Thursday, 26 November 2015

Opening keynote: Unknown unknowns: assessing media futures

If we are to facilitate innovation in the media, we need a clear understanding of the forces and dynamics that shape it and the relationship of media, technology and society in general. Today we also need to interrogate the widely held view that technology drives business and society, and that progress is linear and inevitable. We might even question the revolutionary hype around the media itself.

Brian Winston

“Avoid the hyperbolic... Don’t see things as more than they are... Stop talking about content: focus on creativity”
Dr Brian Winston


Dr Brian Winston, Lincoln Professor of Communications, University of Lincoln


Peter Day, presenter In Business (BBC Radio 4) and Global Business (BBC World Service)


Dr Brian Winston When Kazahkstan’s get the ’Net a window on their world will be opened up, says Wikipedia’s founder. Not so – because he’s forgotten the Stalinist dictator who rules the place. This is a perfect example of a ‘forgotten known’. We assess technology in technological terms, naturally enough, but we forget that it is society not technology that drives. That’s why “we tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run”, as Amara’s law states. Remembering social context is the clue to understanding technology’s ‘unknown unknowns’. [Revised 17/06]

Reports and Commentary

MediaFutures and the Remembrance of Media past by Alan Patrick on the broadstuff Weblog

Reflections by Charlie Beckett on the POLIS Director’s Weblog

Live blogged notes by Rain Rainycat: “I haven’t heard such opinions for years, it was a good way to get passions inflamed at the start of the conference”

Summary by Mirona Iliescu on cheezy cheeky Weblog

Reflections by Matt Law of Dare on Winston’s ‘withering rejoinder’ So what?


Media, Technology and Society: A History: From the Telegraph to the Internet Brian Winston (Routledge, 1998) []

Bookmark for Reviews: The digital spectrum, Andrew Keen, Prospect, May 2008, issue 146. Review of Against the Machine by Lee Siegel, We-Think by Charles Leadbeater, and Here Comes Everybody by Clay Shirky.


[Slide] Hi, I am today’s chosen grumpy old man. I have been asked to start us off, grumperly, with a provocation – not the best way to start the day, so please forgive me in advance. At least, I am not, a luddite – a term, by the way, which traduces the memory of those that actually were because its common meaning seriously misrepresents their position – but that’s another matter.

OK. This is a sort of glass-half-full, glass-half empty presentation. I’d like to start with this. [Slide]

‘[] [T]hink [] of those next billion users [of the internet]. What an extraodrinary wealth of local knowledge they will bring. [Slide] Take a country such as Kazakhstan which the rest of the world knows very little about. They will create pages on Facebook or Myspace, post videos on YouTube and come up with sites of their own. Kazahkstan will open up in front of our eyes’.

Thus [Slide] Wikipedia’s Jimmy Wales in last Sunday’s Observer. He is, of course, right: Kazakhstan is indeed ‘a far off country of which we know little’. But his vision of the impact of new media on it is, I want to suggest, very likely very wrong.

Such assessments of technological impacts are obscured not, obviously, because of what Donald Rumsfeld called the ‘known knowns’ (eg: Kazakstan, land-locked Eurasian republic); nor by ‘the known unknowns’ (what do they call their money?); or even ‘the unknown unknowns’ (which, of course, can’t be formulated). [Slide] The problems of assessment, in fact, start before we get to that point and they can be formulated. This is because the limitations to assessment are grounded in a subset of ‘unknown unknowns’ – factors which are unknown because they have been forgotten or ignored – factors for the great part outside of the technological – factors I want to call [Slide] ‘forgotten knowns’.

So, to stick with Mr Wales’ case, what we do know is that the Kazakhstani president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, is a Stalinist dictator whom we nestle up to because he has gas and oil. I didn’t, however, find out that from the Wikipedia entry on Kazakhstan. That’s because Wikipedia doesn’t do real politique very well. Neither, I’m afraid, does Mr Wales. And real politique is the ‘forgotten known’ in the midst of the ‘unknown unknowns’ that are Kazakhstan. Although neither Mr Wales nor I – nor any of us – know what will happen when (and if – very big if, in my view) Kazakhstanis get to the net in goodly numbers; but I am willing to bet a few million targe-s {targgers?} (that’s what they call their money although how they pronounce it is a known unknown to me) – a few million of them that Kazakhstan will not ‘open’ in front of ours eyes merely because of the application of the technology that has made Jimmy Wales rich.

We tend to forget these knowns because when assessing technological potential we are likely to start, naturally enough, with those potentials themselves. The technology will do ‘x’: let’s think about the effect of ‘x’, the ‘y’: ‘wow, in five years (it’s always five years it seems) ‘x’ is gonna produce ‘y’. We forget, as it were, the Stalinist dictator in the corner of the room. In fact, we tend to forget we are in a room all togther. So we finish our thinking where we began – with the technology. The result is that we are all too often the victims of hyperbole, predicting big, indeed revolutionary changes to our society, and when they don’t happen, we just move on to ‘the next big thing’ – bit like Jehovah’s Witnesses really, although their big thing never changes, of course: it’s always Armageddon. And, curiously, like Jehovah’s Witnesses – [who I believe got more members the last time they predicted Armageddon and it didn’t happen (1918 it was)] – like Jehovah’s Witnesses, we also remain secure in our belief as to the fundamental revolutionary impact of technology even when the revolution never really occurs.

The root problem is that our dominant view of technological impact is that a new technology is going to condition, radically condition – determine, in the jargon – society. This belief that technology is the dominant driver in the diffusion of technological innovation can be termed ‘technological determinism’. Nearly half a century ago, Raymond Williams, one of the first British humanists to think seriously about these matters put it like this: [Slide]

The basic assumption of technological determinism is that a new technology – a printing press or a communications satellite – ‘emerges’ from technical study and experiment. [Slide] It then changes the society or the sector into which it has emerged. ‘We’ adapt to it, because it is the new modern way.

Therefore, technological determinism [Slide]:

is an immensely powerful and now largely orthodox view of the nature of social change. New technologies are discovered, by an essentially internal process of research and development, which then sets the conditions of social change and progress. [Slide]

This does not mean you have to be a technophile to be a ‘technological determinist’ or ‘technicist’ – you can be a technophobe – to misuse the term again: a luddite – just as easily. You can think progress has been going down hill throughout the age of advanced technology. Marshall McLuhan, for example, thought (somewhat secretly I have to say) that we have been on our way to hell in a hand-cart ever since the Reformation which he asserted was the direct result of the printing press. (It wasn’t, by the way – but no time to make that argument here.) Most of us, of course, take a more positive view but pro- or anti-, technophile or technophobe, the common belief is in technology as a driver. Thinkers like Raymond Williams, however, take a ‘plague on both your houses’ position by denying technologies’ poll position. They would claim, as do I, that technicism bedevilling fault as a tool for understanding the world is that if forgets or underestimates the non-technological.

What is the result of taking this 3rd, but by no means ‘middle’, way? Consider where we are: [Slide]

We tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run.

This is ‘Amara’s Law’, as stated by the late Roy Amara, presiding genius of the Institute for the Future, that bastion of technicism.

Amara, though, is absolutely right, at least as far as the first part of his law goes. We sure do over estimate the effects of a technology. Au fond, of course, hyperbole about the ‘new thing’ is a marketing tool. In a culture that even has a word for ‘love of new things’ – well, at least in German it does [neuerungsfreundigkeit] – this is not surprising. This is supported, perhaps unwittingly, by serious thinking around technology. Most of the conceptual tools we have developed for assessing innovation and the patterns of diffusion are grounded in marketing thinking – I’ll come back to this.

Despite the centrality of technology in our lives (or rather its claimed centrality) we are, surprisingly, still very much in the grip of two cultures. We don’t understand the science. In fact, we are naifs when it comes to knowing what is inside technology’s amazing little black boxes. This ignorance, the unkown science, oils technicst hyperbole. We all know about the digital, but pulse code modulation is a forgotten known for most of us. Remember the BBC’s technologically illiterate ad of a few years ago with the floating noughts & ones – a pretty dim way of visualising the process of sampling, I would suggest. The digital is significant but it is, if this is remembered, merely a encoding system. However much it causes changes in the modes of production and delivery, moving from analog to digital is technologically more of a piece with moving from AM to FM than it is like moving from radio to television. Believing it, of itself, conditions content – aka those creative modes which used to be call plays and films and music and news, modes centuries if not millennia in the making – is, I fear, pretty dumb.

And we are no better historians than we are scientists. Let’s stick with the digital. It is now exactly 70 years since the first digital encoding device was built – by Alan Reeves, an English engineer working for ITT, an American communciations giant, in its Paris laboratory. (I name the nations in the same spirit as that which makes them play national anthems at the Olympics.) Reeves used sampling formulae outlined 11 years earlier (by Harry Nyquist – let’s hear it for Sweden, although he became an American) as being necessary for the digitising of an electrical signal. The first digital recording device was brought to market 36 years later, in 1971; and the binary as a concept, of course, is centurties old. But, not to be silly, lets say nothing of Boole and his predecesors; just stick with the fact that we are, without question, entering the 8th decade of the digital age.

Despite common belief, when considered in any degree of detail, for the media at least the overall rate of innovation is not in most instances actually getting any faster. The sense of ever increasing speed of change is almost entirely illusory. It is based on technological history being written by amnesiacs. Technological history is another ‘forgotten known’. Without it, hyperbolic claims of rapid change are better sustained.

So, yes, we all have mobile phones and, as a mass, we acquired them very quickly – but they have been a long time in the making and our speedy acquisition of them is consequent on many more factors than just the availability of the technology. And, yes, when (which half a millennium western addiction to realistic modes of representation suggests is indeed a ‘when’ rather than an ‘if’) – when we get to widely diffused holographic mass media, we will almost certainly forget Victor Komar’s amazing demonstration of a lenticular-screened holographic process at the Ciné and Photo Research Institute in Moscow in 1976 or that the first projected 3-d image, with the green and red glasses, was seen in 1858. Instead, we’ll believe the whole thing has burst fully formed from some lab and will, in short order, change everything. My point is that, in fact, one can read the historical record to show that (at least with communications technologies) the usual five years has always been more like 50 – and it still is. Historical amnesia as much as scientific ignorance fuels hyperbole.

The second part of Amara’s Law — underestimating a technology’s long-term effects, at least as a necessary if not entirely a sufficient condition of those effects, is also obviously true in many instances outside of the media – in medicine for instance. But with innovations in the media, I think, this claim is rather more problematic. It all depends on how you think of ‘effects’.

If you are a conservative – with a little ‘c’ – a Daily Mail reader, say we say – then you are inclined to see everything thing up close. Young men grow their hair, girls shorten their skirts, Big Brother dominates the TV schedules, GCSEs get easy, foreigners from distant countries of which we know little invade to pick our strawberries – and the state totters, civilisation is under threat.

But if you are of a radical disposition, you perceive the world from afar, as it were. The Queen still sits in her palace and the Pope in his. The people’s party is seized, yet again, by the products of privilege – clearly not content with still running their own. Uncontrolled capitalists threaten to plunge us all into penury while pocketing loadsamoney. Women earn less than men for doing the same job. Jihadists might use mobile phones to network but they apparently want to restore the religious and social conditions of the 13th century middle-east. So what’s new?

The point is that we are not only poor scientists and forgetful historians. We are also lousy sociologists. First we think, like Mr Wales, that everybody shares Western enlightenment values and our sense of individualism and will therefore embrace media which enhance those. But, palpably, this is not the case as the bombs exploding in our cities attest. The essentially eurocentricity of our assessment procedures limits their effectiveness. But, more than that, we don’t understand the social contexts and constraints governing our own affairs.

Let me come back to the tools of futurology as we currently have them. I don’t have time to deal with these in detail but let us note that ‘the hype cycle’ is actually a product created and exploited by a consultancy; that ‘Crossing the Chasm’ is the title of a neo-liberal marketing ‘bible’; that the ‘hockey stick controversy’ is about how to read metrological data. So I don’t think that – serious though it is – it has much to say to us.

Let me instead deal with the best established of these models for innovation – Everett Roger’s analysis of the pattern of adoption for new technologies. Over 50 years ago, he discovered that we break down into innovators (2.5%), early adopters (13.5%), early majority (34%), late majority (34%) and laggards (16%), based on the mathematically based bell curve. I shall leave aside controversies about the Bell Curve – think ‘intelligence testing’ – and just remind us that Rogers’ research was based on mid-Western farmers’ adoption of a new seed. What is forgotten here is that this group was very much conditioned by an activist federal agriculture department to have a certain attitude to new techniques. Washington had, since the mid 19th century, been conditioning farmers and farming educators in a certain mind-set – an applied science, intensive, interventionist mind-set. The ‘forgotten known’ here is this social context. Extrapolating from a group formally exposed to constant innovation and encouraged to adopt it by direct government policy strikes me not only as a very good example of the dangers of extrapolation in positivist social science; it is also a good example of how dangerous it is to develop real world plans in areas where different social forces – eg teenagers impulses to buy music – are in play. The social context must never be forgotten. Remember Betamax, a superior technology which failed because Sony did not remember movies lasted 90 minutes. The process of adoption – or, in this case, non-adoption – reflected this failure; not Roger’s vision of a pattern.

This – social context – is the biggest ‘forgotten known’ of them all. [Slide: Forgotten Knowns]

The great French historian, Fernand Braudel, noted that the industrial revolution itself had nothing to do with scientific or even technical discovery. Steam power was know to the ancients. The 1000° furnace, essential for advances in metallurgy, from around the year 1000. Braudel sees the history of technology in general as a struggle between forward social movement driven by human ingenuity and advancing knowledge and an oppositional force sustained by human inertia and conservatism. He identified these contrary forces as ‘accelerators’ and ‘brakes’ governing technological change in general [Slide]:

First the accelerator, then the brake: the history of technology seems to consist of both processes, sometimes in quick succession: it propels human life onward, gradually reaches new forms of equilibrium on higher levels than in the past, only to remain there for a long time, since technology often stagnates, or advances only imperceptibly between one ‘revolution’ or innovation and another (1981)

What drove the changes we call the industrial revolution were grounded in the societal forces unleashed by early Western capitalism and the imperial expansion of Western nationalism. In other words, society led. Society always leads technology. The technologists, after all, are members of society, conditioned by it. Male scientists produce a contraceptive pill for women not for men. White chemists produced colour films which didn’t photograph people of colour very easily. And we adopt things that fit our pre-existing patterns of behaviour – like listening to music or watching dramas or consuming news. In fact, unless there is a [Slide] supervening social necessity as I call Braudel’s accelerator, the technology will wither.

Technologies, and this is especially true of media technologies, are therefore conditioned by society and are not in themselves revolutionary. In fact, one can argue that their revolutionary – that is, their disruptive – potential is suppressed as the price of their diffusion. There is almost another law [Slide] – a ‘law’ of the suppression of radical potential’ as one might call Braudel’s concept of the ‘brake’.

So technologies lie around not until some great man gets the idea of applying them but until there is a supervening social neccessity – an ‘accelerator’ – which causes the tehcnology to be deployed. It is then developed in response to social need and diffused in so far as its potential for social disruption is suppressed.

I would submit that this sort model of change, which privileges society over technology, better accounts for what actually occurs than do the dominant explanations of innovation and diffusion.

So where are we? Well, when thinking about media futures some basic ground rules seem to be in order:

  • avoid the hyperbolic (that is, seeing ‘revolution’ all around)
  • be hard nosed (that is, don’t see a different delivery system, eg: downloading music or standard, eg: digital HDTV – as more than it is)
  • stop talking about content and remember creativity – and don’t see that everywhere either. We all have pens but we ain’t all Tolstoy.

Above all:

  • finesse causality (that is, remember the forgotten knowns of science, history and sociology)

Then the ‘unknown unknowns’ should start to look a little less forbidding.