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Monday, July 07, 2003

The Price of Change

Returning to the topic of my last post, it should by now be clear that one of the most complicated things about the 'information age' is going to be the problem of the information itself, and of our relation with it. One of the major problems with the perfect knowledge and foresight argument always was its dubious connection with the real world. But even limited knowledge and reasonable foresight seems to tax our capacities somewhat. Case in point: streaming video in mobile phones. It should have been clear from the moment that this product arrived on the first design bench, as even the vaguest pre-project, that here was a revolutionary product, what Maynard would call a point-of-view-transforming technology. You only have to go back over the history of TV, and think a little about the power of the visual image, to see where this might lead. What is happening is that we are systematically de-centralising information. I mean let's go back to the good 'ol USSR for a moment, and all those annually doctored party photos. Now tell me: how could this have worked in a world were fifty different versions of the original could be 'hung out to dry' in the internet in a matter of minutes. (In all of this, it will be noted, I am an 'unreconstructed' Mcluhanite, of which, more, and more again with time).

Our democratic systems have evolved (yuk!) in a world of centralised information, where control of and access to the means of information played an important part in shaping the collective political process. I am old enough to remember the comments and surprise produced by the fact that Kennedy was alledged to have swung the vote over Nixon because he wore a lighter suit. From here there is but a short journey to making an aesthetic of how you alight from a helicopter.

And then suddenly things change. Information is becoming more and more diffuse. The consequences of this are still far from clear. But what is clear is that the ability of certain key, and near-monopoly, communications empires to set the agenda for debate (what the German sociologist Niklas Luhmann called the 'thematisation' of the news), this ability is increasingly under threat. It is not simply that your good 'liberal' citizen now has the possibility to check-out different perspectives on any given piece of news, this is true, but misses the main point. The proces of defining what is relevant information for consideration is what has just changed (or in the memorable title of the James Gleick book, constitues what 'just happened to us'). The points of origin of news and information have just multiplied themselves by a very large number. Blogging is an indication of this, but it is only an indication and it is only a beginning.

The 'unchaining' of the visual image is another indication. A first glimpse of what almost surely is to come could be seen, for those who were watching, with the arrival on TV news of the first 'amateur video' footage. Then there was the evident attraction of all forms of visual e-mail and chat communication. And now we will see the 'image explosion' associated with the next generation of mobile phones.

What is very interesting to observe about the activity of these 'new economy' sectors is that it may well be the absence of competition that is produced by by the increasing returns phenomenon - within any given platform (AOL/Time Warner, Microsoft, Fox/CNN) - which generates a much more disruptive form of competition between platforms. This has long been evident with the competitive dynamic between the PC and the more traditional music and film platforms. Now the 'web enabled' mobile phone enters the fray. In theory everyone with a camera 'enabled' mobile phone now becomes an instant 'witness', 'intruder' or 'spy', depending on your point of view. This is bound to change the way 'we' see things, and it is bound to change the structure of 'news'. It is also bound to lead (another of my favoured themes) to a further de-professionalisation of information. It looks as if no profit-driven entity will be able to afford to compete with what will probably become virtually free access to rich visual inforamtion. (The search for new business models hots up!!).

And the strangest thing of all. It is not clear how much money the bearers of this new technology will be able to extract for their pains. Here in Europe take-off is slow, and there seem to be serious problems about deciding on a business model/pricing policy. And when they do take off there will likely be serious problems of over-capacity, and cut throat competition for market share. Then, when things finally stabilise (after say sixth months, one year........??) we will likely be at the top of the S curve, the market will be saturated, all the phones will be being produced in China, and we will be holding our breath waiting for the 'next big thing' to come along and deliver a big KO to the industry. Meantime the world of the visual image, and our relation to it will, in all probability, have changed irrevocably.

Samsung Electronics, the world's third largest maker of mobile phones, has banned the use of camera phones in some of its factories, fearing they could be tools of industrial espionage. The decision is an embarrassing admission by the South Korean company of the potential misuse of one its fastest-growing products. "Use of camera phones will be restricted in our most sensitive plants such as research and development centres and semiconductor labs," Samsung said. Camera phones have become part of everyday life in South Korea and Japan, the world's most advanced wireless markets, with people using the devices to e-mail photographs to friends and family.

But as use of camera phones has become more widespread, so too has concern about possible criminal use of the tiny camera lenses in mobile phones. Camera phones look like normal handsets. A user could take a photo of a person or a place without anybody knowing and immediately distribute it via the internet. Security experts have warned that camera phones could be used by criminals or terrorists to monitor individuals or sensitive buildings, while the devices could be used at concerts or other entertainment events in violation of copyright. Governments in several countries have also expressed fears about their use by pornographers. J-Phone, the Japanese wireless operator, has responded to the concerns by making its camera phones emit a noise to alert people when a picture is being taken. Samsung has chosen a low-technology remedy. It said people would be allowed to bring camera phones into its factories if lenses were covered with a plastic sticker.
Source: Financial Times

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