Thursday 24 February 2011

Media complexity and choice

Photo: Composite c/o Andy Finney and "Laserdisc" Collin Allen, CC licence


As we all know, the transition of certain industries from physical to virtual products has been the subject of millions of words, worldwide. Reports, theories, analyses and commentary have all played their role into what has been a rapid transition, although being in the middle of the transition often feels slow – and painful. Music has clearly led the way, and it is now up to print (both in news and in books) to undergo a similar change, keeping an eye on the future while ensuring that the mistakes of the recent past are not repeated.

For both producers and consumers of content, it is important to make the right media choices. On the face of it, this seems easier than ever, with open standards and maturing consumer experiences (remember the Blink and Marquee tags?) making the possibility of dead-end media less likely. However, with device and media lock-down, DRM, and a new wave of tablet and 3D technology re-framing media discovery, then perhaps we are about to start the whole process again.Someone that has lived through the cycles and choices involved with digital media is Andy Finney. Starting in radio, Finney's career has taken him through production in both radio and television, into interactive media. He was an early exponent of interactivity in the BBC, helping to develop the Domesday Project in the 1980s, remaining in interactive platform development up to today.

The Domesday Project celebrated the 900th anniversary of the publication of the original work, through the development of a new version, produced by schools across the UK. Led by the BBC, the project was made available through specially-adapted Laserdiscs, capable of carrying a total of 600MB, including video.

Viewing these Laserdiscs required a specific hardware player, offered by Philips, a partner in the project. The rapid obsolescence of this hardware – and of the Laserdisc format in general - led to the problem that 600MB of rich, expensively-produced content, could no longer be played. Eventually, a joint project between Leeds and Michigan universities, set up to tackle the problem of obsolescence in digital content and media, developed a Windows-based application, DomesEm, which could read the data.

The increasing prevalence of personal and mass digital connectivity and technology, should bring about more informed choices. Finney looks at this issue from two perspectives: "... from the user, and from the producer. It's interesting as to which one drives the other, since until the Internet, it was almost always the producers who instigated new forms of media, whereas now if it's not actually the users, it is people acting on their behalf - such as Facebook and Twitter. We now have to take the graffiti as seriously as the newspaper.

"Whether this makes any of us better informed is another question, since the psychology and mindset of social media is something quite unusual to 'older' people. From one perspective, it looks rather too much like letting everyone read your diary, which is why many people are coming to regret what they posted on Facebook and the like as they get older. So, while I do think that a better understanding allows for better choices, I would temper that by questioning whether the understanding is wide enough."

Content and media have historically become inaccessible to the many through a decreasing commercial viability – mainly through age. Now, as we know through the web, it is possible to revisit practically anything from recent decades. The recent shift in the music industry, from emerging talent on vinyl to reforming bands playing live, is perhaps partly due to the constant availability of their work: whether it be ripped Top of the Pops performances on YouTube, or the publishing of entire albums to Spotify. Finney considers accessibility to be part of media's currency. "We'll need to know how to read older documents more carefully - since attitudes change and knowledge develops. This potentially makes researchers of us all, and perhaps research should be taught in schools."

Media and rights

The changes in context that occur to content and media over time are levelled out by one thing: copyright. This legal instrument preserves a right to ownership that remains, irrespective of the current commercial viability of the work. Finney does not consider that copyright needs to dramatically change as a result of shifting patterns in media production and consumption, but new opportunities clearly exist.

"I've heard it said that copyright is broken, but I don't think it is. Copyright legislation needs to address how people create, but the notion is still a valid one.

"The significant change is the price of entry to publishing. We talk about user-generated content as if it is something different, but it is not: it is just a wider definition of publishing. The problem is that the established channels of publication are having trouble fitting some of their business models to this wider definition of publishing, but the new 'publishers' don't seem to understand that with publishing comes responsibility. So, there is an issue with the public not understanding intellectual property."

Moving from physical to virtual contexts concerns Finney, in terms of the understanding of any impacts by consumers – such as a change in state from legal to illegal – and in terms of how content is re-appropriated. "Take cut and paste; if I take scissors and cut photographs out of the Sunday papers to make a collage, I could be considered an artist. If I use a computer to do essentially the same task, I am infringing copyright. Creative Commons is an attractive approach to opening this up, since it addresses things that you can do, rather than reserving everything. The difficulty comes with things like a definition of commercial use, since individual creators have widely differing ideas of what this means. Where do you draw the line? Are you commercial if you have Google ads on your blog? Are you commercial if you make money them? Are you commercial if you make a living from them?"

Finney's interest in legal frameworks has led him to consider whether the Domesday Project could have used Creative Commons – if it was around then. He considers Creative Commons as being a good basis for publicly-sourced text and photography, and could have given a greater level of acknowledgement to individual contributors. Finney sees Wikipedia in particular as a reasonably good model, which is by no means perfect – but its use of Creative Commons has been very helpful in terms of understanding how its content is produced and used. Mass approaches to knowledge and content capture such as Wikipedia and crowdsourcing appear to be relevant to how the Domesday Project could be produced in 2011. The underlying code could be produced under a "free-use" licence; however, as far as Finney is aware, not even the BBC has the source code to the original Domesday Project any more.

Open approaches should facilitate a better outcome for content facing obsolescence, because if it is freely available and documented, then it can be worked on in perpetuity. Finney has seen closed systems come and go, but remains cautious about the future, even with the prevalence of open frameworks. "I have produced stuff for videocassettes, videodisks, CD-I and the BBC Domesday system: all are either obsolete or rapidly going that way. All of them were closed systems. Any kid of lock-in is a threat to the future, whether it's a purely commercial one or whether it's technological. I am very nervous of DRM for example."

Where we go to next is something that clearly excites and fascinates Finney, albeit with a dose of pragmatism. "The Internet is a blank page; it will continue to change, and even Facebook and Google may go the way of horse-drawn trams in time. The Internet could be replaced by some other concept, but I'll be backed-up into the cloud by then."

Andy Finney concentrates on web development, especially databases; is closely involved in many projects related to digital television in the UK; and represents the Royal Photographic Society on the British Copyright Council.  His website is ATSF. Thanks to OSHUG for their assistance in article production.

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