Through the MCDM

January 30, 2009

The Victorian Internet: The Remarkable Review of a Very Good Book

Filed under: Review — captainchunk @ 10:09 pm

Residents of the mid-1800s must have surely understood that majors changes were going to take place when what had previously been the fingers of Gods, electricity, were now running down the street on poles. The mysterious and powerful force of nature had been harnessed and was being used as the nervous system for a new method of communication. Most citizens’ only experience with electricity came from the deadly lightning out of the sky. After many scientific developments in numerous disciplines, the telegraph was brought to life by Samuel Morse, a painter, professor, and amateur scientist. Tom Standage goes to great lengths to look at Morse’s life, his competitors and their contraptions, the life-cycle of the telegraph, and the changes thrust upon the citizens of the world in The Victorian Internet: The Remarkable Story of the Telegraph and the Nineteenth Century’s On-line Pioneers. In what must have been larger than life times, coming at the end of the Industrial Revolution, the world was presented with a panacea, the telegraph.

Like most inventions, the telegraph was not without it share of controversies and setbacks. The author does a very respectable job in describing the mechanical telegraph from France and the competing electrical telegraph from Cooke and Wheatstone and Morse’s in 1837. Since Morse was working on this telegraph in America, and Cooke and Wheatstone were working on their telegraph nearly at the same time in England, Standage writes the stories in parallel to great effect. Perhaps supervening necessity was at work with the telegraph since it seems that many important inventions are developed competitively at the same time, in different locations, calculus, telegraph, home video formats. It really proves that there are technological and cultural changes that can drive innovation to happen. From the trials of initial tests over distances of miles to the tribulations of laying the trans-Atlantic cable multiple times, the ingenuity and perseverance of many different people changed they way humans communicate.

While it might be possible to get a sense of the technological development of the telegraph from a mere retelling of demonstrations and patents awarded, the story would be lacking in perhaps the most important aspect of the telegraph, without looking at the cultural impact. It is difficult to fully understand just how important of a tool the telegraph was during the 1800s, but through through various stories and anecdotes, Standage painted the picture of an amazing and electrifying time. People were no longer tied to transportation as a means of communication. (Czitrom, p. 3) That concept was often difficult to understand. Standage retells one story of a man who expected “to see the man run along the wries with the letter bags.” (p. 66) Though, just because an innovation is initially misunderstood by some, doesn’t mean that people are inherently bad grasping what change means. The man still understood that it was a new form of rapid communication, but he just didn’t understand by what means. Something that still happens today. By increasing the communication rate so significantly and quickly, the very nature of news changed. If I were to analyze the different impacts of the telegraph, the transformation of news reporting would certainly top the list of unexpected impacts. Going from local news and stale national and international news to knowing the issues of the world quickly must have been breathtaking. James Bennett, a penny paper owner who relied on the telegraph to supply the news for his paper, wrote that all newspaper must use the telegraph for news or face extinction. (Czitrom, p. 16) People started to fully understand the power of a larger telegraphic network for when the trans-Atlantic cable was laid from Newfoundland to Ireland linking the New World to the Old World, people celebrated in the streets for New York for days. (Standage, p. 80) The ability for people to quickly participate in the international discussion was different than anything before. We like to think that is the case for the internet, but the telegraph did it over a hundred years earlier.

A lot has been said about the power of the internet, just as many things were said of the electric telegraph. People thought the telegraph would end wars and usher in a new era of world peace and understanding, but that didn’t exactly happen. The telegraph changed how were fought though. Commanders no longer had to wait weeks for news from the front lines, but instead could command troops almost instantly. This instantness was what changed society. George Beard, a neurologist, blamed the telegraph and the acceleration of society for contributing to a nervousness amongst the people of the 19th century. (Czitrom, p. 20) The telegraph did speed up life and put us on pace for the constant connectedness we are so used to today. Users didn’t care enough about the negative effects to not use the telegraph though, in fact, the popularity of the telegraph started to congest the telegraph lines. Maybe it is that supervening power that makes people want to communicate, and communicate quickly. Our news has been forever changed by the telegraph and now services like Twitter.com as seeking to do the same. The Victorian Internet was truly something to behold. Its sheer network size, its speed, its cost effectiveness.

It is shocking to see the similarities between the telegraph and the current state of the internet. Just as the telephone brought disruption to the telegraph, another technology will disrupt the internet. The internet is based on protocols and to think that we will be using the same thing as a major channel of communication 50 years from now would be naive. Standage presents a unique and important invention/innovation from history that had a major impact on almost every person on the planet and if we can understand the tempest that gave rise to such an important technological development, perhaps we can better use the technology we have now and the technology to come.

References

Czitrom, D. J. (1982). Media and the American mind: From Morse to McLuhan. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Standage, T. (1998). The Victorian Internet: The remarkable story of the telegraph and the nineteenth centuryʼs on-line pioneers. New York: Walker and Co.

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August 18, 2008

Book Review #3

Filed under: Review — captainchunk @ 12:25 am

Well… I tried the alternative route for this one. I read the book We’re All Journalists Now by Scott Gant which was published in 2007 and is 204 pages long. My review is 10:45 long.

This is my first podcast. The strangest thing about it was feeling like I was talking to myself. In true citizen journalist fashion, I used the tools I had available (which was a microphone from the video game Rock Band), so the audio production leaves room for improvement.

If anybody has technical troubles with the .mp3 file let me know.

Review

August 4, 2008

The Wealth Review

Filed under: Review — captainchunk @ 9:19 am

The Wealth of Networks. Yochai Benkler. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006. 515 pp.

The value of a network is created by the nodes in the network. Yochai Benkler discusses this and other issues at length in The Wealth of Networks while driving to his central tenet of “individuals as the core driving social force behind the networked information economy.”(p. 15) The individual is obviously one of the keys to understanding the implications of a networked information economy.

In his analysis of the information economy, Benkler raises an interesting question concerning the autonomy of the individual. In Chapter 5, he discusses the basic premise that information and decisions form the foundation for the autonomy of the individual. There are two processes happening with the information involved in this autonomy. The first is the acquisition method by the individual, and the second occurs when the individual makes decisions based on that data.

Benkler says that information can come from many different channels to the individual. These channels are all different and could contain the same information or different information. The number of information channels also varies, from one to many. Now, as long as those channels remain free and unrestricted, so does the autonomy of the individual. Theoretically, the decisions made by the individual based off of the information are logically sound due to the nature of the information channel. The amount of autonomy is a direct function of the information decision process. The moment one of those information channels is controlled, autonomy has been decreased.

I agree with Benkler about the regulation of information channels and the effect they have on the autonomy of the individual, but I think he protects himself too much in his analysis. He qualifies it by saying “with sufficient choice among pipes, and sufficient knowledge about the differences between pipes, the very choice to use the manipulated pipe can be seen as an autonomous act.”(p. 148) The issue here is the individual’s knowledge of the information channel’s integrity. I am mostly concerned about the individuals who do not have knowledge of the information channel’s integrity and how that impacts autonomy. Looking at individuals in the United States, the thought of information channels is not something that occurs to the vast majority of people.

Just recently the FCC ruled against Comcast for regulating bit torrent traffic on its network. This is a prefect example of controlling the information channel. The vast majority of Comcast users were totally unaware that bit torrent traffic was being controlled, but some users did notice and discovered the regulation. By using Benkler’s analysis, the people who chose to use Comcast for bit torrent and were aware of the bit torrent restriction, were completely autonomous because they knew of the control. The majority of people who didn’t know about it were not as autonomous as the people who knew. I think there is a problem here. The vast majority of people don’t even use bit torrent so they were never even affected by the restriction. How can their normal and need fulfilling use be considered to be anything less than fully autonomous? The got the information they needed by using the information channel that is Comcast, and they could make decisions based on that information.

Autonomy is critical to analyze because of its relationship with the information economy. Without it the networked information economy would not exist. Without multiple information channels available for access, the limited information channels would be more likely to be controlled and autonomy reduced.

Reading The Wealth of Networks gave me concern with Benkler’s seeming refusal to take a stance on a topic. The first sentence in the chapter on Individual Freedom reads: “The emergence of the networked information economy has the potential to increase individual autonomy.” (p. 133) He likes to use the phrase may or may not, and I just wish that he would have chosen a path and stayed on it. I understand that data to support some of his claims may not be available, but even for him to just take a strong position would have been more exciting to me as a reader. It is clear that the author thoroughly and completely thinks about the networked information economy, but it comes across as safe and leaves me wanting more action-packed adventure.

July 14, 2008

Long Tail review

Filed under: Review — captainchunk @ 11:23 am

The Long Tail. Chris Anderson. New York: Hyperion, 2006. 226 pp.

The internet has already, and will continue to change traditional economics due to its ability to democratize content creation and distribution. Lowering the barriers to create content allows amateurs to make content that can be seen by as many people as some of the largest television networks in the world. This concept is central to Chris Anderson’s The Long Tail. His book argues that the internet is majorly contributing to the transition from a hit-based economic society to one that celebrates niches and diversity. An extremely large number of people spend money on hit songs, products, or services… but another large number of people are willing to spend money on songs, products or services that are not “popular” in the traditional sense. It is these “unpopular” niches that have been overlooked by traditional economics, but are studied in-depth by Anderson.

Without variety there would be no Long Tail and currently there are two methods driving variety in the Tail. First is an abundance of fresh content. Where content did not exist before, it exists there now. With the barriers to become a content producer lowered so drastically due to advances in technology and cost reductions to that technology, anybody and everybody now can create video, audio, and text media for consumption by the masses. Anderson embraces the fact that everybody can now be a media producer, writing that “the distinction between ‘professional’ and ‘amateurs’ is blurring and may, in fact, ultimately become irrelevant.”(78) There are far more “amateurs” than content creation “professionals” so inevitably there will be more content created by the “amateurs.”

The second way variety sneaks into the Tail is via smaller units. Anderson loves using iTunes and Rhapsody as examples for the Long Tail because of their amazing selection of music. Rhapsody has 1.5 million songs and its catalog is growing every day.(19) With the advent of these services, the ability to download single songs has become more than common place… it has become the standard. Breaking the mold of the album is a great thing to Anderson, who said that being able to download just single songs lets you avoid the less desirable songs on an album.(22) Only download the best of the best— those that will become the hits of the album. Anderson takes note of this phenomena with iTunes on page 111 saying, “…iTunes, which, for all of it accomplishments, shows a pop-music bias that undermines its usefulness for other kinds of music.” The division of products or services to their smallest unit might not be the best idea for the sake of the art. Seminal British rock band, Radiohead, held out for a number of years on the basis that their albums were works of art that should be experienced as a whole and that single song downloads were not good for their art. Not to long ago, Radiohead, chose to allow single song downloads via iTunes and their songs appeared on the service. From an economic standpoint, having single song downloads is a great deal as it allows the most flexibility in purchasing options, but there are downsides to having small units in the Tail.

With all of this variety in the Tail, Anderson is completely correct in assessing the need to have filters in place to sort through all of the content that makes up the Tail. Having post-filters in place is critical in creating value in the Tail. As I see it there are two goals of post-filters for Tail content. 1) To make it easier and quicker to find the things I am specifically looking for, and 2) to allow me to find things that I might not have been looking for.

Both of those goals require my time. Anderson addresses time somewhat in The Long Tail, but his treatment of time is lacking. Time has a significant impact on the value of the Tail, and I believe that this concept was deserving of more of Anderson’s attention. Right now it is still difficult to find the time necessary to navigate what the Long Tail has to offer, but post-filtering does help with the time barrier of entry. I am concerned that post-filtering will not be able to keep pace with the amount offered by the Long Tail. Right now, post-filtering does help people find what they are looking for and I think with time it will only improve. One of the most common forms of post-filtering are recommendations. Anderson realizes that recommendations tend to run out of steam the further down the Tail you go, but even with algorithmic or user created recommendations, it still takes time to go through those recommendations… you are required to spend time devoted to discovering the long end of the Tail. This time barrier of entry to the Long Tail is very important to the success niche economics.

Looking at the purpose of The Long Tail, it is clear that Chris Anderson realizes the power that the internet has on economics. Even though internet sales amount to less than 10% of US retail sales, it is the methodology that will have a huge impact on traditional brick and mortar retailers.(147) By using large companies like Amazon, Apple, Rhapsody and eBay as examples of Long Tail success, it is obvious that large aggregators can take advantage of the niche markets, but can small business take advantage of the small units that make up the Long Tail? Even though The Long Tail answered economic questions it raised many more in this reader… and that is a good thing.

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