It’s the Context, Stupid
Wired Magazine, 1994
“It’s the content, stupid.”–this catchy apothegm has become the mantra of an infant new media industry,chanted by entrepreneurs, uttered sagely over chardonnay in Malibu, and discussed intently by strategists in the boardrooms of media mega-conglomerates. But compelling as this phrase may be, it is also dead wrong. It is not content but context will matter most a decade or so from now. The scarce resource will not be stuff, but point of view.
Boggled by the prospect of filling data highways and megabit household pipes, it is easy to conclude that content will become a scarce good commanding monopoly rents. The desperate successors to todays cable and telephone companies will buy anything — old movies, home videos, Mr. Ed reruns — just to bulk up the programming on their new networks.
But media history tells a very different story. From Gutenberg to Sarnoff and on to to today, developers have wondered how we would ever fill the pipe, yet content volumes have always outstripped channel capacity. A consumer in early 16th century Venice complained that sellers were pressing books of suspect origin on him “like bags of cats.” Barely a decade after cellular phones arrived, cellular channels are so crowded that dial-tone is the scarce resource. In the 1950s, broadcasters wondered how they would ever program three channels on a twenty-four hour basis; today we routinely load up over ten times that number day after day after day.
The same will be true for digital networks. There will be no “dead air” on our new conduits. This doesn’t mean that content is king though, for if history is any guide, most of it will be fungible commodity properties such as gamer shows or old movies today, or utter trash. Most of what was published in 1500 was utterly forgettable, and today’s radio “schlock jocks” merely differ from their predecessors in degree rather than kind. Now the “vast wasteland” first described in the 1961 by the then FCC Commissioner, Newton Minot will be supplanted by a vaster wasteland brimming with utterly new forms of interactive cyberdreck. There will be more really great content too, but snagging it in an ocean of banal junk will be harder than ever.
It is this avalanche of content that will make context the scarce resource. Consumers will pay serious money for anything that helps them sift and sort and gather the pearls that satisfy their fickle media hungers. The future belongs to neither the conduit or content players, but those who control the filtering, searching and sense-making tools we will rely on to navigate through the banal expanses of cyberspace.
These new tools will eliminate comfortable TV-era content-hunting habits. Channel-surfing will be an early casualty, as the first thing to disappear in a 500-channel world will be the channel selector along with the channels themselves. Viewers will welcome the menu-driven TV Guide simulacra that replace this click-and-surf world, but even these menu schemes will be merely transitional forms on the road to far more exotic context tools taking their inspiration from outside the TV universe.
Agents are the obvious and much-discussed next step, but their value lie in the murky details of their operation and interaction with human masters. This is where the scarcest of context resources lie, the pieces that will command top Dollars from conduit and content providers alike.And just as networks once turned on microscopic shifts in Neilson ratings, the subtlest of details in the algorithmic parametersdefining these agents will spell wild success or utter doom for one player after another.
Without a doubt, this will become a technological battleground as algorithms rather than content duels for market dominance.A decade ago, the Network with the best shows won; now it will be the provider with the best agent who comes out on top. New interface metaphors and arcane search schemes will proliferate, as we thrash out the best way to make agents ever more capable diplomats, shuttling between users and the media they seek.
The seductive chaos of the Internet today offers hints at why these agents to come will be so important. Like Alice’s Restaurant, you can get anything you want — but unless you have software help, you might never find what you are looking for. Thus schemes like Gopher and Veronica, WAIS and Mosaic are the hottest things on the Internet today. But for the Internet’s cultural bias against selling things for money, all these context-making schemes would cost plenty to use.
But the highest ground in the context arena may not end up in the hands of the technocrats at all. The scarcest of context resources will be something utterly beyond the ken of cold algorithms — point of view. “Point of view” is that quintissentially-human solution to information overload, an intuitive process of reducing things to an essential relevant and manageable minimum.
Point of view is what successful media have trafficked in for centuries. Books are merely the congealed point of view of their authors, and we buy newspapers for the editorial point of view that shapes their content. We watch particular TV anchors for their point of view, and we take or ignore movie advice from our friends based on their point of view.
In a world of hyper-abundant content, point of view will become the scarcest of resources, and we will race to model human points of view within the personalities of our software agents. I will even bet that an industry will grow up around individuals licensing their points of view for use in context engines in exhcange for usage royalties. Imagine being able to give your news agent the personality and perspective of Walter Cronkite, Howard Stern or John Updike, or consult the software-doubles of Siskel and Ebert for advice on cool movies to view. Just as talk show hosts have become the movers and shakers of post-Network TV today, individuals with unique points of view could become the superstars of cyberspace, their personalities immortalized in software traversing the web.