As I pointed out a while back, this year is Marshall McLuhan’s 100th birthday. It’s a good time to be thinking about media and the web: in particular about how the free and open medium of the web is shaping all media that came before. Increasingly, this is a theme for Mozilla Drumbeat in 2011.
Why now? Yes, partly because it’s Marshall’s birthday. But more importantly, we’re at a key juncture: traditional media are increasingly reinventing themselves by tapping into the essence of the web; at the same time monopolies in spaces like social networking and mobile apps are calling the freedom of the web into question. Things could go either way: open or closed.
Back in February, I explored this theme in the annual Marshall McLuhan Lecture at the Canadian Embassy in Berlin. I’ve re-recorded the talk and posted it here:
At a high level, I believe we have to make a number of critical choices in coming years that will impact media and society for decades to come. My three top level points are:
We rarely call it out, but the same basic principles that make free software and open source great are also baked into the very fabric of the web itself. The web gives us the freedom to use, study, remix and share — that’s what we are all doing at a massive scale. We do these things because they are baked into both the technical building blocks and the culture of the web. When we think about the web as the medium that is shaping our times, it’s important to remember that this kind of freedom that is central to what’s going on.
McLuhan said: “The next medium, whatever it is – it may be the extension of consciousness – will include television as its content, not as its environment, and will transform television into an art form.”
This has happened. And it hasn’t just happened to television. All media have become the content of the web. As a result, all media are wrapped in this context of freedom: in a world that lets you bend and share without asking permission. The initial reaction from old media was push back. But times are changing. We’re very clearly entering a phase where smart media players are using the essence of the web to reinvent themselves. Eg. witness the Guardian and Wikileaks or Al Jazeera in Egypt.
The context is a web built on freedom. The opportunity is that all media are reinventing themselves in this context. If we seize this opportunity, we can bake things like transparency, remix and sharing into the media culture and practice for the next 100 years. That’s what we’re trying to do with Mozilla Drumbeat projects like popcorn.js: build tools that give filmmakers and journalists access to the essence of the web. If we succeed, we also bake the web into how whole industries work and think.
Of course, there is another direction we can choose: we could close down the web. Tim Wu talks eloquently about this in his book the Master Switch. Talking about media empires in the last 100 years, he says: “Open eras tend to last for about 15 – 20 years. And then they flip into being more closed. We may be at the beginning of the closing with the internet.”
Specifically: we could give up our privacy and identity to one or two social networks; we let one or two companies decide who gets to innovate and create software; we could let governments decide whether we get to access the internet at all. The result would be a very different web than the one we have now.
It’s this point about choice that makes media such an important theme for Mozilla and Drumbeat in 2011: now is the time to aggressively, creatively and playfully promote web technology and web thinking in the broader world of media. What we do now will shape media — and society — for a long time to come.
I’d love to get people’s feedback on the ideas in this talk. And, even more, I’d love to see people building things and playing with the theme of media, freedom and the web as part of Mozilla Drumbeat in 2011.
This is the third in a series of posts about media, freedom and the web. I’m hoping to do more, including a few posts on the future of cinema.