the internet, a single readable point of light which can puncture the information sphere and show the Real within. The trouble is that the BBC has never had a monopoly on truth, and cannot be everywhere at once, any more than can either Drudge or Huff. The consumer can, whether hopping between the news channels or online. So long as someone is there, and online.


Dead Boomers

We should consider ourselves lucky that none of the students trapped in lecture halls at Virginia Tech on (*) had a Blackberry and a journalist’s mind, or we would already have had to face these questions much more publicly. The BBC can never be the Authority on Everything; what it trades on more than anything online is its name. I’m ready to agree with * that the BBC is the reason that internet news became seen as credible, at least in this country (though the success of the Telegraph and the Mail online finally mark its integration into society for their massed readers, and a rather bitter vindication for the rest of us).

These sites are a good example: people either trust them and read little else, or don’t care, or include them in a cycle of three or five or fifteen different sources. It is now so easy to do the latter that cross-referencing becomes instinctual, as easy as typing- or it can be automated, as in the randomised computer editorship of Google News. The BBC, it could be argued, is in the best position to provide not just a frontend but a disinterested system of links, a mosaic of outside sources which gives the sense of a story. Disinterested- but a far cry from Google’s robot editors. But then, this means adding free advertising to the list of services BBC Online already provides to non-license fee payers who may hate it and everything it stands for. And online, advertising, or more accurately attention, is the only real currency.

If the BBC wishes to move into attention brokering, not just attention attraction, then it has seen the future beyond an economy based on the restriction of content: a future of informed, infinite, impatient demand. But if so it must know that it is going up against both the big boys and the whiz kids, from the Google empire to ClickUni. Surely, though a company which can stand above the concerns of such an economy is ideal for the purpose. A company somehow funded by the people, for said people. Which can, perhaps, take some of those whiz kids under its uniquely funded wing with something other than, or at least additional to, commercial interest. Well, all right. But unfortunately innovation and the net don’t discriminate, and the license fee does. And so do people.

An investment arm of the BBC as proposed years ago by Azeem Azhar among others would be a truly public institution, one which provides encouragement and support for nimble, ingenious little startups, introducing them to the right people then perhaps pointing others in their direction. But to beleaguered controllers this notion may appeal in the main merely as a means of offsetting the apparant contradictions of the success of the commercial arm in the eyes of critics of the license fee, and indeed in anticipation of potentially hostile Cameron charter review. Because an investment arm with a remit to provide truly altruistic support and encouragement to innovation, exclusively or in large part within the British economy, might seem asinine to you or I or our assumed shared consensus but to many such an institution would seem like a very suitable, clubbable thing indeed.

Such a thing would be utterly hamstrung in its economic purpose by the very forces that maintain its contradictory competitive noncompetition; in the same way that BBC, ITV and Ch4’s single-platform venture Kangaroo might yet be stillborn as a result of the delay of its referral to the Competition Comission. Apple is about to rollout its TV-on-demand iTunes iteration (complete with BBC archive material, for which openhandedness the Director of Vision may well be kicking herself now). This is crystal-ball stuff, but in this case we’re talking about the space of the few first key weeks of rollout. If Apple is given room to strut its stuff in the next few months then the unprecedented co-operative platform which Kangaroo represents will likely lose a deal-breaking share of the UK TVOD market to an American firm. And that seems hardly the point.


Counting them out

One of the classics of journalism under duress is also the best example of journalism under a cloud: Brian Hanrahan’s report from a carrier in the Falklands that he counted all the jets out, and counted them all back in. Hanrahan was operating within the deliberately imposed fog of war, not to mention the Navy’s notorious abhorrence of the press in general. Hutton raised this example as a high water-mark of the BBC’s reputation worldwide, and the existence of honest if incomplete reportage during war proof of the rightness of our cause compared to the Argentinians. Indeed, if the morality of a war is not in why it is fought but how, that principle must extend now to how it is reported. It was a part of that credibility coup that the BBC was operating not just in harm’s way, but in a state of potentially iconoclastic tolerance by the authorities. On the other hand, it is also an early example of embedding, and the rightly unambiguous bias that brings. Max Hastings’ dispatches from the Falklands and his memoir are unabashedly eneamoured with the servicemen around him.

Hutton contends that an independent and ‘truth-seeking’ media is under threat because of “today’s ever more strident commercial values”, and because governments are becoming more astute in hiding their interests. The first has a simple, almost childlike solution: Public Service Broadcasters are given money calculated to offset the commercial dead weight of socially responsible programming. But the BBC is not struggling to contend in the marketplace by most measures: instead it is struggling with the contradictory pressures of its stated purposes within the market. BBC Worldwide, the commercial arm, is doing too well selling properties abroad for many to consider the Beeb the nation’s museum anymore. ITV and Ch4 are held to the same legal Public Service standards but aren’t given public money. BBC has to compete for the same viewers, but with its standards, not theirs. And now it has to try to do the same online. And here is where the problems arise.

Cass Sunstein argued years ago that the internet is inherently radicalising: people are attracted to affirmation and thus find themselves drawn into communities of mutual radicalisation, developing a ‘Daily Me’ roll call of news sites attuned to their interests and prejudices. This is okay up to a point: the web is indeed the ultimate in the commercialisation of information, as well as the freeing of information: it’s an attention economy. But anyone who spent years reading how traditional print media discussed the web in its early days will find nothing new in the argument that the web lends itself not to extremism but to fetishism. Not necessarily to the extremes of the news spectrum, but to the depths of an interest: be it crocheting or nazi sex memorabilia; as deep into connoisseurship as you can stomach it. Whatever it is and whether you know it or not, someone has a page dedicated to your secret lusts; and if they don’t, you can always make it yourself. The Beeb, like Will Hutton, has to operate within the assumption that there are a few matters that everyone is interested in, or should be interested in, and that truth is foremost among them. Correct. Perfect. Yes. You and I and Ayn Rand can all agree about that.

Hutton derides the subjectivity of Jackson and the notion of an open-season on truth. The trouble is that cross-referencing is so integral to use of the web that that open-season is simply what truth on the internet looks like. The truth might be out there somewhere, but there’s no guarantee that site’ll have the scoop next time. Of course major news sources all catch up eventually on facts and figures, but like Hutton I’m talking about truth which can’t be tabulated; the report which gives the real, true impression of a situation, if you believe in that sort of thing.I believe with Einstein that nothing can be made more simple than it is. Which means the chances are that for a given story someone somewhere will have got it exactly right, not over-simplified nor over-egged, but told as it is. And if that’s the BBC one time in four, say, then the investment is worth it a hundred times over. But I’m skeptical whether it’ll be possible to justify a national tax (call it what you like) in order to sustain one reputable world news source among many. We should avoid the illusion that the ideals embodied in the net and its tech heads are from the same camp as the BBC’s. In many ways the net is a market like any other, with the exception that the only thing it can tax is your attention and your patience.

Ayn Rand’s eternal rage in her novels and philosophy is that ineptitude should exist and have its say. In a truth market on the net, ineptitude becomes almost immaterial. There are many, many adept communicators ready to provide whatever you want to see. This may be mediocrity, but so be it. And besides, in the cosmos of material online you can find something so perfectly keyed to your interests that the question of whether or not it was skillfully made so becomes irrelevant. Even mediocrity is not necessarily the problem. What the BBC has to deal with is an attention deficit. The BBC’s great unanswerable strength online is that people know it’s there; it is a go-to. But the endless iterations of specifics available online, and the lack of an absolute authority, is what makes Jackson-style cod-Saussurean total subjectivity so tempting when thinking about the net. Because it is possible to find something that looks so like the truth to you that the distinction ceases to be relevant.


True 2.0

If we argue that the investment is worthwhile to maintain BBC as one of the best, most regular hosts of the truth, the question still remains as to whether this justifies public subsidy. If with Hutton we assume that truth has an eternal commerical draw, then the BBC will have as its competitors more and more stringent adherents to that ideal every day. (So long as a site can still be discredited by claims of deceit. But that’s another question.) Of course, nothing stops these competitors being owned or influenced by a corporation. Perhaps that’s what the BBC is truly good for. But then, in order to fund its attempt to corner the market in truth, it has already sprouted breadwinning arms to get cash which, under the old system, it was told it could not need. It now has interests. If we find ourselves in a few years’ time looking back and able to say that the BBC weathered the darkest patch of License Fee Envy in its history, we should also appreciate that it the BBC’s future and the ultimate Moral victory will be defined not by its survival, but by how it fought its war, and what it chose to sacrifice.

Which is a terribly journalisty ending, not an executive one. Platitudes aside I don’t doubt that hard decisions will be taken, and taken bravely: the investment arm business would leave a bad taste in the mouth if required to be In The National Interest, but then the BBC has already suffered because the Competition Commission appeared to forget that it’s remit only extends to protecting the economy of the United Kingdom. The Beeb as well take advantage of the system in turn.

I won’t disguise the fact that when I imagine a future acclimatised to communication technology, I am looking for a place for PSB to exist within it. An instinct which probably owes as much to the sound of the late Today presenter Brian Redhead’s voice in the morning before school as it does to idealism.

The question I want to ask in this blog is how quickly things become second nature: when new developments become simply, solidly How Things Are. For young people this never happens; the older might be forgiven for feeling that this will never happen again. Forgiven, because every adult since the Middle Ages has felt the same. I’m a bit between those two stages, though I won’t deny that there’s far fewer things can be taken for granted than ever before.

When does the singular become second nature? I want to know how it looks frombove as new technologies roll out around the globe. I’m going to Japan soon to work, and I want to know if just seems foreign, or if it actually feels like the future, our future, late capitalist ennui and all. I can’t wait.

roll out and transform

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Talking Cats

In case you’ve made it back this far and are interested, the original page which inspired the name and concept of this blog is here. Though the question it asks isn’t the same one I do.

Also, this.

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