There is a certain policy debate around Internet TV that so far has only reared its head, but will one day take centre stage: if in the future scheduled TV is replaced by on-demand viewing and infinite choice of content, the role that TV plays today in providing shared cultural currency may be fatally undermined. This raises questions for public-service broadcasting and politics in general. This post in an attempt to chart the territory.
Cass Sunstein has already explored many of the key points. Writing about the perils of an on-demand world where everybody can choose what to watch, he argues that
For democracy to work, people must be exposed to ideas they would not have chosen in advance. Democracy depends on unanticipated encounters. It is also important for diverse citizens to have common experiences, which provide a kind of social glue and help them to see they are engaged in a common endeavor. (...)
Until now, this danger was diminished by general-interest newspapers, magazines and broadcasters. (...)
These unchosen, unanticipated encounters are important, even crucial, for democratic self-government. And while the increased power of individual choice can expand our horizons, it can also narrow them if many people end up in communications universes of their own specific design.
At the core of this argument there are two valued aspects of media experiences:
- Serendipity, or stumbling upon content as a side-effect of the old ways of aggregating content through newspapers, TV schedules, TV channels, etc. Serendipity is good for society because it gets us to see points of view that we might not have chosen to listen to.
- Shared experiences, that is, what happens when I consume content that is also being consumed by others at more or less the same time. This is good for society because it 'puts people on the same page'. As Benedict Anderson argued, newspaprs give societies a shared, novel-like narrative without which modern nations would be difficult to imagine.
Both of these experiences foster a sense of community.
This blog started about a year ago with a long essay on an expressive form I called 'aggregates', a form that shares has the two virtues that Sunstein values. Briefly, aggregates are lists of content: TV schedules, news arrangements in newspapers' front pages, news bulletins, DJ radio programmes, etc.
I argued that aggregates are not just a consequence of the inefficient way of delivering content inherent in old media. Aggregates, especially when they are authored by human editors, are themselves content. There is a distinct audience need for them (just think of news: the main need is to know what the day's news are, quite apart from knowing about events in detail). And when everybody in a community consumes the same aggregates (as distinct from each person receiving a personalised list of news to read) they articulate the community's shared concerns.
Now, a closer look at Sunstein's examples and arguments, and at those he gives in his book, reveals two things:
- First, what enables old media to deliver serendipity and shared experiences is mainly the way they handle aggregates--specifically, the fact that they can't deliver any content except as part of aggregates.
- Second, aggregates' force is largely independent of the content they list, or of that content's quality. What matters is that (a) they be shared and (b) they make audiences see --even if just at a glance-- unexpected content they would not have chosen. (This is not to say that content or quality don't matter; it is one thing to have social cohesion, and another to have it around something worthwhile).
In the US debate surrounding a-la-carte cable TV, the position adopted by the model's proponents --let's call them the liberals-- goes more or less as follows: Many consumers are clear about what they want. It is commercially unfair, and politically paternalist, to force them to purchase channels they don't want just so they can get the ones they do want. The argument is a classical economic-liberal one: consumers are presumed to have and know their preferences, which they are able and willing to satisfy by chosing their transactions rationally. Anything that stands in the way is a market distortion, the result of monopoly or unjustified goverment intervention.
A communitarian counterargument could be as follows: fine, maybe there are some consumers who know what they want. But this is only because they live in communities (which may not be geographical, or small) where these desires are formed in a social process. What's more, without shared experiences--which are powered by aggregates--this process could not take place. Lost would not be what it is if it wasn't part of a TV schedule that people consume, at least partly, because of limited choice and dictated options. It is all too well to want to allow people to choose freely; but let's then accept that, if everybody did this, the choices would be among very different things, and quite possibly none of them would be very good.
As is often the case in these debates, the conversation could go on indefinitely, and both sides would be able to claim some measure of victory.
In the on-demand case, however, it might just be that the debate is an unnecessary one. Perhaps, as the liberals would argue, there is no defensible ground to restrict consumers' choice. But at the same, to the communitarians' relief, it might also be that non-personalised aggregates with mass appeal will survive in the free market. If, as I've argued, there is a clear consumer demand for shared aggregates, then they will always have a role (Ben Compaine has recently made a similar point with respect to a-la carte cable). Let those who know what they want get straight to it; search engines excel at facilitating this. But also allow those who don't, or who only have a vague idea, to sit back and allow themselves to be shown something new.
If this sounds too good to be true, just look at the web. For all the success of Google and 'search', portals' success continues to defy all those who predicted their downfall. Consumers sometimes know what they want, and sometimes they just want to 'connect' and 'be online' at a place where others go. General-interest, non-personalised, authored aggregates continue to be habitual mainstream destinations, even in the on-demand medium par excellence.
Update (31/05/06): Willian McKeen has written a compelling defense of the value of serendipity, prompting an annoyed Steven Johnson to ask for the meme to be killed, only to revive it. In my humble opinion, the debate needs to draw some distinctions. We can't accuse the web as a whole of being bad for serendipity; and we need to distinguish between different types of serendipity.See my post on this.