Minow’s ‘Wasteland’: How The Web’s Problems Are Those Of Television Half A Century Ago – Forbes

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As the Mosaic browser turns 26 this year, having ushered in the modern web a quarter century ago, much of our conversation about the web turns around how rapidly it has upended, revolutionized and reinforced our access to information and the world around us, but also how it has undermined and destroyed traditional ideals like our trust in that information and the underpinnings of democracy. When we speak of the web today we talk of it in almost mythical terms, of an entirely new medium utterly unlike any that have gone before. Yet, if we look a bit more closely at the evolution of television into a similarly disruptive force and its devolution towards unadulterated commercialism, we see the trajectory of the web today bears much in common with its predecessor nearly a century ago.

One of the most famous speeches on the evolution of broadcast television over the years was that of FCC Chairman Newton Minow nearly 58 years ago in May 1961 to the National Association of Broadcasters. In his speech, Chairman Minow laid out the challenges confronting television broadcasters at the time, from their blind pursuit of profits over the good of society, to the limitations of popularity ratings, children’s screen time, the impact of news, the loss of the focus on local and most importantly, whether television would be a force for good in society or whether it would destroy it.

In short, all of the biggest issues confronting the web today. In fact, replace each occurrence of the word “television” in his speech with “web” and one would be forgiven for thinking he gave his famous remarks just yesterday.

As we talk about live streaming and the ability to witness events in realtime as affordances unique to the web era, we forget that these were the same unique properties so prized in the era of television. As Alan Shepard became the first American in space, Minow noted that Shepard’s flight was “witnessed by millions of anxious Americans who saw in it an intimacy which they could achieve through no other medium, in no other way.”

While television could be used to bring the nation together and allow them to witness history-changing events, to inform and enlighten, by 1961 it had largely devolved from that ideal of creating an informed and active citizenry towards merely entertaining an increasingly civically detached America.

Minow asked his audience what responsibility their platforms had for the content they relayed to the public. Did they bear a moral responsibility to society to enlighten or was their sole obligation to their commercial shareholders, to entertain a public willing to pay handsomely for escapism?

In a line ripped right out of today’s debates about the role of social media companies, he offered “your industry possesses the most powerful voice in America. It has an inescapable duty to make that voice ring with intelligence and with leadership. In a few years, this exciting industry has grown from a novelty to an instrument of overwhelming impact on the American people. It should be making ready for the kind of leadership that newspapers and magazines assumed years ago, to make our people aware of their world.”

As we today debate whether social media has brought us together or torn us apart, Minow offered those 58 years ago that “just as history will decide whether the leaders of today’s world employed the atom to destroy the world or rebuild it for mankind’s benefit, so will history decide whether today’s broadcasters employed their powerful voice to enrich the people or to debase them.”

Today’s web has devolved from its scholarly roots as a world of exchanging information and insights into an infinite vast landfill of mindless entertainment, uninformed opinions, cat videos, misinformation and toxicity. So too half a century ago had television devolved into a “vast wasteland.” In one of Minow’s most famous lines, he offers “I invite each of you to sit down in front of your television set when your station goes on the air and stay there, for a day, without a book, without a magazine, without a newspaper, without a profit and loss sheet or a rating book to distract you. Keep your eyes glued to that set until the station signs off. I can assure you that what you will observe is a vast wasteland. You will see a procession of game shows, formula comedies about totally unbelievable families, blood and thunder, mayhem, violence, sadism, murder, western bad men, western good men, private eyes, gangsters, more violence, and cartoons. And endlessly, commercials — many screaming, cajoling, and offending. And most of all, boredom.”

At the dawn of 2019 his description could largely fit today’s social media platforms. We spend endless hours on the web, but amongst all that content, are we truly entertained, or is our online escapism merely reinforcing our boredom? Does the web somehow lift us to a higher state of enlightenment and consciousness to participate in society or does it merely distract us from our doldrums for a few hours, soothing our intellectual wanderlust with a lilting lullaby of mindless mush?

Driving this shift towards mindless content was television’s fixation on chasing ratings. Today’s web is both a chaotic cacophony of voices all speaking in their respective rooms and a virality-chasing meme factory that sees the web at large suddenly synchronize to the latest trend, churning out endless clones until the next fad comes along. Someone posts a video of themselves pouring a bucket of ice over their head and suddenly people all over the world, from celebrities to politicians copy the idea, garnering global headlines and displacing news with real societal impact.

It turns out that fad chasing is not a creation of the web world. It was just as much a part of the television world: “the moment that the ratings indicate that westerns are popular there are new imitations of westerns on the air faster than the old coaxial cable could take us from Hollywood to New York.” In all, “of 73 and 1/2 hours of prime evening time, the networks have tentatively scheduled 59 hours of categories of action-adventure, situation comedy, variety, quiz, and movies,” chasing the latest money-making topics.

Minow’s argument was that chasing memes generates revenue, but at the cost of distracting and dumbing down society. As he put it, “broadcasting cannot continue to live by the numbers … You will get no argument from me if you say that, given a choice between a western and a symphony, more people will watch the western. I like westerns too, but a steady diet for the whole country is obviously not in the public interest. We all know that people would more often prefer to be entertained than stimulated or informed. But your obligations are not satisfied if you look only to popularity as a test of what to broadcast. You are not only in show business; you are free to communicate ideas as well as relaxation.”

Just what is the “public interest?” As Minow put it, “some say the public interest is merely what interests the public. I disagree.”

In Minow’s eyes, television had an obligation to the public not only to entertain it, but also to inform it. Much as Zuckerberg speaks of Facebook giving up some of its profits to ensure a “healthier” online community, Minow quoted National Association of Broadcasters Governor Collins as arguing that for “broadcasting to serve the public interest, [it] must have a soul and a conscience, a burning desire to excel, as well as to sell; the urge to build the character, citizenship, and intellectual stature of people, as well as to expand the gross national product.”

In other words, that television must enlighten as well as entertain. The very debate we have today about the future of social media.

To Minow, the problem was that television was chasing ratings, caught in the moment of what made the most money in the here and now, rather than looking at the long-term impact on society.

In a digital era obsessed with ratings, assigning scores to everything from social media posts to people, Minow reminds us that ratings are inherently limited: “I do not accept the idea that the present over-all programming is aimed accurately at the public taste. The ratings tell us only that some people have their television sets turned on and of that number, so many are tuned to one channel and so many to another. They don’t tell us what the public might watch if they were offered half-a-dozen additional choices. A rating, at best, is an indication of how many people saw what you gave them. … it does not reveal the depth of the penetration, or the intensity of reaction, and it never reveals what the acceptance would have been if what you gave them had been better – if all the forces of art and creativity and daring and imagination had been unleashed.”

Minow’s words hold true half a century later. Facebook can tell that a given post is going viral, Amazon can tell that a particular product is selling well, YouTube can tell that a particular video has achieved overnight stardom. None of them, however, can say what would have happened if that post or product or video had been different in some way. If the post had changed a few words, the product been offered in a slightly different color or the video featured different actors or plot, would it have fared just as well, vastly better or entirely flopped?

Ratings tell us only how the world has reacted to what it received. They tell us nothing about how the world might have been if only we had changed a few things.

This in turn was the root of why Minow felt ratings were a detriment to society: “My concern with the rating services is not with their accuracy. Perhaps they are accurate. I really don’t know. What, then, is wrong with the ratings? It’s not been their accuracy — it’s been their use.” It was the fact that broadcasters were blindly chasing popularity instead of stepping back to think about the impact of those trends on society and that in the blind pursuit of today’s latest trend, they were missing the opportunity to meet tomorrow’s needs.

Whether on the web today or television half a century ago, content creators chase popularity because it represents fame and fortune. Yet, chasing popularity requires chasing the latest fad, rather than stepping back and creating something entirely new that carries with it both the great risk of failure and the great rewards of launching the next great trend.

Humans are by their nature a creative species and there are always those who buck the trends and create something entirely new.

In contrast, as the web is overtaken by algorithms which blindly chase popularity alone, with no creativity or demand to maximize anything other than views, we reinforce the very pitfalls that plagued television all those decades ago, but without the intervention of human creativity.

Minow asked whether a world in which platforms chased short term profit ahead of long term societal prosperity was the right approach. In a question that has been posed again and again to social media platforms today, Minow wondered aloud whether the blind pursuit of commercial profit was worth it if it damaged society itself.

Do platforms that wield so much power over our societal access to information and communication have a higher obligation to society to invest in the future of our nation? Or are they merely like any other for-profit enterprise, free to be as destructive as possible so long as it earns them the most money?

To Minow, his message to television broadcasters half a century ago was clear: “Tell your sponsors to be less concerned with costs per thousand and more concerned with understanding per millions. And remind your stockholders that an investment in broadcasting is buying a share in public responsibility. The networks can start this industry on the road to freedom from the dictatorship of numbers.”

Minow believed that if broadcasters delivered only mindless entertainment that did nothing to enlighten, this would ultimately backfire. As he put it, “if some of you persist in a relentless search for the highest rating and the lowest common denominator, you may very well lose your audience.” Tell that to Facebook, which has built one of the world’s largest and most profitable online empires based on the back of chasing ratings.

As we worry aloud about the impact of “screen time” on our children, so too did parents, political leaders, pundits and professionals share our concerns half a century ago.

Minow commented on just how much time children were spending on screens even back then: “most young children today, believe it or not, spend as much time watching television as they do in the schoolroom. … It used to be said that there were three great influences on a child: home, school, and church. Today, there is a fourth great influence, and you ladies and gentlemen in this room control it.”

In his eyes, the problem was not that children were spending time watching television, it was the contents of the programming they were seeing, which, like everything else, chased popularity and ratings.

Should children’s shows blindly show them whatever leads to the highest ratings and hence biggest revenues? Put another way, “If parents, teachers, and ministers conducted their responsibilities by following the ratings, children would have a steady diet of ice cream, school holidays, and no Sunday school. What about your responsibilities? Is there no room on television to teach, to inform, to uplift, to stretch, to enlarge the capacities of our children? Is there no room for programs deepening their understanding of children in other lands? Is there no room for a children’s news show explaining something to them about the world at their level of understanding? … There are some fine children’s shows, but they are drowned out in the massive doses of cartoons, violence, and more violence.”

In a capitalist society, don’t all media forms merely chase the biggest ad dollar? Minow points out that at the time journalism had largely resisted this pull towards total ratings chasing: “newspaper publishers take popularity ratings too. And the answers are pretty clear: It is almost always the comics, followed by advice … columns. But, ladies and gentlemen, the news is still on the front page of all newspapers; the editorials are not replaced by more comics; and the newspapers have not become one long collection of advice…”

Of course, in the web era even online journalism has fallen prey to the quest for ratings. Major outlets relentlessly track which stories, topics and reporters get the most viewership. Some have even maintained “leader boards” ranking their reporters based on clicks and shares. Others have built entire businesses on clickbait and questionable headlines. The one industry Minow cites by name as having pushed back on the ratings game and pursued the greater good of society has itself finally fallen in the web era to the same ratings-chasing race to the bottom.

Minow cautioned that “it is not enough to cater to the nation’s whims; you must also serve the nation’s needs.” He hoped that broadcasters “will not permit yourselves to become so absorbed in the daily chase for ratings, sales, and profits that you lose this wider view.” If they did, he warned his audience half a century ago, the consequences would be dire: “clean up your own house or the government will do it for you.”

Indeed, in the web era, we’ve seen that social media companies have only begun meaningful investments in combatting hate speech and misuse of their platforms in response to governmental intervention, demonstrating that even 58 years later, the threat of legislation is one of the few forces to actually drive platforms to make changes.

In our rush to be globalized, Minow also reflected on the need to think local – wise words indeed in a world in which social platforms market themselves as connecting the globe, focusing on building bridges to other countries, rather than strengthening our ties to our neighbors.

It is worth noting that Minow did not endorse governmental censorship. As he put it “I am unalterably opposed to governmental censorship. There will be no suppression of programming which does not meet with bureaucratic tastes. Censorship strikes at the tap root of our free society.” Rather, he pushed for platforms themselves to balance their pursuit of money with the goodwill of society and focus on adding information, rather than removing views.

In an era when television had long eclipsed other mediums in dominating people’s time, Minow warned that “What you … broadcast through the people’s air affects the people’s taste, their knowledge, their opinions, their understanding of themselves and of their world — and their future.” His use of the words “the people’s air” is remarkable by today’s standards, reinforcing that broadcast frequencies were viewed as the collective property of the people. In contrast, today’s public squares that dominate our collective conversations, information access and democratic activities are all privately owned, with no such obligation to the people, only to profits.

In his concluding words, Minow reinforced the role information platforms have in shaping the futures of their societies, asking his audience to “put the people’s airwaves to the service of the people and the cause of freedom. You must help prepare a generation for great decisions. You must help a great nation fulfill its future.”

Minow looked back on his speech on its 50thanniversary, as the informational world had become an even “vaster wasteland.”

Looking back on Minow’s words from 58 years ago, it is truly remarkable how similar the evolution of the web has been to the growth of television half a century prior. The societal issues we are grappling with today, from children’s screen time to the relentless pursuit of ratings to the question of whether social media is a creative or destructive force for society and its impact on democracy itself are all the very same being debated by our predecessors all those decades ago.

The web may have gifted us glittery new affordances, but at the end of the day, the impact of all those new capabilities are leading to the very same questions of the past. The web is no different from all those mediums that have gone before.

Putting this all together, perhaps the biggest message here is that in our realtime-obsessed update-addicted world of today it is all too easy to get caught up in what happened five seconds ago and lose track of what happened fifty years ago and how it might help us understand our current societal debates in a new light. As Ecclesiastes reminds us, “what has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.”

Perhaps someday this will actually be one of AI’s greatest contributions to our future: intelligences that don’t get caught up in the present, that are able to look across the whole of human existence, across all of the knowledge and wisdom we as a species have ever recorded into written form and understand the present not in terms of the moment, but rather as a product of our evolution from the dawn of our species. Perhaps when we are able to reason about the world through the eyes of history and learn from all the lessons of those who have gone before, we will finally understand ourselves.

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