Internet: Trapped In An Andrew Niccol Film

Whatever Happened To The Internet Dream (part 4)

This is the 4th in a series about the affect of Internet on society.  Part 1 was the new mass media, part 2 the new politics and religion, part 3 movies and TV.  Today’s topic: social instability brought on by technology.

Andrew Niccol is a screenwriter/director who often makes films with the theme of technological perfection undermining humanity.  His first was GATTACA, a film about a technology to create genetically perfect babies which inevitably leads to these perfect babies having a huge advantage over natural born children, creating haves and have nots at birth.  The second was The Truman Show, about a perfect society designed for one guy, who ultimately rejects his perfect life.  Since then there was S1m0ne a pygmalion story about the perfect artificial celebrity, Lord of War about the effect of guns on society (which does not quite fit the theme, but still good),  In Time about life where nobody ages as long as you have “time”, and The Host about aliens creating a perfect peaceful society which humans hate.  Not all of these movies are great, but they are all at least thought provoking.

(Another screenwriter who often follows similar themes is Charlie Booker, creator of the excellent anthology series Black Mirror.)

Today, between the internet and constant communication access using smart phones is fulfilling a growing number of our human needs, and yet systematically destroying our society a piece at a time.

I loved browsing in record stores and bookstores and video stores and software stores.  MP3s killed the record stores, kindle killed the bookstores, and Netflix killed the video stores.  Shopping now only consists of food and clothes.  Technology has eliminated the need for most shopping.  A major “technology” store near me that used to specialize in the latest CDs, DVDs, Games, and Books, now sells toys where the CDs, DVDs, Games, and Books used to be.

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I remember every Sunday morning having arguments over who got to read the comics first. We had great arguments at the video store over what to rent, and arguments over the TV remote, and who was hogging the only phone.  All of this is disappearing fast.  Remember arguing over trivial matters for hours with friends? Now someone will google the answer and the arguments over in a few seconds.  We can’t even argue anymore.

Friendly arguing has been replaced by a new noise pollution as illustrated in this video: I Forgot My Phone.

 

I am currently fascinated by the rate of change I see happening today. Industries come and go at ever shorter intervals.  Video rental stores are pretty much dead.  Bookstores are in the dying category, so is Television.  Who would have ever dreamed that TV networks and cable and Satellite TV would become a declining industryVirtually all the traditional careers are in decline: Doctors, nurses, teachers, police/fire, lawyers, scientists, clerical, manufacturing, etc.  Even the sex and porn industries are being destroyed in the new Internet economy.

The best jobs are in non traditional careers, which themselves will be in decline by the time people graduate trade school to learn them.  It was just a few years ago when web site design was a growth industry.

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The lack of stability in any field is bringing about a Post-employment economy.  People are working for nothing as interns to improve their chances at a paid job (which statistically turns out to be bogus).  Major publications are publishing articles and only paying the writers with the honor of being published in a major publication.  Artists in all fields are running into the same issues when trying to get paid for their work.

The Internet is a technology designed to make us smarter and communicate better. It was supposed to make our lives easier, but by forcing competition in every endeavor it is driving the “supply” side of the economy way too fast.  Whatever your skill set, a quick internet search will link potential employers and clients to dozens of others willing to do it faster, or cheaper, or better.

We are all living in a Truman Show world, and there does not seem to be an exit door to a more livable one.

Next time: One of the fastest growing industries is about to hit a brick wall:  The App Stores (for basically the same reasons as described above).  In the mean time, find out “Why The Scariest Sci-Fi Robot Uprising Has Already Begun.” (again same reason as above)

Internet Part 5: Tech Apocalypses

Internet: The Decline of Movies and TV

Whatever Happened To The Internet Dream? (Part 3)

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In part 1, I complained how the internet has ruined culture, and in part 2 how it is ruining politics and religion.  Today I delve into an area that is a little more personal: movies and TV.

1999: The Year That Didn’t Change Movies

1999, is a year I consider the year movies peaked in my lifetime. The list of great movies that came out in 1999 is amazingly long. There was Fight Club, The Matrix, Office Space, Three Kings, Being John Malkovitch, Mumford, Galaxy Quest, Go, Run Lola Run, The Sixth Sense, Eyes Wide Shut, Dogma, The Iron Giant, Toy Story 2, South Park, edTV, Notting Hill, American Pie, Boys Don’t Cry, Cruel Intentions, The Limey, Forces of Nature, Mansfield Park, October Sky, Pushing Tin, Stir of Echoes, Entrapment, eXistenZ, The Thirteenth Floor, Magnolia, and The Blair Witch Project. Not all are great films, but they were at least creative and inventive. I haven’t even mentioned the biggest movie Star Wars The Phantom Menace, or the film that swept all the awards that year American Beauty. Entertainment Weekly even touted 1999 as the year that changed movies forever!

You can stop waiting for the future of movies. It’s already here. Someday, 1999 will be etched on a microchip as the first real year of 21st-century filmmaking. The year when all the old, boring rules about cinema started to crumble. The year when a new generation of directors—weaned on cyberspace and Cops, Pac-Man and Public Enemy—snatched the flickering torch from the aging rebels of the 1970s. The year when the whole concept of ”making a movie” got turned on its head.

Except that it didn’t. Instead it was apparently the year that studios dropped the ball and let the creative people take over, and today the studios have a new stranglehold on film making. Most movies I see today are good in concept, formulaic in delivery. The other thing that happened in 1999 is that the Internet started taking over entertainment and it forced a change on how Hollywood does everything.

It was around 1999 when movies went from making a small fraction of their over all box office on the opening weekend to eventually making more than half. It is easy to see that the internet is to blame.  It used to be a few people would go to a movie on opening weekend and then tell their friends, family, and co-workers about the movie they saw.  If the movie was good, often the second weekend would be better than the first weekend.

The internet changed the rules. Now a few people go see a movie on friday night, then post online their opinion so all their friends, family and co-workers see it by the next morning.  This helps Saturday’s box office take, instead of next weekend.  Buzz spreads shockingly fast now, and the marketing opportunities disappear after that first weekend.

This changed the priority of movie studios completely.  Throughout the decade of the 2000’s, the priority of movie studios in making movies is not whether a movie will be good or not, but whether a movie is marketable enough to generate enough buzz to get the big opening weekend.  Notice my list of films from 1999, the list has one sequel and one prequel, and one based off a TV show (there were others in 1999, but they are not worth mentioning).  The rest are fresh new titles, some of which spawned sequels of their own.  Today it is all sequels, remakes, ties to popular TV, comics, and books, all of which are much easier to market.  There are still good movies every year, but there are fewer in number than there used to be.

And TV?

Meanwhile, I believe TV has actually gotten better since the internet got big, at least from a certain perspective.  While priorities changed in the movies from “good” to “bankable”, TV has gone from “bankable” to “buzz worthy”.

The goal of TV in the internet age is to make TV that will stir a lot of discussion online.  Lots of discussion means lots of people tuning in each week.  The result are three trends in TV: 1. Every drama is a soap opera. Regardless of the type of show it is, there is always dramatic interplay between the regulars.  Think back to the ’80s: TV dramas that weren’t night time soaps, was there a lot of sleeping around?, or dramatic tension between the characters?  If there was, it was over by the end of the episode.  Today most shows have large ensemble casts, and while there are weekly plots, there are scenes between characters that make up larger arcs, over the season or even series.  2. Every sitcom pushes the limits of outrageous behavior.  The only successful comedies are “water cooler” worthy shows as the old standard, today it is blog worthy or tweetable.  Who had the most hits on Get Glue?  3. The ultimate in buzz worthy shows are of course the elimination style reality shows, which is why there are so damn many of them.  Advertisers love them, because people actually watch them live, which means networks love them.  If reality shows generated syndication deals and DVD sales, there would be nothing on TV but reality shows. Luckily, syndication and DVD sales matter, which is why they still make dramas and sitcoms.

Personally, I don’t watch reality TV, and very few sitcoms (outrageousness is not my kind of humor), but dramas suck me in all the time. I usually have between 8 to 10 going every year, and there are lots of good ones.  The TV Drama has been experiencing a “Golden Age” thanks to the internet.

I can probably pin point the first show that lived off the internet: Babylon 5.  Sure there were genre shows (X-Files) and space dramas (Star Trek) that preceded it, but the risky genius J. Michael Strazinsky actually had a planned out 5 year cycle for the show ahead of time. This made the show buzz worthy as the audience saw plots develop over many episodes, incidences in season 1 pay off in season 4.  No one in the history of TV had ever plotted out a whole series in advance before.  These days it happens all the time.  But the other history making advance that “JMS” did was to regularly get online and discuss the show with fans.  Fans appreciated it, and it increased the shows loyalty even more.

While Babylon 5 was never a huge success, it had a loyal fan base, and TV producers took notice.  Almost every “genre” show today, from Once Upon A Time to Game of Thrones follows a similar formula of long story arcs, and developing loyalty online.  Fringe probably lasted two more seasons than it should have thanks to a loyal online fan base.  Even though it means a lot more work, TV writers are loving the myriad of story telling opportunities they have.  It shows in better written TV over all.

The danger is that if TV imitates what was success too much, it gets formulaic. I believe that is already true of reality shows and sitcoms, which is why I don’t bother. It is also true of certain TV tropes like the “procedural” or the “legal drama” or the “medical drama”.  In these types of shows, I generally watch for the character interplay of the cast.  The episode plot or mystery rarely matters.  Luckily every season there are shows that do not follow these tropes, and those are the ones I usually enjoy the most.

If TV is getting better, how come the ratings keep falling?

How bad are TV ratings today?  Lets go back to 1999 again. The top scripted TV show that year was ER with an average 18.6 rating.  In 2012, the top scripted show was Modern Family with an average 5.8 rating.  Had Modern Family been released in 1999 with the same rating, it would have been ranked 82nd, and probably cancelled.

The internet provides a smorgasbord of viewing options to choose from. Families don’t sit down in front of the big screen and watch the big 4 networks anymore. Today the average viewer has 300 channels to choose from, plus Netflix, Hulu, and YouTube.

And that is if they watch TV. Video games, or just web surfing in general eats a big chunk of the TV audience away as well. How long will the erosion of ratings go on before TV networks no longer consider scripted shows to be cost effective?  The death of TV will be when TV stops producing dramas and comedies all together.  I doubt that will happen very soon, but the trend is pointing that way.

TV will never disappear, just as radio still continues to exist.  However radio, especially the AM dial, exists as nothing but talk shows: news talk, sports talk, political talk, religious talk, paid advertisers talking about their products — every station, all the time.  I see all of this on TV these days, especially during the daytime hours.  Scripted TV is becoming the exception to the rule.  TV is turning into AM radio with video.

Next Part 4: Internet and Society

Internet: The Death of Politics and Religion

Whatever Happened To The Internet Dream? (Part 2)

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Something I almost never do in this blog is talk about politics and religion, and I am only going to talk about it in the most generic terms here.  My thesis for today is that the wealth of information available through the internet is having unexpected consequences on what should be the most stalwart and unchangeable institutions of society.  The consequences on politics is very different than the consequences on religion, but ultimately just as potentially fatal.

The Death of Religion

Full disclosure, I’m and Atheist, and so seeing religious institutions in decline does not bother me much. But, I have not always been. I grew up in a religious community, and why I no longer share the beliefs of the community, I still care about the people as they are pretty much lifelong friends.  I don’t stand in the way of their practices, I congratulate them on their achievements in church, I just avoid all religious discussions with them, and they with me.  So I am not really anti-religion, because I understand religious institutions can fulfill social needs of its members.

That said, religious institutions are seeing declining conversions, and participation across the board these days.  The problem is the Internet.  Religions have thousands of years of practice in controlling what information its members have access to:  Embarrassing histories are expunged, scientific evidence is denied, and secret rites are kept secret.  With the internet that has all gone away.  Potential converts to your church can find all the dirt on your church in just a few clicks.  Worse already converted members can find this info too, and they can also find support groups for ex-members ready to help them unconvert.

The Internet presents a world view where science is as full of awe and wonder as inspiring as any sermon, a world view where people are moral because it is in their nature to be and do not need threats of punishments and rewards to make them so.  This world view is not really a threat to the true believers faith, but it seriously weakens the interest of the potential and wavering members.  It is no surprise that “non-affiliated” is the fastest growing religious category in the Western world, especially among the young.

While the internet is a major threat to “religion”, it is not necessarily a threat to “belief”.  In fact the internet is a source for a diversity of beliefs.  People will be worshiping deities for millenia to come no doubt, but do they need organized religion to do it?  I’m guessing, “no”.

The Death of Politics

While religious institutions struggle with their inability to keep secrets from the public, to the politicians its a long tradition of dealing with bad press via spin, denials, and  rhetoric. Therefore, the Internet’s threat to politics is very different from its threat to religion.  While religions shrivel up and blow away, political parties becomes stronger, more radicalized, and more stubborn.

What the Internet has done to politics is expose the backdoor deals, the necessary compromises needed to get things done.  It has soured the public’s view of politicians to the point where much of the public seems OK with things not getting done, until they find out how it affects their lives.

What we have today is what one author accurately describes as “Attention Deficit Democracy“, which has basically numbed us to outrage except when it comes to our special interest causes.  There in lies the thing that will kill politics: the cow towing to special interests, even when it is ultimately bad for the general public to pursue those interests.  Politics is being increasingly dominated by what I call “Meme Politics”.

Meme politics is good for fundraising:  1. Propose a radical, unconstitutional bill that threatens the lives and welfare of a minority group. 2. The internet gets a gander at your outrageous proposal, posts it all over the web like a meme.  3. Radical political extremists who feel threatened by said minority group send you lots of campaign contributions.

Meme politics is almost normal these days.  Politicians feel comfortable proposing stupid and outrageous legislation because it brings immediate fundraising results, and eventually the general public will forget about it come election time.

Why does America spend so much money on a shoddy health care system?  Special Interest groups. Why does America spend so much on military? Special interest groups. Why does America’s tax system punish the poor and help the rich? Special Interest Groups.  Why the war on drugs? Why are guns not better regulated? Why the overboard security at airports? Why do we still have pennys?  All can be faulted by the involvement of special interests with deep pockets.  Meanwhile, nothing is being done about global warming and peak oil, because there are concerted efforts by special interests to deny their existence.  Poverty is a major problem in this country, but unfortunately there are no special interest groups to advocate for them.

The internet has brought us the politics of the outrageous, where actually getting things done is counter productive.  From the politicians standpoint it is better to not do anything, and keep collecting money from those that want something done.  Because if you actually do what they want, they will stop contributing and stop voting.

Society won’t last long without good governance. Deadlocked politics is not good for anybody.  There are good substitutes to religion, there are no good substitutes to government.  Can politics reinvent itself for the information age and become a functioning democracy again?  Or are we destined to become a dictatorship?

Thanks to the internet, politics is becoming deadlocked, and religion is becoming irrelevant.  I’ll let others decide if this is a good or bad thing.

Next Part 3: The Internet affect on tv and movies.

Bored Of The Internet

Whatever Happened To The Internet Dream? (Part 1)

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As a long time internet addict, who has spent 20 years online, and 15 years working in the internet industry, I hate to say it, but it is true: I am bored of the Internet.

The thing is, I am quite certain I am not alone in this sentiment. Over the course of the 20 years I have been online, I have seen the Internet transform itself multiple times, so I am not saying it is over for the Internet, I am saying that in its current evolutionary state, the internet is boring as hell.

Not too very long ago, I used to visit up to a dozen portal sites like Digg, and Fark, and Reddit, and a bunch of others on my links page. It used to be that all of these sites would have a slew of cool and interesting things to see and read about, all of them different.  Slowly over time, something changed.  The same content started showing up on all of these filter sites more and more frequently.  It soon got to the point that there really isn’t any need to go to all of these sites, so I don’t. Digg is completely useless since it was sold, Fark is only worth reading for the occasional funny headlines readers come up with, Reddit is a haven for flame wars.  All you really need these days is one website to go to for the cool crap.

For me, I hate to admit it, but it has become Facebook.  I just “like” my favorite sources of info, and links get sent to me.  Too convenient.  Sure not everything worth seeing ends up in my feed, and there is still junk to sort through, but it is as good a filter as I can find, so I use it.

The War for Eyeballs

Still I am not getting as much cool stuff as I used to get when I surfed for it. The pre-meme cool stuff I used to find is still out there, it is just getting harder to find in the noise of pop culture gossip,  sponsored links, and pointless memes that make up the most visited websites today. Why? Because the pop culture gossip and the pointless memes sells the sponsored links.

The joke of making money online has been to follow this business model:
Make something cool
Give it away for free to get traffic
????
Profit!
The funny thing is, Google, Twitter, You Tube, Facebook, Pinterest, Linkdin, and a few others have actually followed this model to make billions.  After years of giving away their services for free, often at huge expenses, they managed to find ways to make money once they became famous.

The most important thing is to get that internet traffic, and it is much easier to get that traffic by catering to the masses rather than catering to special interests.  This is why the Internet, which once upon a time was a haven for special interest groups, has become a haven for mass media instead.

I know what you are thinking, it is still a haven for special interest groups.  I know because I am in a couple, but some how a large percentage of the discussion in these special interest groups end up being about mass media topics.

Think about it! Advertisers are finding it just as easy to get their message out online as on traditional media. They lose some control over the message, but still the message gets out. Money talks.

The Paradox of Choice

My thesis is this: The Internet, once dreamed as the ultimate rebellion against mass media and the control of knowledge, has somehow become mass media’s biggest promoter.  I believe it is a consequence of the Paradox of Choice, which I first mentioned in my first Happiness post.

Pretty much any info we want can be found online.  It gives us lots and lots of choices.  Psychological studies conclude that the availability of choices do not make us happier, instead they lead to feeling of loneliness and depression.  It is basic human nature to ignore the choices and find what we are comfortable with, or find a distraction from loneliness and depression we feel from all the choices we make online.

That explains all the cats.  Kinda sad to have this vast source of info, that I hardly use. I should take classes on ItunesU, or download and read classic literature from the Google Library, or read up on random topics on Wikipedia or TED. Somehow cat videos keep getting in the way.

20 years ago, Bruce Springsteen sung about “57 Channels and Nothing On”. Then it became 570 satellite channels and nothing to tivo, then 5700 DVDs and nothing to rent. Today its 57,000,000 videos and nothing to stream.

This is the first in a series on this paradox. Next up, how the Internet is destroying politics and religion.