Donut Age: America's Donut Magazine

Future media history?

A colleague sent me a link to this interesting Flash piece (the credits name Robin Sloan and Matt Thompson as the authors, but I have not been find out anything else about it) that frames itself as a report by the Museum for Media History in the year 2014, when "the press as you know it has ceased to exist." Starting with the birth of the WWW, through the emergence of Amazon, Google, and blogging, the piece then extrapolates a series of subsequent events: the launch of GoogleGrid (a seamless integration of Google, GoogleNews, Gmail, Blogger and Tivo that provides "functionally limitless storage space and bandwidth for all media"); the birth in 2009 of "Googlezon" (GoogleGrid plus Amazon's consumer-recommendation engine); the "news wars" of 2010, in which Googlezon trumps Microsoft's "Newsbotster" by providing dynamic, customized news by searching and reassembling news sources at the sentence level according to each user's preferences and profile; traditional media's futile last stand in 2011; to, finally, the "unleash[ing]" of "EPIC... the evolving personalized information construct" in 2014. EPIC is something like sinister version of Nelson's Xanadu: a universal information network of contributed to by everyone and fed back to them through Googlezon's automatic customization/filtering. For some, EPIC is an information source, "deeper, broader, and more nuanced than anything ever available before," but for most, the piece laments, it "is merely a collection of trivia, much of it untrue, all of it narrow, shallow and sensational."

It's a nice piece, cleverly conceived and well executed. It raises legitimate questions about the convergence of information and consumption and where that might lead us. In a way, though, I feel like I have heard all of this before in a dozen sci-fi/cyberpunk books and movies. I hear numerous echoes of Neil Stephenson's Snow Crash (which contains its own global network — the 'metaverse' — and also postulates 'gargoyles' — people who strap on piles of electronic gizmos to become mobile data/media collection agents). There's a line about the rise of freelance editors who "connect, sort, and prioritize" the content of EPIC for users, that can be traced straight back to Vannevar Bush's Memex. (and it is at the core of a short story I read once called "Bank Robbery"). EPIC 2014 does a pretty good job of weaving these strands together, but aside from the brand names, this seems like a yet another telling of the venerable beware-the-evil-monopolistic-corporate-giant story.

One thing that's interesting about speculative fiction is that it usually tells you a lot more about the present (our fears, our hopes, our blindspots) than the future. The future history sketched by this piece rests on some rather optimistic projections of technological progress ("functionally limitless" storage and bandwidth by 2006?), some naive assumptions about the current balance of power (Big Media doesn't try to stop the growth of this upstart competitor until 2011?), and a heavy dose of nostalgia a presumed by-gone era (when "the Fourth Estate" really meant something). The cynic in me wants to ask how this terrible future, when news "is merely a collection of trivia, much of it untrue, all of it narrow, shallow and sensational," differs substantially from the present day...

Still, an interesting piece, nicely suited for sparking discussions about the future of media and the social impact of technology.