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In the "Global Village," Where is "The Public Square"?

Remarks delivered by David Liroff

Remarks delivered by Vice President and Chief Technology Officer of WGBH in Boston.
Public Media Roundtable, January 13, 2006

In our conversations yesterday and this morning, I was struck by the extent to which our conceptual approaches to issues involving public media continue to be shaped by our understanding of the world, as we have known it.

In this context, we use terms like "commercial/non-commercial", "for-profit/not-for-profit", "community" and "public" and "the public interest" because--based on our own experiences, and the experiences of those who have come before us--we think we know what we mean--more or less--when we use those words.

In The Medium is the Massage, Marshall McLuhan quipped "when faced with a totally new situation, we tend always to attach ourselves to the objects, to the flavor of the most recent past. We look at the present through a rear-view mirror. We march backwards into the future..."

It is difficult for any of us to fully appreciate the extent to which our experiences growing up shape the way in which we see the world today ...

My mother was born in New York City in 1910, remembered cooking with coal, and gas lights in the house, went on to be one of the first women to earn a law degree at Brooklyn Law School, was graduated in 1930, directly into the teeth of the Depression.

Flash forward: Years later, I was living in Chicago and she was still living in New York. She came to visit me. But instead of flying, she took the train. It arrived in Chicago--on time--seventeen hours after leaving New York. When I met her at the station, I said "You know, Mom, you could have flown--it would have taken you less than three hours to get here." To which she responded, "Yes, but it should take seventeen hours to get from New York to Chicago."

Compare that with my daughter Brooke, whose best friend in the fifth grade was the daughter of a Swedish doctor who was in the US on a medical school research fellowship. When the school year ended, the family went back to Sweden. For the next year, Brooke and her friend Cecilia stayed in touch by phone (this was in the mid-80s, pre-Internet.) And then Cecilia invited Brooke to come visit her in Sweden.

An exciting adventure for a sixth grader, or so I thought. We made the arrangements for her trip. I asked her if she'd be interested in seeing where Sweden was on a map. "Nope", she said. "Oh, C'mon". "No--I pick up the phone, dial the number and Cecilia's on the other end. You tell me that when I get on the plane, I stay on it for eight hours and when it gets to Stockholm, I get off and Cecilia and her family will pick me up. Why do I have to know where it is?" (Brooke may have discovered cyberspace before William Gibson.)

My mother and my daughter. Two travelers with very different concepts of distance and time.

I'm grateful to Larry Grossman for introducing me to a book titled "Today Then". It's a collection of essays written on the occasion of the 1893 Chicago World's Fair by 74 prominent Americans, each of them predicting what the United States would be like over the next 100 years.

Here's one of my favorites: David Swing--a Chicago preacher--anticipated modern air travel. Here's what he wrote in 1893: "It is almost certain that the United States will continue to advance in (the next) 100 years... Considerable traveling will be done by the air route. The fact that air is an ocean, which will float a man, settles the question of aerial navigation. Man has simply to invent the kind of boat. It must be very large and strong... This boat may be guided from city to city by a wire strung about 100 feet above ground, so as to let the balloon pass over trees and houses. Thus, a wire one quarter of an inch in diameter will hold and guide many balloons full of people."

And for those of us--like me yesterday morning--who continue to be frustrated by weather delays at airports, perhaps we should still be pursuing his idea.

If it's not already apparent, I'm going on about this because right now we need to acknowledge that our understanding of our world and of the fundamental structure and organization of our societies, of our governments, of our economies and nation-states, is based on what had been an immutable premise--that geographic distance was an absolute barrier to instantaneous interpersonal communication.

Marshall McLuhan had this pretty well nailed 35 years ago. (I must confess that when I was teaching McLuhan to undergraduates at Ohio University in the early 70's, I barely understood what he was talking about. Now it seems so clear.)

In "The Medium is the Massage", he wrote: "Electric circuitry has overthrown the regime of "time" and "space" and pours upon us instantly and continuously the concerns of all other men. It has reconstituted dialogue on a global scale. Its message is Total Change, ending psychic, social, economic, and political parochialism. The old civic, state and national groupings have become unworkable. Nothing can be further from the spirit of the new technology than "a place for everything and everything in its place". You can't go home again."

And later: "Ours is a brand-new world of allatonceness."Time" has ceased, "space" has vanished. We now live in a global village ... a simultaneous happening. We have begun again to structure the primordial feeling, the tribal emotions from which a few centuries of literacy divorced us.

"We have had to shift our stress of attention from action to reaction. We must now know in advance the consequences of any policy or action, since the results are experienced without delay. Because of electric speed, we can no longer wait and see. George Washington once remarked, "We haven't heard from Benjamin Franklin in Paris this year. We should write him a letter."

How could McLuhan have been so foresighted? He was a student of a Jesuit priest and paleontologist named Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. From the 1920's to the 1950's, de Chardin wrote about evolution, and theology, and the global eco-system.

McLuhan quotes de Chardin directly in "The Gutenberg Galaxy".

"... Through the discovery yesterday of the railway, the motor car and the aeroplane, the physical influence of each man, formerly restricted to a few miles, now extends to hundreds of leagues or more. Better still: thanks to the prodigious biological event represented by the discovery of electromagnetic waves, each individual finds himself henceforth (actively and passively) simultaneously present, over land and sea, in every corner of the earth".

McLuhan went on to popularize de Chardin's idea as "the global village." But it goes further than that: De Chardin introduced the idea of a "global consciousness", a membrane of information enveloping the globe which he called "the noosphere, after the Greek word "noo" for "mind". In a Wired article about de Chardin, John Perry Barlow is quoted as observing: "With cyberspace, we are, in effect, hard-wiring the collective consciousness."

On the RadioOpenSource web site, click on "Chris (Lydon) explains," and you'll read:

"�.One of the unspoken reasons we are drawn to the Internet is that it realizes so many of our primal old definitions of God. It's invisible. It's everywhere. It knows everything. Sing it now: It's got the whole world in its hands. Its eye is on the sparrow, paraphrasing the Ethel Waters song, and I know it watches me. Why else do we keep Googling ourselves if not to be reminded that the Internet knows who I am, and who you are, too. The Internet — so closely resembling the "noosphere" that Teilhard de Chardin foresaw 50 years ago — marks a new stage of human evolution. We do not begin to see the dimensions of the new reality."

I will admit that all of this seems pretty far out--too close to the paranormal and off the point--until we attempt to accommodate the explosive growth of "social networking" and "the blogosphere" within a comprehensive understanding of "public media". Surely, under the heading of "global consciousness" we would include instant messaging and RSS feeds, and Global Voices, and gather.com and myspace.com and friendster, backfence.com and flickr, even the increasingly omnipresent craigslist, to name a very few of today's examples, as well as ubiquitous always-on cell phones and gaming on a real-time, global scale.

Even eBay plays a role here. Click on the "community values" button on the eBay home page and you'll get a statement of "eBay Community values" which are intended to guide behavior in their chatrooms:

"eBay is a community that encourages open and honest communication among all its members.

"Our community is guided by five fundamental values:

We believe people are basically good.

We believe everyone has something to contribute.

We believe that an honest, open environment can bring out the best in people.

We recognize and respect everyone as a unique individual.

We encourage you to treat others the way you want to be treated."

My wife collects a particular kind of inexpensive glassware made by Fenton Glass of West Virginia. Through eBay she's connected with others with the same obsession, and their communication has gone beyond glassware to comparing notes with each other about their lives. One of her fellow collectors lives in central Indiana, just down the road from a hog farm. "It's not so bad," she writes, "unless the wind is blowing in the wrong direction."


For the past several years, I've been making presentations to a variety of audiences about the principal drivers of technological change in the media environment.

My basic point has been that although there is a great deal of uncertainty ahead, the direction of those technological changes--at least in the near- to mid-term--is clear:

None of us should be surprised by what will happen in the next several years. And while--as Bill Gates has observed--we have a tendency to over-estimate the speed with which technology innovations will unfold, and to under-estimate their eventual impact--in recent months we appear to have arrived at a tipping point at which the rate of change in the media environment is accelerating exponentially.

At the very least we are at what Intel chairman Andy Grove has referred to as a "strategic inflection point", that point at which fewer and fewer of the old rules apply. We know that if we continue to do business by the old rules, there is a high probability of failure.

But the new rules haven't been written yet.

I then review a punch list of technological changes, all of which are familiar to you:

  • Moore's Law is still working, with computer processing power doubling every 18 months, as he predicted, with no increase in cost;
  • The cost of digital storage is dropping by half every ten months;
  • Advances in audio and video compression continue, squeezing increasing amounts of information down same-sized pipes or channels;
  • The conversion from analog to digital technologies results in an eight-fold increase in cable channel capacity, and a four-fold increase in broadcast channel capacity;
  • Direct-to-user satellite services provide an ever-increasing number of content choices;
  • Digital file formats and the shift to Internet Protocol facilitate cross-platform exchanges, from cell phone screens to giant HDTV displays, and everything in between;
  • Bandwidth available to end-users continues to increase, with broadband now in approximately 50% of all US households;
  • There continues to be an inexorable shift from wired to wireless technologies;
  • Emerging developments in nanotechnology, miniaturization; RFIDs in retail and media applications;
  • All accompanied by increasingly sophisticated database management and data mining capabilities enabling personalization, customization, search, collaborative filtering, recommender systems ("...others who bought this book also bought...").

We could keep going...

It's at this point that I stop to consider the impact of these changes on how we use media for entertainment, information, and education, and talk about how we are coming to expect that we will be able to access whatever content we want, whenever we want on whatever display devices are most convenient. Familiar themes to most of us, essentially elaborations on the flavors of the present and the most recent past.

But the truly disruptive, subversive phenomena--the ones which are turning the old order on its head--are the technologies which enable instantaneous interpersonal communication on a global scale, overcoming the previously immutable barriers of geographic distance which have shaped every aspect of human society as we have known it.

In the literal meaning of the word, the "media" have been the intermediaries in human communication, the intervening players between source and recipients. If you'll forgive the deliberate play on words, the new technologies are dis-intermediating the old media. As McLuhan would have it, "ours is a brand-new world of allatonceness."

I mentioned yesterday that the Corporation for Public Broadcasting has been supporting a year-long scenario planning process whose principal focus is to envision the role of the local public television station in the emerging media environment. Among the principal drivers of change going into the future are the expectations of audiences –

In the words of Clayton Christensen of the Harvard Business School--"What's the job they'll be hiring us to do"?


That "fifth grade daughter" I mentioned a few moments ago is now grown up, out of college, married, and expecting her first child in April.

I can only begin to imagine what role 'public media' could or should play during the lifetime of this new arrival as all of us take our first baby steps toward this new global consciousness.

During the first nanoseconds of this new era, all of us should be sobered by that Bob Dylan refrain:

"Because something is happening here but you don't know what it is. Do you, Mister Jones?"

Boy, talk about a research agenda!!

Thank you.