Beyond the 4th Dimension

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In the beginning, we had the Stone Age. This was characterized by the use of simple handmade tools for cutting and pounding. While eventually perfecting them through polishing, tribes and chiefdoms used these roughhewn implements primarily for hunting and gathering.

Next, we experienced the Bronze Age. Technology evolved from what existed in nature to what could by fashioned with natural elements. City-states melted and molded soft metals like copper and bronze into much more durable and more efficient utensils, as they settled into urban areas where crafts thrived that were supported by surrounding farms.

The use of man-made metals ushered in the Iron Age. Kingdoms and Empires collected raw materials, mixed them into a molten recipe to cast iron into not only tools, but structural supports. The required a larger and more fixed organization that led to a network of roads connecting larger cities within individual states.

After these relatively long eras, we quickly advanced through Industrial Age into the short Information Age until we find ourselves where we live today: in the Age of Content.

That media – the form of communication we use most – has rapidly evolved alongside these eras goes without saying. In the 20th Century alone we witnessed popular media transform itself from one dimension to three.

The last century began as the heyday of newspapers ascendant. Newspapers began the 19th century as they had been in the 18th century – as partisan pamphlets. It was a rocky start. Finding yourself taking a stand caused the ire of the opposition. During the Revolutionary War, the press was arrested by the British and burned down by the mobs. It wasn’t a safe occupation.

While the First Amendment promised the freedom of the press and Americans respected that notion, it didn’t guarantee the economic sustainability of the business model. Newspapers in America’s first century opened and folded based not on the viability of their business model, but on the popularity of their political model.

If newspapers had an audience for their advocacy, they survived. If the issue either faded or, ironically, worse, became law and therefore no longer an issue, the audience turned to other issues. Most newspapers failed to follow their audience. As a result, they went out of business.

In contrast to individual newspapers, however, the medium itself – printed newspapers – remained the standard. When a handful of innovative advertising executives saw the popularity of the medium, they created an economic incentive for newspapers to change their message. Gone was the blatantly partisan reporting, in was a “fair and balanced” editorial policy.

What caused this change? The need for a consistent and growing audience. More eyeballs reading the paper meant more advertising dollars. That’s what created early 20th Century media giants.

And it worked. For a while.

By the second decade, a new form of media emerged. It went beyond the single dimension offered by print. It literally added a modulating tonality that added another piece of information the audience could absorb. It was audio delivered through radio stations dotting the landscape.

Audio has an advantage that goes beyond text. Hearing the voice of the newsmaker, not merely a reporter’s written account, enticed the audience. Something else captured the ears of the audience: entertainment.

You could certainly read a story, but imagine the novel excitement you experience the first time you hear the different characters actually speak and all the attendant sound effects.

Radio featured another element no newspaper could come close to: music.

Radio may have started as a news delivery system, but entertainment attracted a new audience. And that attracted the advertisers. And that was the beginning of the end of print as the dominant form of media.

Franklin Roosevelt cemented the radio’s preeminence when he started his weekly “Fireside Chats.” For the most part, those who lived through World War II most remember the radio broadcasts, not the newspaper headlines.

Today, however, except for a few exceptions (Roosevelt’s Pearl Harbor Day broadcast), we remember World War II not through radio, but through the Movietone News shorts. These video clips, played before movies in theaters across America, didn’t reach as wide an audience as radio when they were originally shown.

That they are remembered more today speaks to the third media dimension: video.

Truth be told, video – in the form of film and movies – predated radio. The video “medium” didn’t become a “media” until the advent of television, specifically television network broadcasting. Taking a cue from its radio brethren, television networks emerged in the 1950s as the television became a standard piece of furniture in American households.

We often think of newspapers, radio, and television as one happy family, living a peaceful and symbiotic co-existence. That’s not true. Radio made it easier to hear breaking news. Television made it better to watch breaking news. When Apollo 11 landed on the moon, we watched it as it happened. We didn’t just listen to it. And we certainly didn’t read it (until well after the fact).

Though many cite the beginning of the decline of newspapers in the 1950s, actual circulation numbers from Pew Research Centers shows the peak occurred in the 1970s and the rapid decline began in 1990. The drop has only intensified since the mid-2000s (i.e., predating the 2009 recession many cite as the extinction event for newspapers).

Here’s the real news, though. Content consumption is now a 24/7, “I want it now” phenomenon. Where once Americans faithfully consumed their news as 6:00pm (local) and 6:30pm (national), today, the latest news is only a click away. Even the former bastion of news – the national anchor – has fallen from heights attained only by icons of society. Can you name the news anchor of the traditional three television networks?

I thought not. You’re just like me and everybody else. I can’t remember the last time I watched television news. I get all my news from the internet, exactly when I want to get it. And, I can also get multiple points of view whenever I want. I’m not limited to the choice of a single editor’s or a single producer’s point of view.

And this is just the beginning. Just as radio added a dimension beyond print, and as television added a dimension beyond radio, so, too, has the internet added a dimension beyond television.

What is this fourth dimension, and what lies beyond it? Well, we’ve reached the limits of print. For the rest of this story, you’ll have to follow the on-line experience below. Here you can witness the fourth dimension as only you can on the internet. Here it is:



The Homework Exercise:

…in the beginning there was print. OK, that’s not true. In the beginning there was oration. But those were and continue to be ephemeral. Once spoken, the message is lost forever. Even the wisdom of Socrates would have gone forgotten if not for Plato writing his dialogs.

So, let’s start with print as we explore the for dimensions of media. Remember, the point of this exercise is for you to discover how the different dimensions represent tools of advantage (and disadvantage).

First, read this short essay: |

Next, listen to the audio version of this same essay:

How long did it take you to read the essay? How long did it take you to listen to the essay? If you’re like most, you can read and understand much faster than you can listen and understand. This is an advantage of print.

Now consider how easy it is for you to be distracted while you’re reading verses while listening. It’s easier to lose your concentration when you listening.

You might think that’s bad (and it is in terms of understanding the content). It’s actually a situational thing. If you’re in a classroom, that could be a problem. You’d rather be reading. If you’re in a car, you’d rather be listening.

Finally, listen to the first three minutes of the audio again. Did you see how audio adds a dimension to print? The changing tones, various inflections,etc… all add to the experience. Take a listen to the audio. Can you hear the excitement? Can you hear the smile? It’s a greater challenge to convey these feelings in print. (Granted, the part towards the end of the audio where the speech gets “flummoxed” is a little hard to bear, but that’s what you get with audio.)

Now watch the video version of this essay: |

What do you immediately notice here?

First, you’re paying attention. You’re watching the eyes of the speaker. You’re noticing the graphics. You’re being communicated to through words, pictures, and actions. That means, no matter what preference you having in learning style, chances are it’s being used for your benefit.

Also, remember how the “flummoxed” sequence was awkward in audio? It looks perfectly expressive, perfectly normal, in video.

What’s the downside of video? It takes you a longer time to consume video compared to print. It also requires you to command focus of nearly all your senses compared to listening to audio.

What does this tell you? First, each form of media has its advantages and disadvantages over either other form of media. That means it’s unlikely any form of media will truly go extinct.

But it also means some content might favor one form of media over another.

While that’s true for the media, it’s not necessarily true for the medium.

What do I mean?

The media is text, audio, and video. The medium is print, radio, and television.

This is why the internet it the ascendant medium. I can reliably report in all three forms of media – text, audio, and video. You don’t need your print newspaper to read the news – you can read it on the internet. You don’t need your radio to hear the news – you can listen to “radio stations” on the internet. You don’t need your television to watch the news – you can view it on the internet.

If these three forms of media represent three dimensions, what is the fourth dimension offered by the internet?

You just experienced it.

What’s beyond this fourth dimension?

Keep engaged and stay tuned.

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