Empowering us with our own spare time

Things are changing, as technology levels the playing field between ordinary people and huge organizations. It all has to do with two things—a reduction in the "minimum efficient scale," and the freeing up of "spare cycles."

Minimum efficient scale is the smallest size that you can do things economically. Thanks to technology, it's falling dramatically. A few decades ago, to make a record, or a movie, took millions of dollars worth of specialized equipment and dozens of trained people (that's why record companies and movie companies are called "the studios"). Likewise, television networks needed similar amounts of equipment and personnel to bring news from around the world to viewers around the nation. In both cases, the minimum efficient scale has been reduced by technology to something considerably smaller: A camera or a microphone, a laptop, and an Internet connection. That's a big difference—and already small and medium-sized video production houses (and television news networks, too) are feeling the heat.

"Spare cycles" is a term that may be familiar from charitable computing—lots of people donate the unused processor time on their computers to charitable causes like SETI@home, which uses that spare processing to decode signals from outer space, or similar projects that look to cure AIDS, etc. But as Wired magazine's Chris Anderson notes, we have spare cycles in our own lives, too, and technology lets us make use of them efficiently: "People wonder how Wikipedia magically arose from nothing, and how 50 million bloggers suddenly appeared, almost all of them writing for free. Who knew there was so much untapped energy all around us, just waiting for a catalyst to become productive? But of course there was. People are bored, and they'd rather not be. The guy playing Solitaire on his laptop at the airport? Spare cycles. Multiply it times a million."

Technology lets us do things with that spare time that we couldn't have done a few decades ago, and it lets those who are putting their spare cycles to use to coordinate with others. Sometimes the result is positive—Wikipedia, or PajamasMedia.com, the blogging collective. (Futurist Vernor Vinge thinks that by 2025 collaborative hobbyists will spot emerging epidemics before governments do). In my own life, the podcast series I do with my wife draws hundreds of thousands of listeners to extended interviews that wouldn't work on radio. On the other hand, sometimes the result is negative: Al Qaeda is a kind of spare-cycle collaborative effort, too, and technology certainly amplifies the power of terrorists.

So is this trend good, or bad? The answer, I think, is "yes." It's both. Since I believe that most people tend to be good, I think that the trend toward empowering individuals at the expense of large organizations is a positive one overall. But one place where the pain is already being felt is in the world of media.

Big Media organizations are suffering two different ways. On the one hand, the plethora of different alternatives is fragmenting their audience—the old days of three networks and one or two local newspapers are long gone, and since there are no more hours in the day than there used to be that means someone is losing out. Newspaper readership is down, as is market share for network news. The movie and music industries aren't doing well either. And the other force that's causing them trouble is that the number of their competitors is exploding: When anyone with a laptop, a camera, and an internet connection can go into competition with you, life is bound to be tough.

Big Media have had to deal with real-time criticism and fact-checking, and with the fact that some people would rather get their news and entertainment from a blog or a YouTube than from a traditional source. So far, their response hasn't been especially great: While news media pundits complain about the lack of standards in weblogs, ABC is running dubious stories about a DC prostitution ring, and The New York Times, along with nearly every other media organization, ran with thinly-sourced reports about the Duke Lacrosse rape case, reports that turned out to be devastatingly false. And while YouTube videos of teenage girls shaking their boobs at webcams proliferate, it's hard to argue that they're much worse than what we see on American Idol. And while indie bands who release their work via the Internet may not be the Beatles, neither are the acts coming out on the big labels.

To secure its future, Big Media is going to have to try something it hasn't excelled at in recent years: Producing a quality product. Will it manage? Not, I suspect, under current management. More on that in future installments.

Glenn Harlan Reynolds is Beauchamp Brogan distinguished professor of law at the University of Tennessee and creator of instapundit.com.

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