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Contradictions in Digital Media

Like many periods of dramatic change that preceded it, the digital media revolution is coping with internal struggles as it finds its way.

Like many periods of dramatic change that preceded it, the digital media revolution is coping with internal struggles as it finds its way. In some cases, the divergent paths it faces are diametrically opposed.

Since good summer reading should be thought-provoking, let’s look at a few fascinating instances of such conflict, for your reflection during this contemplative time of year.

For better or for worse

The first is a technical bifurcation — and one that has been touched upon previously in this column.

As digital technologies improve and Moore’s law continuously drives their cost lower, audio engineers have been blessed with the ability to sample and quantize signals with ever-better audio quality.

The higher bit rates and larger file sizes thus produced are no problem to accommodate, as digital audio recordists strive toward that elusive “perfect” capture of sound.

At the same time, other developments in digital technology allow more to be done with less, as perceptual coding (“data compression”) techniques also continue to improve.

Application of these techniques unavoidably causes some degradation, but the resulting bandwidth savings often makes their use worthwhile. Where transmission bandwidth or storage capacity are scarce or costly, these systems can enable delivery of audio quality levels that would otherwise be prohibitive.

These two modalities are each worthy pursuits, and not mutually exclusive, but they do cause some degree of schism within the industry.

Purists decry the quality loss inherent in perceptual coding systems and, in particular, lament their use by increasingly popular online music distribution systems.

While the high end of uncompressed digital audio continues to excel, its developers fear no one will ever enjoy the fruits of their labor, as compressed online distribution becomes the preferred (and perhaps eventually, the exclusive) method of music acquisition by consumers. A chain is only as strong as its weakest link.

This concern certainly applies to digital radio, which is a digitally compressed medium, of course, but here the critics are often less strident given the understandable concern for scarce spectrum.

Nevertheless, in the ultimately fungible world of digital audio, a quality-vs.-quantity battle always looms, in which the number of channels offered is a function of the amount of data compression applied.

IBOC multicasting and satellite radio (as well as Eureka DAB) have been criticized for pushing the quantity limit too far, thereby causing audio quality to suffer untenably. This is an argument with no real arbiter or solution, and like the loudness wars before it, one that is likely to be perpetually with us.

Such is the result of an industry pursuing two opposing directions simultaneously. Vector addition results in no net movement — or small movement toward a place that neither party is trying to reach.

Expand and contract

Another interesting paradox of the day is that as the value of diversity grows within U.S. society, media companies continue to consolidate.

So as individual voices of the American people expand their range, the breadth of venues in which they can be widely reflected to the rest of the nation are shrinking. (This is a thesis well articulated in academic circles by Henry Jenkins, head of the MIT Comparative Media Studies program, but others in less lofty locales have also made this point.)

The consolidation trend is found in practically all traditional media, and again, radio is prime among them. Our industry continues to press quietly for further reduction in regulation that would allow even greater consolidation than has already taken place.

What impact will this have on the diversity upon which Americans recently seem to be placing such a high priority?

What some critics find most insidious is the “pseudo-diversity” of media outlets. Although their overall number has not declined but has in fact increased over time, control of these outlets rests in the hands of a steadily decreasing number of players. What looks like a group of competitive media channels on the surface often is simply a market strategy.

Thus the political landscape for discourse may be shaped in ways that are not initially evident, and some positive social trends may be squelched in the process — or at least not given their due.

Interestingly, there is strong evidence showing that minorities in the United States are among the heaviest users of new communication technologies. They are also the demographic groups that will comprise the bulk of U.S. population growth in the next decades.

Factor this in and one could conclude that these merger-happy media providers are swimming against the tide with their continued penchant for consolidation. The pursuit of ever more concentrated market power may ultimately prove to be their undoing.

Fourth Estate

A final conflict occurs in the field of journalism.

Ernest Wilson, dean of the Annenberg School of Communication at USC, recently presented the following syllogism: If democracy relies on a free press (as our founding fathers strongly believed) and the press today is suffering through disruptive or even damaging change from the digital transition, then democracy itself could be at risk.

This scary premise seems quite at odds with the common wisdom that democracy is well served by the Internet’s egalitarian nature, and that it espouses the very principles of that philosophy, by providing every individual with a venue in which their voice can be widely heard.

We all realize that user-generated content is no substitute for professional journalism, but the latter is an expensive product. (In the context of this discussion, it could be considered part of the cost of democracy.)

If these new alternative media sources — and the rest of the Internet — draw enough eyeballs away from the channels that carry professional journalism, the survival of that industry could be threatened. And if it should fail, or even be significantly curtailed, we could suffer a serious loss to our culture, and to the very workings of our governance models.

The harm to professional journalism is already being felt, so this threat is not merely an academic discussion. It is a real and frightening prospect, but one that is not often considered as potential fallout from the digital revolution.

Unintended consequences happen; just ask anyone in the record business if they ever thought releasing music on CDs would bring the industry to its knees a decade or so later.

So as we travel down the digital highway, remember it’s a two-way street — and not everyone is driving their bits in the same direction.