An Introduction to Digital Media
Book by Tony Feldman; Routledge,1997 part 2
Here is a thumbnail sketch of the book's structure. First, we consider what we mean by digital information in the first place and why it has the power to reshape our experience of media so profoundly. These are basic foundations on which all digital media activity stands. Next, we outline the digital media landscape by crudely dividing it into two broad sectors: offline, packaged media such as CD-ROM (compact disc read only memory), and transmitted media-both passive and interactive-delivered by a range of electromagnetic and physical pipes making up the different forms of digital networks. Then-just to confound this simplification-we show how offline and transmitted media do not exist in isolation from one another but are rapidly merging to create powerful, new hybrid channels of delivery. We look closely at the evolution of online electronic services and, in particular, study the rise of the Internet. A particular focus here is the commercialisation of the World Wide Web and which business models and technological infrastructures are emerging to make it possible. Finally, we end where perhaps we should always begin: with the customer, the only person who will ever pay the bill for all the human and technological resource deployed to make the digital revolution deliver the goods. The key question is what goods do such customers want to buy and how are they responding to the present outpourings of new media products and services? We look at today's realities and consider what may lie around the corner.
You will notice as-and if-you read on that there is a distinctly commercial emphasis throughout. The reason for this has nothing to do with value judgements about commercial motivations. It is merely a reflection of the fact that technology will do what it can ultimately do only if someone is prepared to pick up the bill. This is another way of saying that not everything that can be, will be. Although this is a simple and uncontentious proposition, much analysis of the digital future throws it to the winds in favour of a kind of intoxication, an undisciplined, unrealistic love affair with the potential of technological advance to deliver all sorts of wonders without considering whether those wonders carry with them any compelling commercial logic.
This is familiar territory because the idea that 'what can be, will be' is an established view of how the technological future will pan out. There is even a good pedigree for it. In the world of physics, for example, 'what can be, will be' is an established principle, understood as a fundamental characteristic of the natural world. Even if the event has only the tiniest probability of taking place-sometime, somewhere-it will take place. Things do not happen only if they are forbidden by a basic, underlying physical law. This has some disquieting but illuminating consequences. For example, the room you are sitting in is filled with molecules of air buzzing around at thousands of miles an hour, colliding with one another and bouncing about in a chaotic mle. There is-I fear to report-a tiny but finite probability that, as you read these words, all the molecules will suddenly rush into the far corner of the room, leaving you to die horribly of asphyxiation! The good news, however, is that the statistical probability of this happening, while not zero, is not much greater than zero. In other words, if you need cheering up, just consider that it is vastly more likely you will be run over by a bus than die through lack of oxygen through a statistically freak event. The point, however, is that the world of physics does not view such unlikely events as things that may happen but as events that will definitely take place at some time. Not only can the improbable happen, it will happen. If you wait long enough, the least likely things in the universe will happen. Those monkeys tapping away at the keyboards of their wordprocessors will eventually write the entire works of Shakespeare word for word. In other words: 'what can be, will be'.
This same principle, consciously or unconsciously, is often made a part of the logic of technology forecasting. We tend to believe that 3D television, virtual love making and matter transfer ('beam me up Scotty!') will arrive one day simply because we believe that the remorseless advance of technology will necessarily deliver it. In other words, if technology can do it, it will happen. This 'what can be, will be' principle works well in physics but is fatally flawed when we try to apply it to human beings and what they do with their society. For sure, technology must be capable of delivering 3D television and other wonders before we can have it. But it will emerge as a reality in our lives only if we are all prepared to pay for it. We will have it only if we want it enough to buy it. In other words, the engine of change in digital media is not underlying technology in itself but clever technology married to customers prepared to pay money to enjoy the fruits of its cleverness. The key to creating the digital age, therefore, lies in the hands of those able to envisage ways of putting the technology to work to generate products and services that users will-whether they know it or not beforehand-want to buy. So commerce is good. Indeed, it is the only thing that drives the digital age forward.
The age itself is going to be one of radical change in our lives. After all, the way we experience information, entertainment and education shapes us as individuals and-on a grander scale-shapes the character of whole societies. There is justification, then, in talking about the move to digital media as a kind of revolution. However, one person's revolution is really another person's evolution. If events move quickly and carry dramatic change with them, they are likely to be called revolution. If the same events unfold more slowly and carry less obviously radical implications, they are likely to be called evolution. However, rapid or slow, the processes of change-all change-do not spring from sudden discontinuities of development, isolated breakthroughs with no link to anything that has gone before. Even if some events-a very, very few-which shape our technological world are stumbled upon seemingly by chance, the interpretation of that chance event and its eventual application is based on understandings that have been built up over decades, even centuries of previous technological development. So, however profound its long-term implications, the move towards digital media is far from being a revolution. It is happening quickly but is an organic process of development: a logical, step-by-step progress into an extraordinary new future. So extraordinary, perhaps, that we can talk about going digital as a process of evolution with revolutionary implications.