USC’s Annenberg Innovation Lab (AIL) was founded in 2010 to study the transformational impact of technology on culture and on the media industries. The Lab is involved in three main kinds of activities: research on the overall media landscape and its impact on society; design challenges to promote the development of innovative prototypes, applications and business ideas; and workshops that bring together students, faculty, artists, executives and entrepreneurs to discuss specific problems and come up with new ways of addressing them.
The Lab has a number of industrial partners, including technology and communication companies like IBM, Verizon and Cisco, and media companies like Warner Bros, Paramount and BET. I’ve been a member of AIL’s Advisory Board since its founding. For a technologist like me, it’s been a unique opportunity to learn about the impact of technology on society through the lens of the culture being transformed. It’s also been an opportunity to learn about the major changes underway in the media industries, - among the industries most disrupted by the digital revolution.
A few months ago, AIL launched The Edison Project, to “explore how the new creators and makers, the new metrics and measurement, the new funding and business models, and the new screens are all combining into a new ecosystem – and how media and entertainment companies can reorient themselves to flourish in this emerging Imagination Economy.”
In a recent online article, AIL Director Jonathan Taplin notes that the basic premise behind the Edison Project is that the imagination and creativity being unleashed by advances in technology will drive economic growth even more than the technology itself. The global rise of ubiquitous and affordable technologies are leading us to a kind of imagination economy, a participatory culture where social wonders are more important than technology, and enabling experiences have more value than specific products and services.
But, he also notes that these changes are hitting the media industries particularly hard. “The Hollywood blockbuster model is collapsing under skyrocketing production and marketing costs, broadcast TV is declining, and everything from news to games to music to publishing is in the midst of a massive reinvention.”
How can you best understand the impact of disruptive technologies on something as deeply human as culture? The answer, in my opinion, is to get back to basics. History can be a useful guide to the future, especially when trying to predict the impact of disruptive changes on human organizations and cultures.
For example, to understand the impact of digital money, payment technologies, and the emergence of virtual cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin, it helps to remember that writing was invented 1000s of years ago in Mesopotamian societies to keep track of financial records, and that the first gold coins were minted about 2,500 years ago in what is now Turkey to make it easier to conduct commerce. Sophisticated technologies are critical to the development of a global digital money ecosystem, but we must keep in mind the central role that money has played in our lives through the ages. People’s emotional relationship with money, not technology, will drive this particular digital evolution.
Similarly, storytelling has played a central role in human communications since times immemorial. Storytelling actually predates writing. Oral narratives were used by many ancient cultures as a way of passing along their traditions, beliefs and learning from generation to generation. Over the centuries, the nature of storytelling has significantly evolved with the advent of writing and the emergence of new technologies that enabled stories to be embodied in a variety of media, including books, films, TV and now the Web.
Digital technologies are having a huge impact on all aspects of storytelling. The Internet is the most revolutionary platform for the creation and dissemination of content since the invention of the printing press in the 15th century. The ubiquitous mobile devices we all now carry give us constant access to all that content, as well as to each other. Ever bigger, less expensive, higher quality TVs let us get to just about any content we want from the comfort of home. And, to attract our attention in this highly competitive environment, media companies are now bringing us better and better content, - over cable and broadcast networks, as well as, increasingly over the Internet.
There have long been high quality TV series. But, for the most part, the quality of TV programs was nowhere near that of films. This all started to change about 15 years ago, especially with the advent of The Sopranos on HBO. Ever since, the number of great original programs keeps increasing, from HBO and other premium cable networks, from classic broadcast networks, and more recently from Netflix and other Internet streaming companies.
This is both very exciting, but also somewhat frustrating. As David Carr recently wrote in the NY Times, we are Barely Keeping Up in TV’s New Golden Age, an article that nicely captures my own feelings:
“The vast wasteland of television has been replaced by an excess of excellence that is fundamentally altering my media diet and threatening to consume my waking life in the process. I am not alone. Even as alternatives proliferate and people cut the cord, they are continuing to spend ever more time in front of the TV without a trace of embarrassment. . . So far, the biggest losers in this fight for mind share are not my employer or loved ones, but other forms of media. . . Television’s golden age is also a gilded cage, an always-on ecosystem of immense riches that leaves me feeling less like the master of my own universe, and more as if I am surrounded.”
In this new golden age of TV and streaming media, storytelling itself is now being reinvented for the digital age. The best of these serial programs feel like a novel coming alive on the screen. Talented showrunners, writers, directors and actors now have time to develop their stories and characters in a much deeper and leisurely way than is possible with a 2 - 3 hour film. In addition, their stories and characters don’t necessarily have to appeal to a mass-market. As is the case with good books, each story can find its natural audience, - some bigger, some smaller.
I recently met with senior executives of a top media company, and actually complained that I feel overwhelmed by the extraordinary amount of good content that is essentially at my fingertips. Every time I hear about another must-watch program, my reaction parallels Carr’s: “Oh no, not another one.” The technology innovation I truly need is something that will let me consume this great content at fast-forward speeds or that will help multi-task my brain so I can watch multiple programs at once. Our technologies keep advancing, but our ability to consume the information and applications they are now bringing us is subject to our very human limitations.
These are complex yet fascinating problems. For media companies, are these the best of times, given the opportunity to develop and distribute all kinds of great content, with more to come as we learn to harness some of the exciting technologies being explored by the Annenberg Innovation Lab? Or are these the worst of times, as advances in technologies and new competitors continue to wreak havoc on their business models? It’s against this backdrop that the Edison Project seeks to re-envision nearly every aspect of the media industries. As Jon Taplin succinctly points out: “What most perceive as signposts of disaster are really signposts of opportunity.”