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To Press Against With Force
Wired magazine will most likely sell a good number of the March issue at airport newsstands. "PUSH!" it screams, in bright yellow type on top of a light blue hand in front of an orange background. "Kiss your browser goodbye: the radical future of media beyond the Web."
The cover story, which literally begins on the cover, and runs before the table of contents even appears, is one of those pieces that makes me love and hate Wired at the same time. I love it because it makes me think, but I hate it because it doesn't let me think on my own. With this issue, Wired has attempted to define the future of something as nascent and as slippery as "push media."
Wired describes a not-so-far-off world where we're constantly immersed in media -- interactive media that follows you from your desktop to your living room and "into the next taxi you ride." We will be barraged with agent-driven information streams, "on minicell phones, on watches, on slivers of paper, and especially on computer screens." We will live in "one seamless media continuum, viewable in an infinite number of ingenious ways."
Wait. Time out. Don't we already live in this world?
Friday night I called 777-FILM to check on the show times for Star Wars. I listen to three "previews" over the phone before punching through the correct series of digits. I order tickets. We drive to the theater, absorbing billboards -- some for product, some for more media. We pick up our tickets, which have ads on the back of them. We sit through three previews, and then see the film. (Which, by the way, is just an elaborate, expensive preview for three films which aren't expected to be released until 1999.) On the way home we stop at the grocery store, where advertisements are now found not only in the carts, and at eye level, but on the floor. "Dawn takes grease out of your way."
We already live in a seamless media continuum; the only difference between this one and the one that Wired describes is that the ads we surf amongst now are, for the most part, analog: Billboards. Magazines. Newspapers. Radio. Television. But Wired understands one thing that will make the coming digital media continuum different from the version we live in now: the small market will matter.
The difference between television as a push medium and the Internet as a push medium is that the Internet is a network of smaller networks. Not just literally, but figuratively as well. "Networked media," they write, "can create broadcasting networks of any size and shape, especially the intermediate size between TV and, say, personal mailing lists." The ability to create small, malleable networks of push media, whether it's inside a corporate LAN or through a list of globally dispersed email addresses, will give the small player the ability to survive in what will essentially be a "top-down" world. (And you wonder why the email version of Stating the Obvious is titled "retro-push.")
But the creation of small push markets, while great for a small pusher, is a double edged sword for the folks being pushed. "Nichecasting," as Wired calls it, could end up being very, very dangerous. Part of the assumption that Wired is making about the difference between today's push media (television, billboards, radio) and tomorrow's push media is that instead of having things pushed at us indiscriminately, our media will be filtered for purity. And any notion of the physical community you live in (with streets, sidewalks, neighbors and storefronts) will be subsumed by the virtual community you're a part of, defined by your psychographic profile and your past media consumption habits.
When Herb Caen died two weeks ago, there was much hand wringing here in San Francisco about the future of newspapers. For many, Caen was the voice of "Ess Eff." It was his vision of San Francisco -- clean, crisp, breathtaking -- that informed the way some of us viewed The City. Caen was able to become that voice because of the physical distribution he enjoyed in San Francisco's newspaper of record. Caen, who did nothing more than indoctrinate wave after wave of new arrivals to San Francisco on the ways of "Baghdad by the Bay," would have had no place in the digital nirvana of pan-global communities of cat-lovers.
I was talking with a friend of mine the other day about a cheap, ubiquitous push technology: radio. I listen to very little of it (I like having control, and I'm not too fond of the San Francisco radio market), but he listens to it all the time. Why? "It's easy to use. It's always on. and I'm always being exposed to things I haven't heard before." The promise of push media is that it will be easy to use. And that it will always be on. But I hope that it can also expose us to things we haven't heard before.
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