A Radically Decentralized Future? The Long-Term Influence of Digital Media
When I was a kid, maybe 9 or 10 years old, I was fascinated by media. I decided to try my hand at it and started producing a family newspaper — with investigative reporting on what the house cats were up to and similar important topics. It was neatly typed on an old typewriter, and using carbon paper I was able to produce a total circulation of 4 copies. A bit later I decided that I wanted to have my own radio station. Using some cheap electronic parts and two tape recorders I built my own little studio that actually enabled me to produce something like a real radio show. Distribution was simple: a speaker on a long cable went into the living room so that my family could enjoy my broadcast.
But one thing was frustrating: These means of media production were limited to a tiny audience. What was missing were the distribution channels of “real” media. And that’s exactly the distinguishing feature of traditional, pre-digital media: They are not terribly easy to produce, but you can work around that. But they are very, very expensive to distribute at scale.
This has led to an industrial model of media production: Analog forms of media require lots of capital to produce and distribute at scale, which automatically restricts who can make it and own it. That’s just the nature of these types of media: Because they have to be distributed as atoms (print) or using scarce radio frequencies (radio and TV), they are inherently subject to scarcity, to restrictions of access.
The world of digital media changes this fundamentally: Suddenly media distribution (in the broadest sense) is accessible to anybody with a cheap PC or a smartphone. Of course being theoretically able to reach a global audience with your content doesn’t mean that you will. But the occasional viral sensation illustrates that it is at least possible. Tens of thousands of content creators and influencers now have audiences that are significantly larger than that of even major newspapers.
Another fundamentally different property of digital media is that it is two-way and largely unfiltered. If you wanted to be heard as an ordinary citizen in traditional media, your best hope was a letter to the editor, which of course was subject to, well, editing. There was no simple and direct way to talk back at the media. This has changed with digital. We now take for granted that we can react, comment, and share. For many of us a simple form of media production has become a daily activity.
When the World Wide Web started to become popular and was clearly on its way to turn into a form of mass media, optimism in the industry was high. I was one of the early users of the Web, did early research on the influence this new medium might have on the media industry and co-founded my first Web company in 1995. All of us Web pioneers were convinced that this new medium would democratize access to information, that it would enable people to be heard and to have substantial online debates, furthering democracy, education and equality.
And what did we get? Facebook with its countless toxic posts and surveillance advertising. Instagram influencers that sell access to their audience to the highest bidder. Outraged tweets (it turns out you can be outraged about pretty much anything online). Conspiracy theories going viral. In the end, Trump, Brexit, anti-vaxxers and many other dysfunctional effects.
Of course it would be too simple to blame all of this on digital media. A lot of the more negative political phenomena of the last few years are the result of decades of unhealthy societal developments. But there is little doubt that somebody like Donald Trump would have struggled to become president without social media (and maybe the same thing could be said about Obama before him).
As Marshall McLuhan said, the medium is the message. That’s an often misunderstood quote, since it doesn’t mean that the medium defines the content of the message. But each medium enables certain types of content better than others, and the very process of how a particular medium produces and distributes content changes what it can and will do.
One particularly striking effect of digital media (and especially social media) is that it erodes the importance of experts and the elite. In traditional media, due to the scarcity of the content that can be distributed, editors have to apply very strict filters. This might be seen as a professional and ultimately moral task, but it is a direct consequence of the nature of analog media. Limited space means that you will want to publish only the most relevant information, so the opinion of an expert in a particular field or of the prime minister will probably win over the opinion of a random person on the street.
This sounds trivial, but the result is essential for the functioning of a democracy, modern nation state and pre-digital economy (which was multinational, but not necessarily fully global). What you read or hear in traditional media has been pre-vetted and selected. Of course different media outlets will have their own biases and of course not every expert (let alone politician) is equally competent. But the quality of these filters meant that conspiracy theories, crackpot ideas and offensive statements typically had no way of spreading widely. To contemporary sensitivities this might seem terribly restrictive and elitist, but there is little doubt that it has a stabilizing effect on a society.
The whole modus operandi of our political, scientific, economic and cultural elite is still built on this assumption of filtering and scarcity. Want to have a political career? Make sure that journalists like you and your message. Want to become a tenured professor? Publish in refereed journals. Want to sell your products? Pony up the money for expensive advertising. Want to be a music star? Find a way to get your record played on the radio.
In the last few decades we have experienced a wild mix-up of this traditional model with the more egalitarian access-for-all world of digital media. Justin Bieber was discovered on YouTube (and so were many other young stars). Much of the most effective scientific research is now conducted using pre-print servers that can distribute papers much more rapidly — and it’s worth mentioning that the World Wide Web was created for this exact purpose. Global brands can now be built in a matter of months by influencers that also have a foot in the world of traditional media — Kylie Jenner’s cosmetics empire is a great example. And we already talked about politics.
But so far it is not clear at all what the long-term consequences are really going to be. There is little doubt that they will be profound. New forms of information distribution have a habit of disrupting societies very fundamentally.
The invention of writing catapulted (very slowly, by modern standards) humanity from the age of tribes into the age of empires that wouldn’t have been possible without the efficiencies of written information dissemination. A financial system, a large military, formal education and large religions are all impossible without writing.
The next big wave, millennia later, was triggered by the printing press. As much as writing was a crucial enabler, handwriting still meant that large-scale distribution of written materials was impossible. The printing press changed that immediately. It brought developments like modern science; the reformation of the church and with that ultimately the delegitimization of god-like kings; education for all; industrial production; the nation state and democracy. Of course we take all these things for granted, but they are only a few hundred years old. And they wouldn’t have been possible without the printed word.
Pre-digital electronic media like radio and TV certainly had a major impact on societies as well, but they were not as fundamental. The reason is probably twofold: First, these media follow an industrial production logic as well, so they were additive, not disruptive. Second, their ephemeral nature make them less effective for many uses. You can’t effectively publish a political book or a technical manual on the radio, for example.
But digital media has none of these restrictions. It has a post-industrial production logic — anybody is a consumer and producer at the same time. It is both permanent (sort of) and ephemeral. It is both visual and textual. Furthermore, it combines the instantaneous distribution of TV with the depth of the printed word.
We have only scratched the surface of the consequences that this new mode of information distribution (and production) will bring. Of course it’s easy to focus on the negative ones under the impression of recent events. But on the bright side, to name just a few examples:
- It wouldn’t have been possible to provide a vaccine for COVID-19 so quickly without digital means of sharing research instantly.
- The economic consequences of a global pandemic would have been far more devastating in pre-digital times. Now we complain about Zoom fatigue.
- Our modern world runs on open source software, produced by globally distributed volunteers that often have never met in person. This illustrates how powerful collaboration using these new means can be.
- Tens of thousands of people (maybe more) make a living producing all kinds of digital content independently on platforms like YouTube, Instagram, Medium or Substack. Yes, much of it is trivial entertainment, but you can easily find great educational stuff, cutting-edge thinking and true art, produced by people who probably would never had a career in traditional media.
All of this is great, but a fundamental disruption lurks under the surface: the traditional role of experts and elites is not only diminished, but potentially blown to pieces by digital media.
As with most disruptions, these developments don’t happen linearly and transparently. Sometimes they go in circles. For example, the New York Times now makes more money from its digital subscription than from traditional means. Ironically, the ultimate analog elite newspaper found a huge global audience thanks to digital. But at the same time, top journalists are leaving their publications and striking out on their own, publishing paid subscription newsletters. People are more and more skeptical about mainstream media and its filtering effects, not only on the right wing of the political spectrum. As I said before, we live in a time of wild mix-ups of different models.
In an even more profound way, some entirely different domains have started embracing the possibilities of digital. Digital currencies like Bitcoin are a great example. Traditionally, controlling currency has been a mainstay of government authority, considered to be essential for the functioning of an economy and society. Failed states are easy to recognize by the inflationary behavior of their currencies. But Bitcoin is purely digital and decentralized. Nobody controls it except the logic of the underlying algorithm. Of course it has attracted speculators and fans that promote it with quasi-religious fervor. But it might be a first example for the things that digitization enables well beyond information distribution (although fans of McLuhan might point out that he saw money as just another type of media, so maybe it’s not that different).
What happens if all our traditional institutions that were built on analog filtering and the power of experts start to crumble? If a digital, decentralized world takes over?
It’s as hard to imagine for us as it was probably for a medieval peasant to imagine what it would be like to vote in a national democracy, to control much of their own destiny and to have the option to get a higher education or to move to the other side of the world.
To get a bit speculative: Here are a few things that digital will enable in the long run (How do we know? Because it has already started):
- Students picking the best teachers from anywhere in the world — and for that matter, teaching each other.
- People working for a variety of “employers” (the concept might disappear) anywhere in the world.
- A truly global economy running on digital currency and other means of storing value and settling transactions, beyond the direct control of nation states.
- Experts gaining their credibility and influence not through credentials from traditional institutions such as universities, but by their merit in getting something done (the open source movement is a great example) and being able to communicate well. Of course this brings all kinds of problems, which is why it’s likely that there will be new forms of credential systems.
- Culture becoming fully global (isn’t it already?). Of course the local, physical manifestations of culture still count, but they are just user interfaces to a global pot of culture. Accessibility trumps scarcity. Already now, young people don’t care about record collections anymore because music is everywhere. Similarly, people won’t care about owning the original artwork, just access. Books (both as a physical object and unit of information transport) will look similarly relevant as hand-written texts from monastery libraries do to us.
- National laws increasingly losing relevance because work, education, culture, society are all factually global. Instead, more organically formed market standards, self-regulation and forms of validation and credentials take over. Nation states will compete with each other over who gets to provide the best physical infrastructure and friendliest legal framework for digital business and residency.
- Political power experiences a bifurcation: The layer of the nation state drifts into irrelevance. Most relevant are global systems (Are they institutions? Maybe in a way) and very local communities that control their physical environment directly.
- Institutions as a concept don’t disappear, but the existing ones are largely driven into irrelevance, replaced by digital ones. Remember when your library was the arbiter of truth and enabler of information access? Now it’s Google and Wikipedia, both of which apply a concept of relevance that is rooted in collaboration.
- Physical wars are increasingly irrelevant since territory is becoming less important — with the exception of access to certain truly scarce natural resources. Cyberwars on the other hand are constantly going on, and not just between countries. Armies controlled by nation states are increasingly replaced by well-funded mercenary organizations.
- The corporation as a concept will be replaced by something more digital and fluent — maybe not for everything, but in many domains. To make this work, new forms of governance have to be invented. Today’s DAOs are a first, still primitive step.
- Ownership as a concept remains crucial, but people will increasingly be willing to work for other benefits as well — such as peer recognition, similar to the OSS movement and cultural domains. In a world of abundance, status and attention are the truly scarce commodities.
It’s of course fun to speculate on these things, but the inherent logic seems compelling. Of course, as always with such predictions, Amara’s law applies: We tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run. Many of these things are starting to happen, but like all fundamental changes, they will need time and look quite differently from what we might assume today.
Digital decentralization will not look like the still remarkably clumsy blockchain technology of today. Today’s remote work is a first example for a digital and global work system, but it will seem primitive in the future. The way we will interact digitally will not be the hilariously primitive computer UIs of today, nor will it be VR headsets strapped to our heads.
So what will it look like, 40 years from now? We of course can’t know. Imagine traveling back in time to 1981 and showing somebody an iPhone. You would have a hard time even explaining the basic concepts that we now take for granted. Holding a sleek brick of glass and metal in your hand that can access the world’s information and entertainment in an instant, can connect you to any person in the world for free, lets you find your way anywhere in the world with a built-in map of the world (with satellite and street-level pictures), can take perfect pictures and videos at zero cost — all of this would have seemed like science-fiction back then, to some even like witchcraft.
You would also have struggled in 1981 to explain that this miraculous device was built by a then tiny company started by two college drop-outs that 40 years later was worth almost three trillion dollars on the stock market, while many of the dominant corporations of the day had declined into near irrelevance. And people would have been surprised to learn that the device was designed in California but manufactured in … China (Yes, that China. The communist one). Oh, and that the company was currently run by an openly gay CEO. At least they might be relieved (or not) to learn that the company in question is still a traditional corporation with a profit motive, not some hippie commune. Funny how some things have changed radically while others stayed the same.
My point is: Fundamental innovation and the changes it brings are very hard to predict because the different input dimensions move at very different speeds. All we can say is that the future is going to be interesting, very different, much more decentralized. And it’s clear that the changes that digital media brings are going to be a deciding force.