Civilization, Television and the Internet

Civilization: TV is a bit like the West, but the Internet is NOT China

Having missed the entire Channel 4 Series, I am now catching up with Niall Ferguson’s wonderful Civilization.

Niall Ferguson, talking on the BBC in 2009

It looks at the remarkable way that ‘the West’ has dominated the world’s economy and culture for the past 500 years, and the factors that pushed it forward.  600 years ago, Europe was so weak and undeveloped relative to the Chinese and others, that you’d never have predicted what happened next.

Civilization throws itself into the debate as to whether the West is now going to be overtaken by a (re-)surgent ‘Rest’ of the World, by examining the reasons why the West was so successful in the first place.   Just as Ferguson’s ‘Empire’ explained the success of the British Empire by looking at waves of British ‘pirates, planters, missionaries, mandarins, bankers and bankrupts‘ setting off around the world, so Civilization strips the arguments down into an easy format.  The West, for Ferguson, succeeded because of 6 ‘Killer Apps’.

Why am I talking about this on a TV blog?  Because Ferguson’s arguments about the West’s dominance, and how the factors driving  success are now being replicated by the rest of the world (and abandoned by the West), is similar to the arguments we hear about TV and the internet.  Many people argue that TV, dominant for so long, is now doomed, and that it has been forced to bend to the will of web-inspired behavioural shifts and technological advances.

For Ferguson’s historical analyses, you’ll have to read his excellent book.  At the risk of grotesque simplification, let’s take the 6 Killer Apps that Ferguson identifies, and show how they fit the Pro-Internet / Anti-TV thesis:

Competition:  TV is created by a bunch of self-serving middle-aged, middle class men in a top down system dominated by a monopolistic group-think mindset.  By contrast, the internet is a vibrant free-for-all, which is kicking out vested interests.  The Internet puts the consumer in control.

Science:  Television WAS the leader in creating a compelling range of thrilling entertainment.  But look at its peculiar linear distribution structure – how bloody quaint and old-fashioned.  The Internet is where the serious brains are to be found – the engineers, designers, and thought-leaders – not the TV executives and (ha ha HA!) the actors.

Property rights:   TV’s business model is now failing as people skip ads and audiences fragment.  The internet is putting money into its creators’ hands – have you seen how much money Zuckerburg has made?

Medicine:  TV is a passive entertainment, consumed by ever-fattening couch potatoes (see cartoon).  By contrast, the internet is an active, lean-forward, social medium that brings us together (see Clay Shirky…) and makes us better people.

The consumer society: Where do we start? TV is mass-market, barely commercial, hard to measure, and unengaging in which the adverts are segregated from the content.  The internet is personal and personalized,  and uber-measurable, in which the commercial part is woven into the content.  In fact advertisers can talk directly to their consumers.  No, not talk to, or even listen to: hang out with.

The work ethic: TV seems to expect the viewer to fit into ITS schedule.  It’s like an old-fashioned boss, setting the pace and the work-rate. Think of a Roman soldier whipping slaves as they row some sort of quinquereme down a river.  That’s what TV does to its viewers – enslaves them to a fucking schedule.

Slaves doing all the work. A bit like the way TV treats its viewers. Unlike the internet

The internet, by contrast, is flexible – it breaks down the barriers between boss and worker, and puts everyone to work, but at their own pace, in their own way.  Not that it’s really work; it’s play.

That’s what they say.

Leaving TV aside for a moment, Ferguson’s point is that the West’s lead in these areas is being bequeathed to China and others.  He’s not alone.  Most people now believe that a combination of transferable skills (see Thomas Friedman), sheer brute size, long-term single-mindedness, and Western indolence is going to see China (and perhaps India too) dominating the coming century.

And, well, it may do.  But having suggested that Ferguson’s diagnosis of how the West’s lead was created and perhaps lost can be applied to TV (The West) and the internet (the Rest), I’d argue that the analogy should stop right there.  The 6 Killer Apps can just as easily be shown to fit ONLY television.

But I’ll cover that next time.  When I’ve got my breath back.







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