cj#295> The future of multimedia


Richard Moore

Dear CJ,

This is a draft of an introduction I'm writing for a chapter in an
EU-sponsored handbook on multimedia.  Hope it is interesting.  Feedback




Advances in personal computers and digital networking are clearly bringing
us to the verge of a revolution in communications, entertainment,
information dissemenation, and less predictably, to the verge of a
revolution in the very fabric of society and the political process.

Just as desktop publishing (DTP) revolutionized the print industry, so will
desktop multimedia revolutionize the multimedia production industry.  As
the power/price curve continues to drive upwards, affordable desktop
computers will be able to perform the same functions now delivered by
expensive studio equipment.  More powerful media-production software will
open up multimedia production to individuals and organizations who lack the
expertise required to operate today's studio equipment.  The number of
people and organizations who can produce useful multimedia will increase

The presentation values of multimedia will continue to evolve.
Movie-quality special effects, merging of animation and video, mixing of
audio and video tracks, the ability to include user-interactivity -- all of
these will be increasingly available and convenient to use in desktop
productions.  On the consumer side, there will be a corresponding increase
in the functional sophistication and simplicity of use of multimedia
player/interaction devices.

The uses for mutlimedia are too diverse to enumerate, including news,
entertainment, documentaries, games, interactive adventures, training,
education, sales, advertising, and so on.  Increasingly multimedia
solutions will be employed in preference to print solutions, face-to-face
presentations, etc., due to the lower cost and/or greater impact which is

In the case of _commercial_ multimedia, such as entertainment and games,
the development of the marketplace will depend not only on the production
tools, but at least as much on the distribution channels.  Small
independent producers and artists will be able to create MTV-like segments,
or full-length features, but whether they can sell them commercially will
depend on distribution factors.  This brings us to the subject of

The most significant single technological development, in terms of the
multimedia future, will be the advent of switched, digital, broadband
networks.  This will fundamentally change the distribution economics of all
media industries.   Physical distribution of film reels and video tapes
will be as antiquated as carrier pigeons.  Broadband networking technology
is well understood, as are the engineering issues and costs involved in its
deployment.  This communications revolution has not been waiting for
further research and development, but has been slow to start due to
economic and political factors.

Broadband networking can deliver high resolution multimedia material,
recorded or live, to individual consumers around the world.  Such networks
can be based on satellites, microwaves, fiber optics, existing cable
systems, and to some extent, standard twisted-pair phone lines. These
various implementations can interconnect with one another, so that the
industry can begin quickly, and then evolve over time.

Unlike today's television broadcast networks and cable systems, switched
digital networking provides _two-way_ communications.  This means that
digital networks may take over many of the functions of the telephone and
postal systems, besides taking over delivery of news and entertainment.  As
Internet has demonstrated, electronic mail and bulletin boards provide a
potent infrastucture for organizing groups, conducting business, and for
generally supporting interpersonal and group communications.  These kinds
of applications can be supported at low cost on a broadband network,
because they require far less bandwidth than does video material.

Broadband technology has the potential to provide a general-purpose
communications infrastrucuture, one that could economically and efficiently
support the communication needs of individuals, businesses, government, and
the media industries.  Like today's telephone services, a broadband network
could be made available on a commodity basis, with the price of usage
depending primarily upon how much bandwidth load is put on the network.

As demonstrated by Internet, digital communications have the _potential_ to
connect people together, to create virtual communities, to expand the
modalities of society, and to facilitate vibrant participation in the
democratic process.  This has been accomplished largely with voice-grade
phone lines and ascii-text messages.  A broadband digital infrastructure
could theoretically expand such activity, making it cheaper and more
universally accessible.

But commodity transport is not the only business model that could be
adopted for digital networking.  Instead, the network could be positioned
as a proprietary distribtution channel, similar to today's cable systems or
commercial broadcast channels.  This would increase profit margins to
network operators and to commercial vendors of media content, but could
eliminate many of the potential societal applications from the network.
Instead of a public commons and community gathering place, cyberspace would
become a private shopping mall.

This proprietary model of cyberspace/networking seems to be the one
attaining dominance.  In the United States, whose policies in this area are
likely to be highly influential elswehere, the Telecommunications Act of
1985 aims to remove regulations on market entry and pricing.  Meanwhile,
the big players in the media industry are actively jostling for position.
There has been a mania of mergers, such as those between Disney & ABC, and
Time-Warner & Turner Broadcasting.  If deregulated, the telecom operators
could also participate in such mergers.

This could result in a situation where the large media and communications
conglomerates can set the "rules of the road" as they wish -- cyberspace is
in danger of being ruled by "robber barons", as were railroads in the late
nineteenth century.  Prices could be set at "all the traffic will bear",
and uses of digital networking limited to those that are the most
profitable to the large media/telco conglomerates.  Although these trends
are strongest in the U.S., the European drive toward privatization suggests
that the same situation will come about in Europe as well.

In summary, there's a watershed political decision to be made: will there
be a digital communications infrastructure that is affordable to all (as
are today's phone systems, postal services, and highways), or instead will
the infrastructure be packaged as a proprietary delivery channel (as are
today's commercial television, cable systems, and movie-distribution
arrangements).  This decision is driven neither by technology nor by "the
market" -- it is a societal decision, to be reached through the political
process, and implemented as industry regulations.

If the decision is for a commodity infrastructure, this would lead to a
renaissance of cultural creativity.  Small, independent producers could
efficiently reach distributed audiences, and compete successfully with
well-funded Hollywood productions.  There could be a democratization of art
and culture, reversing the mass-media trends of the twentieth century.
This could amount to a renaissance of democracy itself.  It would certainly
lead to a desktop "cultural revolution": the mass media of today could be
left behind, along with mainframe computers and dinasaurs.  The emergence
of artist-entrepreneurs and dynamic new audiences for their work would
create a whole new industry and transform society in unpredictable ways.

If the decision is for a proprietary infrastructure, aimed at serving
private interests, then the result will be quite different.  This could
lead to a consolidation of the power of the mass media, a stifling of
political debate, and further concentration of power over news,
entertainment, politics, and culture into the hands of a corporate elite.


 Posted by      Richard K. Moore <•••@••.•••>
                Wexford, Ireland (USA citizen)
                Editor: The Cyberjournal (@CPSR.ORG)

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