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Marx, Media & The Daily Me

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A weekend of major issues was upon us: social security’s stimulating
squabbles, Greenspan’s giving guidance on growth and Iran’s ignoring
irate inspectors. But surely the media will be focused on something far
more important: just what will Martha do when she gets out and what
will Michael do when he goes in??

As I wrote last September, we gush over gossip (whether of the local
water-cooler or celebrity trade rag kinds)–it’s got a special place in
our hearts. Harvard’s evolutionary psych guru, Steve Pinker, said it
best: “Gossip is a favorite pastime in all human societies because
knowledge is power. Knowing who needs a favor and who is in a position
to offer one, who is trustworthy and who is a liar, who is available and
who is under the protection of a jealous spouse–all give obvious
strategic advantages in the games of life. That is especially true when
the information is not yet widely known and one can be the first to
exploit an opportunity, the social equivalent of insider trading.”
Forget Marx. Media is the opiate of the masses. In part, because we all
want to keep up. We’re afraid of what we’ll miss if we tune out.

UBS’s Tech Strategist Pip Coburn shared an interesting point. Most
people, especially the throngs on Wall Street, thirst for new things.
And if a sector doesn’t develop immediately, they’re on to the
next–never mind that the tipping point for the technology or market
hasn’t hit yet. In the market, there’s evidence of more and more
firm-specific volatility, but one has to wonder if it’s because
technology is changing at a faster and faster rate (it is) or because
investors have shorter and shorter attention spans (they do)?

Like Buffett said, “companies get the shareholders they deserve”.
Conversely, shareholders get the companies they deserve. Impatient,
restless investors will leap like lemmings from fad to fad. In the long
run, their thighs might be stronger, but their pockets will be emptier. As
has been said, the only safe way to double your money is to fold it over
once and put it in your pocket.

If you pay even remote attention to the media (and escapist attempts
require a serious expenditure of energy), the latest rages are
“podcasting” and personalized media. The former is really a subset of
the latter. Someone asked me to start a nanotech podcast of this weekly
letter. But my prediction on the fate of podcasting is this: hundreds of
thousands of people will post audio files for the world to hear. Like a
power law, a few voices (“podcasts”)–that wouldn’t have left their
full-time jobs for radio or would’ve otherwise never been heard–will
percolate to the top with very large audiences, benefit from positive
feedback effects and early lock-in of listener loyalty and bite into the
Satellite radio players. Simultaneously a few very rare casts, like
“cooking hour for lactose intolerant dog-lovers” will find a loyal but very,
very small niche audience.

I’m wrestling with the controversial idea that perhaps all this
personalization has a downside. Ten years ago, MIT’s Nicholas Negroponte
theorized a newspaper that pulled together all the things you’re
interested in and delivered it–“The Daily Me.”

It’s here now and it’s not just alerts via up-to-the-minute blogs or
news-feeds. You’ve got Tivo for your shows, iPod for music you desire,
Netflix for movies you want, and Sirius (or XM) for the radio you want.
Empowering? Sure. But the downside seems to be isolation. All those
music listeners walking about NYC with dangling white headphones are
independent tribes of one, perhaps literally in an “I”-“Pod”.

People who follow nanotechnology closely recognize that the most
dramatic changes will come at the boundaries (as all change does–whether
in population ecologies, nation-states or on-campus quads). The
biologist that bucks the border of his discipline is more likely to
stumble upon a breakthrough than his colleague who remains caged. But it
requires pressing up against the boundaries, not creating a bubble
around one’s self. Perhaps the irony is this: many of our new
technologies with rapid adoption rates from network effects actually
make it easier to opt-out and isolate in personalized cocoons.

I for one like listening to the radio or watching live TV, knowing
there’s a network of people listening or watching to the same thing I
am, having the same or opposite emotional response that I am, at the same
time. Sometimes popular TV shows aren’t necessarily popular because they
are good. Sometimes they’re popular because they’re popular (Just as
people can be famous for being famous).

My last media quip for this week: the blockbuster movie business has
morphed into a late 90s investment bank, churning out low quality
offerings and relying on pre-marketing to pack them in and make their
money. Contrast Oscar-nominated Sideways with blockbuster-bomb Elektra.
Sideways opened on about 350 screens and took 10 weeks to gross about
$25 million. Elektra opened on 10x as many screens and grossed $25
million in 1/10th of the time. The logic for the studios has become
simple: spend big on advertising, then pack people in before they find
out it sucks. Many investment banks used the same strategy.

Here’s my friendly reminder to disconnect next weekend. Take the weekend
and if you have spare time, maybe use it to read. As my childhood
friends twisted the old library slogan to make fun of me, “reading is
fun-for-mentals”. Or as Voltaire said, “You despise books; you whose
lives are absorbed in the vanities of ambition, the pursuit of pleasure
or indolence; but remember that all the known world, excepting only
savage nations, is governed by books.”

(Josh Wolfe, NYC)

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