16 June 2009

It's cell phones vs guns

That from GuamGuy at Twitter and I've been using Twitterfall to keep track of the events in Iran at #iraneclection, Tehran and Mousavi.  I am not a regular Twitter user, needless to say, and only got cellphones a couple of days ago as emergency use supplies.  And I do have some criticism of the technology, but that is not important.

These last five days have been monumental in breaking the way news is reported and does point to the change that technology is bringing on a global basis.  This technology is the use of networking via cell phones and the advent of that system as a complement to standard TCP/IP technology.  To refresh how we get to the point where you get news from other people who are on the spot and seeing it, and not via a 'gatekeeper' we need only step back a decade ago to the period just before rapid cellphone distribution and the first wave of information distribution that is not under the one to many paradigm.

Broadcast media (TV, Cinema, etc.) is 1:Many.  It has a single broadcast point but multiple people can pick it up.  It is also unidirectional from the broadcaster to the receiver.  This technology existed along side newspapers which were an early version of 1:Many, but only to subscribers and those who held public copies of the information.  Newspapers had limited bandwidth and low refresh rate.  Television improved both bandwidth for communication (amount of information that can be delivered per unit time) and refresh rate.  Voice and motion image delivery is a high bandwidth and high refresh rate affair for an event that can be covered.  Unfortunately the infrastructure for broadcast, like newspapers, is expensive and requires a large technical staff, and feed back is limited to those already in studios.  Television surpassed film reels for complex information delivery and made the reception cost cheap by allowing a high cost receiver to constantly receive new information, thus making it a cheap acquisition over time.

That era of news starting with the single penny 'broadsheets' all the way up to the proliferation of cable channels took 500 years to do.  Newspapers made using moveable type supplanted the previous 1:Many form of communication by bards, troubadours and town criers.  Many of those gave stories to papers for pay and invented 'reporters'.  We do not cry about the lack of Monks creating hand illuminated script, the absence of a town crier and only bards still fill an emotional need that no other media has ever supplanted... if you are ever lucky enough to find and listen to one, that is.  So we have come not to miss bards, either.

Newspapers melded over to television, but the two competed on a different basis, with television being faster and glib, as airtime that was empty was wasted time, while newspapers could do longer pieces with more research.  If the reporter ever bothered to do that, and the lack of research was always evident in both media by the method of taking something you know and see how it is reported, then remember that level of sophistication is in ALL of the paper or television media.  They looked to have a dominating stranglehold on information even into the late 1970's when television was beginning to shift reading habits to viewing habits and papers started to get into financial trouble.  Thus television became the dominant factor in 'news' 'reporting'.

A little technology developed in the 1960's to interconnect mainframe computers used a point to point messaging protocol to route messages via a non-proprietary schema.  Anyone who understood how that worked could make adapters for their systems and connect to it and exchange information.  It was developed to share processing time across computers, but found its 'killer application' in e-mail for the scientific and technical communities.  E-mail started as host system only (only the system you are on) but the networking schema allowed for e-mail to be exchanged between systems and a non-proprietary protocol was developed for it.  The Advanced Research Projects Agency had asked for the protocol to be developed not to survive nuclear war, but to share expensive processing time amongst those who owned mainframes and did government work.  The exchange of ideas, though, proved a huge boon to the scientific and technical community and spurred the growth of the internetworking schema outwards to non-government backed institutions.  It is from there we get the modern internetworked computer systems: the internet is a network of networks.

What this internet technology allowed, however, was a messaging system that could be run by institutions that allowed for common posting of thoughts and ideas on topics.  Those text-based message boards of subscriber based feedback is, essentially, what Twitter is today, just spruced up for the modern era just 40 years later.  E-mail and message boards proliferated and allowed the first new form of communication that was not single point broadcast:  Many:Many.

Many to Many systems are a distribution system between all users of the system, and allow feedback and input of those users to each other.  No longer is it One to Many, with only one individual or point being the broadcaster, but Many to Many where all can look at and respond to messages.  When that was all done by technical and scientific groups the level of noise in the system was low: everyone agreed to stay on topics of common interest.  By the 1970's and early 1980's so many universities had this type of system that the non-technical message boards started to proliferate and larger numbers of individuals refused to stay 'on topic'.  Those became known as 'trolls'.  Trolls incited passions and got into heated discussions via these means and those attacks on personal integrity that would ensue were known as 'flame wars'.  By the early 1980's there was no longer a 'clean signal' of information on the message boards and any user soon learned to block posts from certain posters and 'clean up the signal'.

Some message areas became so badly over-run with trolls that download time for messages (which cost you money) soon meant seeking out a few responsible people to start NEW message boards and moderate the commentary.  Strange to say, those would stagnate as the editorial decisions of moderators would, itself, inflame passions... no one likes an editor it appears...and things continued apace.  Technology got cheaper, proliferated into businesses, into the home and use of the internet by the 1980's was growing outside of traditional government and academia circles.  Other messaging systems for telephones from MCI and AT&T appeared and some of those were crossed with internet technology in the early 1990's.  Limited network organizations, like AOL, formed for home users to communicate with other subscribers, but the use of internet communication and adoption would force each of those smaller concerns to open up their network to the internet.

The handwriting was already on the wall for newspapers in the early 1980's, and by the 1990's it was apparent to those inside the industry that something was making newspapers obsolete.  Television viewership was reaching a peak and most blamed TV for the ills of newspapers, and no one took the unmoderated, troll-infest, flame-war prone internet seriously, save at the technical conferences I attended in the 1994-99 era.  There the 'New Media' was being talked about by early adopters and the ability to have single owner message systems, where that individual could put up a post and get feedback soon became known as the web-based log.  Web technology is an add-on to TCP/IP and rides on it, using look-up tables for names to translate them into IP addresses to route through TCP/IP networks.  Any single gateway to such a network can host its OWN network of TCP/IP addresses... and by putting a 'user friendly' software interface that was graphical (developed by scientists in Switzerland at CERN for displaying numerical data in visual format across networks) soon became a 'killer application' for the web.  Web-based logs (Blogs) were a start-up phenomena of 1:Bi-directional Many as commentary areas could be opened up for topics started by an author.  Instead of just sending out a personal rant, you could now insult everyone on a single topic at one go!  That said 1:Bi-directional Many had and still has a useful function in starting discussions on topics and while trolls still proliferate, the profusion of topics makes individual trollers either have to slow down (and thus think, which should make them less troll like) or devolve into simple name-callers, foul mouthed spewers of ideology, and generally act in a manner closer to grade school or kindergarten.

Blogs then have more signal to less noise, by and large, due to topicality of discussion and the ability of other bloggers to continue conversations or add ideas on at their own sites.  E-mail was the killer app for the early internet, and web-based browsing became the killer app for the internet of the 1990's, allowing everyone from stores to banks to your lone cat blogger, to put together a relatively simple site to post whatever they wanted.  Television viewership (as a percentage of Americans) was already declining: viewing hours were dropping and more people just weren't watching TV.  This was going on pre-web-based internet, and sped up during the era of 1999-2001.

Message boards still existed, and blogs co-existed and then eclipsed them, yet on some boards the dedicated messaging of small news stories held by large companies had already started.  I have, more than once, found myself on an interface to a message board archive finding obscure articles that are held nowhere else on the net.  The era of copyright, that the music industry was complaining about as their recordings were cheaply being copied, had already come into steep erosion.  In venues outside of traditional channels of information these articles were in clear violation of copyright, but had almost no value that could ever be rendered from them and would be lost without public copying.  The music industry would stagger at this as their business model was made obsolete the moment they published anything in digital format as the home computer was now able to break simple encryption schema or, alternatively, just copy an entire disc at a digital level.  Nothing can stop that.

Today the information coming from Twitter is the updated message boards of the early internet: they are open, generally unmoderated, depend on user input entirely, have trolls, and have the compelling interface of being updated by each and every message from each and every user displayed almost immediately.  This application is restricted compared to those message boards due to length of message that can be sent via cellphones.  Cellphones use a different networking system, but that can interface with the network neutral TCP/IP system at the router level, and some companies may just use TCP/IP and go through local hosting.  This still requires cell phone towers, central distribution points and can still be taken down by regimes.

The cell phones, themselves, are beneficiaries of Moore's Law, however, starting out with the Motorola Startac 'Brick Phone' of the 1980's, then going to smaller and smaller formats thereafter.  As the cost of integration of new features at the silicon level gets cheaper (via Moore's Law) new functions are cheaply added on to handsets while the price continues to decrease over time.  Today handsets are miniature network interface devices allowing voice, still imagery, video, and text to be input and transmitted.  Text messaging, like e-mail, is a 'killer application' that arose because it is cheaper to send digital text than analog to digital voice calls.  Some systems supported this at the magic 'free level' and that made each and every cell phone owner a free ranging reporter.  Individuals are outside the bounds of the older print and television media: people communicate about what interests them and don't give a damn about 'gatekeepers'.

Messaging via text, voice, still imagery and video is a complement to blogs, just as blogs were an early complement to message boards, and this can be seen as returning the favor to blogs to allow for dedicated end-user, live, Many:Many communications to take place.  Watching an active Twitter feed is engrossing because it is ongoing, live and the information is given by those who are actively seeking to promulgate messages.  There are STILL trolls, but they now inflame fewer passions given limited text space, and are easy to ignore.  People with fanatical belief that they are always right on all topics will ALWAYS exist, just they used to be put into attics and were the Aunt/Uncle no one talked about... they now have cell phones.

There is, with modern cell phones, more than one network available, however, and this is not talking about the network provider for phone, but the phone itself.  Today cell phones can have Bluetooth technology, which is a short range capability to move information between Bluetooth devices that have accepted each other's 'handshake'.  These form on-the-fly networks that are created by all devices that share handshakes digitally.  They are relatively low bandwidth, but amble enough for images and video to be moved between individuals on a timely basis.  These networks are 'ad hoc' and not centralized: there are no servers, per se, nor IP look up tables, just a list of devices held by each device, that they have shook hands with.  While these are small networks, they move, adapt and change configuration on a continual basis.  And as it is easy to erase handshakes, they form a set of devices that can easily be repurposed if a sub-network amongst agreed-upon devices is breached, although that takes some time to do.

These are then characterized as 'piconets' or as a Personal Area Network (as opposed to Local Area Network or Wide Area Network technologies which need centralized numbering and addressing systems).  In conception, every device on a piconet can be a server, router and be a network communication device passing information across the trusted network at a LAN/WAN or TCP/IP level... right up to the moment a trusted, connected device to the internet is found, which then allows for ALL stored data to be copied out into the internet.

Although that technology has not been used, to date, in that fashion, it points to the final breaking of authoritarian regimes having control over information.  Indeed, as such regimes border Nations that do NOT have restrictions on comms, LAN and WAN technology can be used to bypass firewalls and communicate with the larger internet world.  Satellite phones add into that, as trusted network devices, but are rare and high cost to use/maintain.  With Moore's Law the ability of piconets to reach outwards, morph, and never be fixed by location or even device, means the next threshold of personal technology to communicate with the world is nearly here.

It will not make obsolete the older, network neutral, systems as they have a great purpose in coordinating all comms via neutral protocols.

What does this mean for older technologies?

For newspapers it is not a death-knell, but a bottomless pothole.  Newspapers and other print media have hidden behind a mask of 'objectivity' while not providing 'objective' coverage of news.  That is 'Just the Facts Ma'am' or 'Joe Friday' news.  The moment you hear a reporter say 'human interest' or 'human side' of the story, you know that is no longer objective reporting.  Whenever a reporter or editorial board does not come clean with their ideological bias in how they operate, they are not being 'objective'.  One can still HAVE bias in reporting, and it is, indeed, insane to think otherwise: you think, are alive and are human, therefore you are biased.  The mask of 'objective' reporting can and indeed must be dropped to survive.  Magazines that have done so still have a committed readership and that indicates a market for biased covering of news and topics so long as the publication is absolutely clear on its position.  Individuals can and do weed out bias to get to news... watching a Twitter feed indicates that, alone.  There is no need for a 'gatekeeper' once the fence is taken down, and the fence is not that high any more and it is gone in some areas.  Those that continue on with the charade of 'objectivity' will step into a bottomless pothole, those that avoid that will not... most are stepping into the pothole.

Television has tried 'interactive TV' and failed, multiple times.  As the ethos of news presentation followed that of newspapers, the remedy for TV news is the same: identify the bias of the editorial board and reporters, and just report the damned news.  Save 'human interest' for 'entertainment' venues outside of news reporting.  Again, the gate has no fence and the gatekeeper is an antiquated figure, like the coachman holding a lantern.  Great for a lawn ornament, but not so hot for your Ford.  Television news also faces the 'bottomless pothole' dilemma in ratings, and very few news organizations are adapting to this new future.  They will go the way of bards, troubadours and Monks hand illuminating manuscripts along with their friends in the print media.

Blogs are adaptive media: bloggers have wide interests in various areas and with various forms of presentation, and the web-based log will only become more personalized to the interest of the presenter.  Because it is a highly representative form of presentation, those that come to them will adapt to those that present information in a way they like.  Bloggers are far more open about bias than their print and TV counterparts, when they have counterparts, which many do NOT as there is no way to do on 1:Many what 1:Many bi-directional with add-ons does.  There is no equivalent to Many:Many unmoderated anywhere in print or TV, due to restrictions of the medium used.  Many:Many can and most likely will serve as the basis for future 'news' as multiple individual witnesses recount information and cross-confirm events.  'Fact checking' for ongoing events goes from months, weeks, days or hours, to hours, minutes and seconds.  That is the derived Feiler Faster Thesis at work, for information uptake and understanding of information.

Twitter has brevity on its side, which forces personal editing and getting to facts quickly.  Noise can be reduced, and will be by individual... and it might be hell for those seeking to be rabble-rousers to know that they are putting out their words but that no one is picking them up any more... so sock puppets will appear and suffer the exact, same thing.  The ability of individuals to censor what they take in is a great Liberty, and learning that you are speaking only to yourself is a great goad to civility.  I am sure that text comms will open up, but here form factor of device means that actually getting a coherent long message out can't be done quickly, like on a laptop or PC: editing yourself takes space and time, and there is little screen space currently available and that is driven by form factor (it must fit in your hand) and NOT technology.  You can only see so much, and the form factor becomes the medium, thus driving messaging type.  Small videos and still images will be primary, text simple and limited until a major form factor change takes place or we replace our visual input system with something else.

To sum up: the Iranian revolt/uprising is now being communicated by multiple means (those helping to get secure gateways up and keep them up have been a godsend to Iran, plus those getting out information on how to anonymously report) is pointing to the true future of news.  It will be self-reported.

And the revolution will be self-organized.

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