Imagining the Future of Media
Last week, I wrote about possible futures of social networking, in a near future so near that it could be the present itself. I used a 2×2 matrix with likely/ unlikely scenarios on the X-axis and negative/ positive scenarios on the Y-axis, leading to four scenarios. I said that the likely/ negative quadrant is the default, as our world seems to devolve into chaos, when left to its own devices; if we reach out for our better selves, we might create a better world, in the likely/ positive quadrant; if we are lucky, we might even exceed our expectations and approach the unlikely/ positive quadrant; and if we are unlucky, we might mess things up, and find ourselves in the unlikely/ negative quadrant. This week, I’ll use the same 2×2 matrix to imagine four possible futures of media, like before, in a near future so near that it could be the present itself.
The Likely/ Negative Future
Amidst widespread speculation that the social web will hasten the end of journalism as we know it, media organizations have emerged at the forefront of innovation in technology. They have not only adopted, even co-opted, social networks like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, but also collaborated to create their own media network Streamly, to compete with them. On Streamly, half a billion citizen streamers share more than 2 billion hours of storystreams each week, most often from their haptic streampads, but sometimes even 24×7 with full-body Streamsuits, in the hope of being featured on Streamly, but also on every mediastream in the world. These storystreams range from the amateurishly banal to the professionally shocking, with elaborately staged sex and violence. Streamly automatically slices and stitches together similar stream segments into themed streamcasts, which are then hand-curated by professional streamistas who work for news organizations, and the most popular streamcasts are syndicated as mediastreams across the world. Many of the most popular mediastreams are either pornstreams or shopstreams, with seamless single touch bidding to buy the objects of desire. Corporations and government share their own storystreams, with pre-negotiated paid quotas for being featured on mediastreams, and agreements to filter out and censor stream segments that are against their best interests.
The Likely/ Positive Future
Streamly, along with social networks like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, has become an important platform for creativity, citizenship, and grassroots community organization. Even though pornstreams and shopstreams continue to be popular as streamcasts, streamistas employed by both Streamly and media organizations, also curate green, health, education and human potential streamcasts. Editors at media organizations have strong editorial policies on which streamcasts to syndicate as mediastreams, and rely on their reputation as tastemakers and opinion leaders to grow their subscriber base. Corporations and governments track storystreams to understand public opinion and change their policies, and even though they sometimes try to shape it with their own storystreams, they are almost never entirely successful. Worried about Streamly’s growing clout, free expression activists have started a freestreaming movement and hacked together a software called OpenStream to slice and stitch together storystreams into open-source streamcasts. Media organizations first considered legal action against OpenStream, but then decided to endorse it and even create a Streamly API to enable others to create similar apps, in response to adverse public opinion.
The Unlikely/ Positive Future
Building up from the Positive/ Likely scenario, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Streamly have all become powerful open ecosystems for creative expression and public dialogue, and the media ecosystem looks like a rich recombinant rainforest. However, people are beginning to tire of navigating these endless streams, even with the aid of search and recommendation AIs that are more powerful than ever before. Zen Minimalism has become a powerful world religion with its more than 2 billion new converts are beginning to apply the principles of minimalism to media and deciding that they won’t pay attention to anything today that they won’t pay attention to in a month from now. While pornstreams are still popular, shopstreams have almost disappeared. Almost everyone has a streampad, almost everyone streams, but almost no one streams 24×7 with full-body streamsuits. In a short time, the amount of streaming has become almost half of what it used to be, but the richness and diversity of streaming has increased dramatically, as Zen Minimalism practitioners often use their free time to perfect their craft. The practice of streamcasting and mediastreaming has also disappeared, as Zen Minimalism practitioners aren’t really interested in what’s popular or what everyone is watching. The media ecosystem is more of a rich recombinant rainforest than ever before, but it’s also as intimate as an evening of storytelling around a campfire.
The Unlikely/ Negative Future
Building up from the Positive/ Likely scenario, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Streamly have all become powerful open ecosystems for creative expression and public dialogue. Media entrepreneurs have built multi-million dollar startups on top of these platforms. Millions of apps and millions of niche-specific streamcasts have tried to follow their example but most have had limited success. As these platforms have become more open, and their app ecosystems have exploded, automated streambots have overwhelmed search and recommendation algorithms, and discovery has become a big problem. Streamly’s once-futuristic synthesis AI is now submerged under spam and Google’s PageRank search algorithm has long become obsolete. As a result, new streamers begin to get disappointed and give up, while established streamers and streamistas begin to wield power similar to 20th century media monopoliedecades short time, the rich recombinant media rainforest dries up into a media desert with half a dozen global monopolies who employ a few hundred star streamers, while a few thousands wannabe streamers toil away to attract their attention. These monopolies protect their subscriber bases with powerful firewalls and closed proprietary devices, which don’t even work with each other. Outside these closed monopolies, the web feels like the Wild West, where virusmongers, spammers and scam artists rule.
In imagining possible futures of media and contextualizing it against my possible futures of social networking, I realized that the difference between the positive and the negative scenarios is determined by a small number of factors: what does society value and how much, what’s commercial and what’s in the commons, who wields power and to what end. I also noticed that the Unlikely/ Positive futures in both the essays share the same assumptions, while the other three scenarios don’t really. It seems to me that there are many possible futures, each different from the others, but all our most preferable futures lie in the same direction, one in which humanity’s spiritual progress leads, not lags behind, the society’s technological progress. The question is: how do we choose these futures over the others?