Technology and the Democratization of the Media

Tech author and guru Seth Godin penned a blog post about the democratization of media and art via technology this morning. The point he has been making for quite some time and reiterated here is that technology is not the devil. It is simply the means by which we now innovate. He writes, "And so, when technology shows up, it's easy to imagine that along with the old school becoming obsolete, the new school will be populated by nothing but lazy poseurs," adding, "... [sic] all this ending is leading to more and more beginnings, isn't it? It's not ruined, it's merely different."

Change is difficult. I've long said that technology is like a hammer. It can be used to build a house or bludgeon someone to death...instrument of change or terror. I work in technology, but I've been a musician my whole life and, as you can see, I do a lot of work in the media as well, both as a writer and photographer, so I have a somewhat unique (or masochistic depending upon your perspective) vantage point.

The problem with the democratization of anything isn't mediocrity as Godin points out. There are plenty of people out there who have altered the way we do things for the better through the use of technology, whether it was Gutenberg or Steve Jobs. The problem is money. Isn't it always.

While technology has made the means of distribution (and creation) for both media and art exponentially easier (and, as a result, substantially more democratic), many creative industries invested heavily in the distribution because that was how they made a living. Musicians were invested in the selling of records and CDs, media in newspapers and magazines. So, it is no surprise the destruction of that distribution model has had a devastating impact on the earning potential of people in those industries.

And before you launch into some argument about fat cats getting rich off the backs of taxpayers (or some other nonsense), remember those industries include rock stars and roadies, editors in chief and print press maintenance workers. In reality, when industry suffers, the first to go are the lowest paid.

I certainly agree with Godin and with most people who believe that adapt or die is more than just a catch phrase for both technology and life as a whole, but the pain that accompanies that change can often be dreadfully painful, particularly when an entire industry is tipped on its head in just a few years time.

In theory, the changes are great. Musicians have more methods of distributing themselves bypassing record labels. They can also avoid costly studio time. No more film and processing costs for photographers. Newspapers can get out of the cutting down trees business and journalists can self publish. The world is wide open thanks to technology.

But, in practice the same technology that innovates industry also sends many people to the unemployment line. The very democracy that opens up the world of media and art to everyone clutters the airwaves (literally and metaphorically) with static because we've eliminated the filters that simultaneously held back creativity and helped us make informed choices.

There's no short or quick answer. All of the dust has to settle and that will take time. In the tech industry, innovation is not just a consequence of the business model, it is a necessity for survival. No business can sit around and wait for the next big thing to happen. Adapt or die. The collateral damage, however, is often more than theoretical and the hammer that falls is often driving a nail into a new roof and a coffin at the same time.

KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Jeff Balke is a writer, editor, photographer, tech expert and native Houstonian. He has written for a wide range of publications and co-authored the official 50th anniversary book for the Houston Rockets.
Contact: Jeff Balke