Fast Forward: Unintended Consequences

I don't know the process most editors of monthly magazines use to write their columns, but I will confess that I normally wait until my copy deadline is imminent, and write about what happens to be on my mind at that time. I know what you're thinking: It usually reads that way. Sorry about that. But this month I'm writing about something that's been on my mind for nearly 30-years, or maybe even my whole life.

I'll just take a moment first to recount two personal anecdotes that shaped my view of media. The first took place when I was a seventh-grade student at Whalen Junior High School in the Bronx (jhs 135 to your city folks). That was back around 1970, and the school had a pretty progressive curriculum, even for those times. Two classes especially. One was called Health Science. The other was called Mass Media. The Health Science course focused on how what we put in our bodies - nutritious foods, junk foods and additives, and environmental chemicals - affected how our physical health. The text for that course was Rachel Carson's Silent Spring. The Mass Media class dealt with how what we put in our minds - or more significantly, in the minds of society - affects how we think of ourselves as people. The text work for that class was Marshall McLuhan. Taking those two classes side-by-side convinced me that the physical health of our bodies and environment and the mental health of our minds and society are both governed by the nutrients and toxins we put in them. That was lesson one.

Lesson two occurred around 1980, when I was in college
studying journalism, and my cousin Greg Weiss, who was studying engineering at Perdue University, came to visit me during a break. Greg told me about this new concept he learned about in one of his engineering classes called "digital media," and he explained how it would change everything about the way we consume media. Suffice to say that the concept blew my mind and made me think that once media went digital, it could truly be anything. And that anything could be media. And that, of course, has been much of the focus of this magazine over the past five years or so.

Usually we focus on the obvious manifestations of this change: How it impacts the consumption of media content and advertising. But as I am constantly learning, it is affecting every facet of our society and in ways I don't believe we fully understand until the effects are long since ingrained, and there isn't anything we could do about it, even if we wanted to. We either have to learn to adapt, or get out of its way before we become disintermediated.
Let me just share one small example of an area where the shift to digital media is transforming the economics of an entire industry: Retail.

It's something we all know implicitly. How many of you use Netflix instead of Blockbuster? But the link between the digitization of media and the forces of economics are far more profound than anything I'd imagined, and it took a recent report from JPMorgan analyst Imran Khan to convince me of that. In the recently released 2009 edition of his annual "Nothing But Net" benchmark study, Khan looks at how the Internet is transforming many aspects of the media industry, but he also shows how it is obliterating the traditional retail industry. The report includes a table listing 19 of the most notable retailers who filed for bankruptcy during 2008 - names like Circuit City, kb Toys, Linens & Things and Sharper Image - and makes the case that the real culprit in their demise is the expansion of broadband penetration, and the ability of online retailers like to provide better selection, convenience, and perhaps most important, price.

I'm not sure what industry will be next to succumb to the digital shift, but I do think it's worth noting that when Khan's team surveyed consumers on what products they'd prefer to buy online, the No. 1 category was, "books, music, video and other media."

1 comment about "Fast Forward: Unintended Consequences".
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  1. Tim Mccormick from McCormick Fields, February 20, 2009 at 4:58 p.m.

    Come--- visit my "way-back machine." Back in the
    70's I too was classed in an eco/media diet program.
    Being so excited about massaging the media and such
    I wanted to write a diet/cookbook with the title "Cooking
    With Kodak". How embarrassing is that? Silver media ruled back then. What will be replacing our current (perhaps primitive) digital media in another thirty+ years? Thanks Joe
    for continuing the eco/media studies in a public media forum.

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