"Mulch Versus Marrows"

Speech by Adam Singer at the Ofcom and University of Ulster conference on Media Literacy: Media Literacy for the 21st Century, on Friday 27 February at University of Ulster, Magee Campus, Derry.

‘We are living in an age of transition’. This sentence should kill anticipation in any room of active minds, as it telegraphs an onset of stupefying clichés. Anyone who starts a talk with ‘We are living in an age of transition’ should not be listened to.

Television executives use the phrase to avert digital evil - implying that transition will end next July; echoing the man whose Bronze Age sword, having been cleft in two by an angry bloke with an iron one, says ‘Gosh, Einstein was right, ‘Technological progress is like an axe in the hands of a pathological criminal.’

Transition is an integral part of our obsession with technology; there is no such thing as a human who does not adore technology, for we are all technophilic monkeys. The only question is which tech? And that’s an issue of utility. We adopt the tech that is most useful to us, and reject the other with taboos, and anathemas.

The tech we adopt bestows identity, and defines us. Iron Age, Steam Age, Information Age; or look at the apparel technology of a Goth or a Hells Angel. Even the intangible gets revealed in technical icons that indicate a chosen dogma. A translated bible, incense burners, dog collars, crucifixes, hammer and sickle, Cross of St George, bagpipes or a Fender Stratocaster.

All tech’, any material good, is an icon, which in part defines us. Helps make the box, with its distortions and truths that contains our view of the world. The box, or the tribe, are one and the same, and in my experience there is no such thing as stupid people, only stupid boxes.

An illustrative cliché: Railways thought they were in the railway business, not the transport business and thus missed the aviation business, saying ‘we can’t do planes because we are the railway tribe, and if we do planes we won’t know who we are’.

Traditional broadcasters face the same issue: the BBC, ITV, C4 use the web but so far have failed to invent a Face Book, or any of the great needle movers of the new age because they are the broadcast tribe. “As broadcasters we speak to you, and if you the audience can use new technology and speak back with an equal voice then who are we?’ What is a broadcaster?

We live in a probabilistic universe. The sun rising is probabilistic, death and taxes are high probabilities, as is the probability that I am talking rubbish, as too may be your next utterance, thus it must also apply that the utterance of governments and regulators are also probabilistic in their veracity. Armed with this helpful doubt, let’s explore the box of thoughts known as the interim report on ’Digital Britain’.

Roy Hattersley said in a radio interview that you were assured of a warm welcome at the Labour Party Conference so long as you enhanced every concept with the word ‘socialist’. If you wanted applause it was never enough to have a great policy, you needed a socialist policy. The word ‘digital’ now plays that role; everything sounds richer for being prefaced with ‘digital’. This week I have attended meetings on digital life skills, and discovered the Cabinet Office is looking for a Digital Engagement Officer, while the Minister of Broadcasting tells us we need Digital Inclusion Champions - conjuring up a vision of Mattel making a complete set of Inclusion Champions as figurines for Christmas. And finally, The Interim Report from DCMS and the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform opens with, “A successful Britain must be - all together now - a Digital Britain.”

To be fair, this is an interim report that aims to stimulate debate so that a final report can have answers. The report says the UK has international strengths in satellite broadcasting, the development of GSM in mobile, public safety networks, local loop unbundling, high speed broadband, the pioneering of digital radio, global entertainment formats, and our internationally recognized talent in online.

That the UK has these ‘strengths’ illustrates the influences of Government policy. These strengths were a consequence of Margaret Thatcher dismantling the telephone and broadcasting monopolies in the 1980’s, an unfashionable statement but no less true for that.

That deregulatory decision created a fecund mulch from which grew Vodaphone, Orange, 02, Virgin Media, and a couple of hundred cable and satellite channels, which took a third of the audience away from PSB broadcasters. This eroded the value of drama, and encouraged the creation of low-cost, event TV, those global entertainment formats referred to in the report, i.e. Millionaire, and assorted celebrity-voting shows.

Deregulated mulches can create unforeseen consequences, i.e. the demise of ITV and Channel 4 and more importantly, our current economic situation. The alternative to creating a mulch and seeing what grows is picking winners, or the eugenic strategy of industrial investment.

Governments aren’t better at this than we are. That same Thatcher Government picked the ITV-backed BSB as the UK satellite winner. It failed, and that the UK has strength in satellite is in spite of UK Government and because the Luxembourg satellite, Astra, carrying services funded by the Australian/American company News Corp, succeeded by building a subscription service based on Israeli encryption technology, football rights and American content.

The report claims we lead the world in another Government-picked winner, Digital Audio Broadcasting. True, but there’s a reason for that; those wonderful folks who brought you the BSB squareial now bring you the Billy No Mates digital radio system, that with the exception of Denmark, the rest of the world has rejected.

So as we read this report we should ask ourselves what is the mulch from which the new things for the future will grow and what is the picking of the winners?

I make these quibbling points to highlight that a Martian reading this document might infer that Government had built these assorted strengths. Some were built in spite of Government, such as Sky; some were because of Government, like Cable; as Government stopped BT killing it at birth, some are weaknesses chosen by Government like DAB. It’s what you would expect from any regime, some you get right, some wrong, and some are in a quantum super position of simultaneous rightness and wrongness; in other words the usual probabilistic veracity.

So what is mulch and what are the hoped for prize winning plants in all this?

The report advocates finding ways to accelerate ‘next generation networks’. Anything that increases bandwidth is good; there is no such thing as a significant increase in bandwidth that humankind has not fervently embraced and we are nowhere near the limits of bandwidth demand. We are addicted to connection.

Every time you have a large increase in bandwidth you change the nature of our existence: writing, radio waves and the web, to name but three. Increasing bandwidth is always a mega mulch activity.

Then the issue is what bandwidth and for whom? It is suggested that everyone should have access to at least two MB of bandwidth.

This is a pretty low bar: 2mb is like a 10 watt light bulb, a mere glimmer in the informational darkness .But this is an important mulch creating point, the introduction of a universal service obligation that every citizen has access to interactive bandwidth.

It needs to be understood that 2mb is the minimum for outlying regions, that for the foreseeable future if you live in an urban centre you will always have far more bandwidth than your rural cousins. This is inevitable, as bandwidth clusters to where the people are. The reverse is also true: people cluster where the bandwidth is. This was as true for roads and railways as for telecoms.

There is no such thing as a digital divide, any more than there is a fridge divide, or a TV divide. The digital divide - the digital have and have nots, is political babble from the thoughtless box. 85% of the UK population is connected to a digital network, the rest are either dedicated refuseniks or the truly poor who need help, but it’s a small number.

The 2mb USO really addresses this issue and is a major social concept and in my view to be applauded. Then it’s not an issue of who has access to digital, but in this world 2mb becomes the definition of poor and becomes the minimum informational wage.

To put in another way, money is information; money clusters at the same places you have high bandwidth. There is no such thing as someone without money, the question is how much money, and how much money or information should the state ensure for minimum existence?

As an aside, if you see information as interchangeable with concepts of money and wealth, then a question arises who is responsible for our citizens’ financial literacy? How effective are our policies of financial literacy? If this is true, why should the answers be any different for media literacy?

School is the place for essential literacy. In other words you learn most of your basic financial literacy at school in maths classes, and some at home and some on the streets: some of us will be competent, some will be scammed; some will go on to develop detailed financial literacy in accounting and some advanced financial illiteracy in banking. It will be the same for the manipulation of digital information.

There is no such thing as media literacy, there is only literacy. Literacy means the ability to encode - write - and decode - read - stored information. The adding of the word ‘media’ just introduces noise to a delightfully pure concept. Literacy is a technological act. No technology, no literacy. The technology of literacy, styli and tablet, has got embellished with printing and paper, and emails, but the fundamentals remain the same. It’s much easier to have public policy for literacy if you have long-term, stable technical systems. The problem we face in new information technology is that they are not stable platforms and the rate of change is accelerating. This makes public policy hard.

But luckily our ‘media literacy’ has not rested on public policy. In less than 25 years, 85% of us have mobile phones. At each upgrade your phone records, photographs, connects and geo-locates more. 87% of us have multichannel television and 60% of us are connected to broadband. Most of us are self-taught and did it for ourselves, with the help of our young. It’s amazing what you can do without public policy if the tech is important enough to you.

That we can do a lot for ourselves is important, as the public media literacy debate can veer into the verges of patronizing.

I met a CEO of a media company in his late 30’s two days ago, and he said he was shocked by the fact that his new girlfriend of age 25 was letting the world know they were an item at only the 2nd date by posting her phone pics of him and her having a drink on Face Book. He asked her ‘did she really have to do that?’, and she said ’if it’s not on Face Book it didn’t happen’, that’s media literacy.

In all the current gloom it’s worth noting that the exponential rate of technical change, the doubling of processing power and storage capacity, Moore’s law has not stopped, is still going, and getting faster. The finances may have stopped but the tech hasn’t, it will pull us through.

We have digressed from the Digital Britain report but hopefully established that through the perspective of mulch the encouragement of next generation networks and 2mb universal obligation is a major, positive act. There are two elements in this report that need the mulch versus plant test.

First there is a realization that all content rests on copyright, that copyright is crucial to compensate creatives for their endeavor, and that we might need a Rights Agency to facilitate this. There seems to me to be an assumption that we need to make the copyright regimes we know work harder to preserve what we value.

This is to pick the copyright regimes we know as winners. Those with large, sunk costs argue for these regimes of the past - Studios, record companies and broadcasters. The past is always more vociferous than the future. The question is this: in a world where the value of a recording – book, film, record - is trending towards zero, where the most valuable content is the most linked to content, where the act of linking fuels, quoting, mash ups, and new works, what is the right copyright regime? What copyright mulch is needed to grow new copyright models that will drive the network and creativity in the node we call Britain?

I suspect you cannot have a 20th century copyright regime that drives modern networks. I have no answers, and this may take years to evolve, but you can’t rethink the business models that sprung from 150 years of analogue recording history in time for the May local elections.

The report in my view rightly says we need to find a way to grow UK content; then picks a winner by implying we must save Channel Four. Channel Four at best averages a 10% audience share, meaning that most of you spend most of your viewing time not watching it - whose three highest rated programmes last week were between 75 and 100 in the top 100: Gordon Ramsey, Location Location Location, and Grand Designs: all good programmes but not great acts of market failure redeeming PSB. Discovery could do them equally as well. The Channel Four management have publicly said they are seeing a feint, wavering light beckoning to them at the end of a long tunnel, and our choice is do we keep them on public life support, or check them into a Swiss clinic?

Life support may cure the banks, but traditional advertiser broadcasters are never going to get better. Claire Enders of Enders Analysis is predicting that over the next three years half the jobs will go in ITV, C4 and C5.

We want UK content, we like it. But Broadcasters are yesterday’s winners and may not be able to produce what we need for this future. As someone who watches a lot of telly, I want them to thrive but I know it’s selfish nostalgia. We have to deal with the fact that in this new age there may be no such thing as public service broadcasting. PSB was defined not by content but by institution. What the BBC and ITV did was PSB. In other words, an ‘oligopolistic union of broadcasters’ bound by a market of limited supply. Today there is no oligopoly, thus no definition of PSB. If you can’t define it, it may not exist. Thus the issue is not public service broadcasting: the issue is ensuring UK content. So the question for me is what is the new mulch from which new UK content grows? To grow it we may well need state aid, the redistribution of the license fee, or other forms of help. But it is unlikely to be created by those whose box, tribe, or organization is defined by the word ‘broadcasting’.

To sum it up, the Digital Britain Report is a start: it is of course cheap and easy to poke fun; I am not under their pressures, and a little poking makes the 3.30pm shift at a conference like this more fun, but I do believe the future work needs to focus more on mulch and less on prize-winning marrows. I know that what is mulch and what is marrow depends on from what box you are looking. But as I said at the beginning, never trust a man who starts with ‘We are living in an age of transition’ or, as my colleagues in the academic box might say, ‘a temporal deconreteisation of techgnostic paradigms.’

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