Be thankful... The new dark ages are over!
You can blame Thomas Edison for starting it. Although certainly one of the greatest inventions of all time, Edison's invention of the phonograph in 1877 had a cultural dark side. As predicted by John Philip Sousa, it started us down the slippery slope that has turned us into media-consuming zombies. Sousa said,
"The time is coming when no one will be ready to submit himself to the ennobling discipline of learning music. Everyone will have their ready made or ready pirated music in their cupboards."
These fantastic inventions benefited society in many ways. However, they also led to a cultural decline that was certainly not intended by the great inventors.
When I was growing up in the 1970's, we only had 5 television channels run by ABC, CBS, NBC, PBS, and a local independent. The executives at these networks controlled our culture. They decided what we saw and, to the best of their ability, what we bought. Everything was filtered through these networks.
Although I did not realize it at the time (because I must have been a zombie, too), that was a truly dark age. There were only a handful of media outlets: 5 TV stations, maybe a few dozen radio stations, and a few local newspapers. Our thoughts and opinions were being strongly influenced (controlled?) by a very small group of very powerful people. Thank God there was a library!
But things started to change around 1980.
No, I don't mean the widespread adoption of cable TV and the explosion of new television channels like MTV, ESPN, and the Weather Channel. Sure, there are now lots more stations on the dial, but it's still on the order of hundreds of channels controlled by even fewer very powerful networks.
Instead, what I am referring to is a series of innovations that started in 1980:
1997: the first blogs were introduced. This enabled you to publish your own "newspaper" or "magazine."
2000: the first encyclopedia anyone can edit, Wikipedia, was introduced. This enabled you to publish your knowledge.
2004: podcasting was introduced. This enabled you to start your own "radio station."
2005: the first free video publishing service, YouTube, was introduced. This enabled you to start your own "TV station."
Meanwhile, throughout this period of innovation, personal computers have been getting more and more powerful. Virtually every computer purchased today has the ability to create a video (or audio or any other kind of document). That's huge!
Why is this significant? Now, you and everyone can be a media producer. In fact, I just last week produced my first documentary "Salmon Sunday". If I can do it, you can do it. And lots of people are doing it: according to Wikipedia, as of April 9, 2008, YouTube hosted 83.4 million videos on 3.75 million user channels. Compare that to the ~100 channels on your TV.
Sure, a lot of what you see on YouTube is pure crap (perhaps my video included ;-), but that's missing the point. The advances in technology have enabled people like Jonathan Caouette to produce a movie for only $218 that won high praise at the Cannes music festival. He filmed his video with low-end equipment, but for $17,500 you can own a camera better than most of the equipment used in Hollywood (and that price will only come down) and shoot your own videos like this one called "Skate" (click here for HiDef version):
These technology advances have "changed politics forever." It has enabled you to participate in the the political process in ways never before possible. Examples from the recent presidential process include "Yes We Can" (14 million view in 9 months, 64,754 ratings, 85,931 comments), "I Got a Crush... on Obama" (12 million view in 5 months, 30,432 ratings, 65,433 comments), and one of my newest favorites "Obama and McCain - Dance Off!" (4.3 million views in 1 month, 16,300 ratings, 22,416 comments). (note: I would have included republican or other party examples, but I could not find any good ones. I expect this will change in the next presidential election!)
Don't want to be a media producer? That's okay. You can still participate by making comments, posting reviews, sending links, and otherwise. Amazon is a great example that enable you to influence others' purchasing decisions. In fact, in many cases, you are contributing through your behavior that influences collaborative filtering mechanisms employed by Amazon and NetFlix.
And you can access all this great new media anytime, anyplace. It's no longer limited to the "idiot box" and the network's schedule. It's everywhere you are with the advances in mobile phones and other mobile technology.
The day has passed when you were forced to be a media consuming zombie with no influence. It's a new world where you are a media producer and participant. This is changing society in ways we've yet to imagine.
Need more proof? In 2006, Time Magazine named you as their "Person of the Year". Despite the early criticism of their choice (no offense), I think history will look kindly upon their prescience. Our society is no longer controlled by a handful of media elites. You can truly influence society. There's no longer a barrier.
Sure, times are tough right now with the bad economy, the war in Iraq, and all that's going on. If you are reading this blog entry, you are part of the new cultural renaissance. It's a great time to be alive. Be thankful!