It's the Context, Stupid
By: Paul Saffo, Wired
"It's the content, stupid." This catchy apothegm, now the mantra of an infant new media industry, is chanted by entrepreneurs, uttered sagely over Chardonnay in Malibu, and dis-cussed intently by strategists in the boardrooms of media mega-conglomerates. As compelling as this phrase may be, it is also dead wrong. It is not content but context that will matter most a decade or so from now. The scarce resource will not be stuff, but point of view.
The boggling prospect of filling megabit household pipes makes it easy to conclude that content will become a scarce good commanding monopoly fees, that desperate successors of today's cable and telephone companies will buy anything - old movies, home videos, Mr. Ed reruns - just to bulk up the programming on their new networks.
But history suggests a very different story. From Gutenberg to Sarnoff to today's developers, those in the information business have wondered how we would ever fill the pipe, yet output of content has always outstripped channel capacity. In the 1950s, broadcasters wondered how three channels could ever be programmed on a 24-hour basis. Barely a decade after cellular phones arrived, cellular channels are so crowded that a dial tone is a scarce resource.
The same will be true for digital networks. There will be no "dead air" on our new conduits, but most content will be limited to fungible commodity properties like game shows, old movies, and utter trash. Indeed, just as most of what was published in 1500 was utterly forgettable, contemporary radio "schlock jocks" differ from their predecessors more in degree than kind. Now the "vast wasteland" first described in 1961 by then-Federal Communications Commissioner Newton Minot will be supplanted by a vaster wasteland brimming with utterly new forms of interactive cyberdreck. There will be more really great content too, but snagging it in an expanse of banal junk will be harder than ever.
It is this this plethora of content that will make context the scarce resource. Consumers will pay serious money for anything that helps them sift and sort and gather the morsels that satisfy their fickle media hungers. The future belongs to neither the conduit or content players, but those who control the filtering, searching, and sense-making tools we will rely on to navigate through the expanses of cyberspace.
These new tools will eliminate comfortable TV-era, content-hunting habits. Channel-surfing will be an early casualty as the second thing to disappear in a 500-channel world will be the channel selector - after the channels themselves. Viewers may welcome the menu-driven TV Guide simulacra that replace this click-and-surf world, but even these menu schemes will merely be transitional forms on the road to far more exotic context tools taking inspiration from outside the TV universe.
Intelligent agents are the obvious and much-discussed next step, but the value of agents or arbiters of talent lies in the murky details of their operation and interaction with human masters. This is where the scarcest of context resources lie, the pieces that will command top dollars from conduit and content providers alike. And just as networks once turned on microscopic shifts in Nielson ratings, the subtlest of details in the algorithmic parameters defining these agents will spell wild success or utter doom for one player after another.
Without a doubt, the agent arena will become a technological battleground, as algorithms rather than content duel for market dominance. A decade ago, the network with the best shows won; soon it will be the provider with the best agent who comes out on top. New interface metaphors and arcane search schemes will proliferate as we thrash out the best way to make agents ever more capable diplomats, shuttling between users and media.
The seductive chaos of the Internet today offers hints at why these agents-to-come will be so important. As at Alice's Restaurant, you can get anything you want - but unless you have software help, you might never find what you are looking for. Thus, schemes like Gopher and Veronica, WAIS and Mosaic, are the hottest things on the Net today. Were it not for the Internet's cultural bias against selling things for money, all these context-making schemes would cost plenty to use.
But the highest ground in the context arena may not end up in the hands of the technocrats at all. The scarcest of context resources will be something utterly beyond the ken of cold algorithms - point of view. "Point of view" is that quintessentially human solution to information overload, an intuitive process of reducing things to an essential relevant and manageable minimum. Point of view is what successful media have trafficked in for centuries. Books are merely the congealed point of view of their authors, and we buy newspapers for the editorial point of view that shapes their content. We watch particular TV anchors for their point of view, and we take or ignore movie advice from our friends based on their point of view.
In a world of hyperabundant content, point of view will become the scarcest of resources, and we will race to model human points of view within the personalities of our software agents. I will even bet that an industry will grow up around individuals licensing their points of view for use in context engines in exchange for usage royalties. Imagine being able to give your news agent the personality and perspective of Walter Cronkite, Howard Stern, or John Updike, or consult the software-doubles of Siskel and Ebert for advice on cool movies to view. Just as some talk show hosts have become the movers and shakers of post-network TV today, individuals with unique points of view could become the superstars of cyberspace, their personalities immortalized in software traversing the web.
Paul Saffo (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a research fellow at the Institute for the Future in Menlo Park, California.
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