W. Russell Neuman is a professor of media technology at the University of Michigan. Formerly, he worked as a senior policy analyst in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. His GEL presentation touched on the true meaning of the digital experience. What follows is a partial transcript of his comments:
I’d like you to take a moment and think about the meaning of the word “digital.” What has digital come to mean? What three or four attributes come to mind? The first thing you think of it that it’s got to be new, and at least in the world of consumer electronics, it’s of higher quality. It may be more expensive, and it may be harder to use. The word “digital” also means “hype,” and we should think about each of these.
All four answers are fundamentally wrong and misinterpreting what’s going on in the world around us. My profession other than the two years I spent at the White House is as a professor. I want to run through the physics and psychophysics of what this all really means. We associate digital with new, but what we’re experiencing is a massive transformation. If digital is ubiquitous and universal, it’s anything but new. What you experience is the transition.
Is there higher quality image and sound? Yes, to a point. We’re getting very close to the threshold of human perception. I did some of the first work on HDTV. 30 feet back, most people couldn’ t really tell the difference. In research, especially in ergonomics, people talk about JND, a just noticeable difference. There is a whole set of characteristics of display that are associated with a higher quality image. The one that takes up the most bandwidth is motion rendition. In audio sound, once you’ve got an accurate rendition of a waveform, but you can’t get any more accurate. Humans can only hear within certain frequencies. You can change that, but only your dog will appreciate it. Sonic range is also limited.
Higher cost is true because something is new. Silicon is sand. Photolithography is printing. Your investment might be large, but once you’re set up, you’re printing on sand. In time, consumer electronics get cheaper and cheaper. Is the stuff harder to use? With a little bit of time and design, we’ll fix the harder to use.
The hype isn’t fundamental. So what’s the real, deep-down character of the digital experience? It’s lower cost. It’s higher quantity. Lowering the cost and increasing the bandwidth means more and more information. That leads to a very tortured economics. But this is the punch line. The audience will get more content through the media at cheaper prices. The middlemen, the Comcasts and Verizons, which are just carriers, will get commoditized. So value migrates upstream. We won’t have branded newspapers and carriers, but we’ll focus more on the creators. Likewise, control will migrate downstream. Now, that’s disintermediation.