Origins of this book


This book began, a few years ago, in a coffee shop in Palo Alto. Faced with several hours wait before going to the nearby airport of San Francisco I started to write an article, trying to make sense of the economic hurricane that was blowing through the media industry, uprooting established structures and destroying traditional organizations. At that time Northern California, Palo Alto in particular, felt like the eye of the media storm.




Drinking a coffee just off University Avenue I was a few hundred yards from where Google had its first real office, over a bicycle shop, and just as close to the first HQ of Facebook.  The mouse and the internet were pioneered, a short bus ride away, at Menlo Park.  Apple was designing its magic devices down the road at Cupertino. Behind me was the right was the tunnel that led under the rail tracks to the Stanford University campus. For a media professional in the early 21st century it was like being a priest on a trip to the Vatican or a wine drinker visiting Bordeaux.  Unremarkable though it looks (Palo Alto is a prosperous college town) this was the first global hub for digital media.



Why Ascent of Media was written




In the late 1600s the nascent newspaper industry had congregated on London’s Fleet Street because of its proximity to the original book market of St Paul’s churchyard; around 1910 Hollywood had the weather, space and willing work force to make movies; by the 1920s New York was the origin of much early radio broadcasting as it was home the most important paymasters - the advertising agencies. And now Palo Alto had become the place for digital media because it brought together the computer scientists of Stanford University, the technologists of Silicon Valley and the venture capitalists of Sand Hill Road. It was an environment which encouraged the collision of ideas between programming, engineering and finance.

Over more than 3,000 years of development, mediated content has become increasingly important in making society function. It has been a story of constant growth in the amount and range of material available. As society developed, media has taken up more of our time and become an ever larger part of the economy. The recent creative destruction initiated by the web has been just one more, typically disruptive, era in the media story.

The advance of media has not been smooth and the equivalent of the recent dot-com boom and bust has happened many times before. The development of electricity and railways led to the telegraph network in the 1850s which, in turn, laid the ground for the telephone and, ultimately, the internet.  Mass newspapers happened in the 1880s because of a combination of steam presses, automated type-setting, cheap newsprint and advertising.  Photosensitive film, clockwork motors and the new working class audience created cinema around 1910. And the vacuum tube, electromagnetic waves and recorded sound enabled radio in the 1920s. 

Each of these media revolutions produced a frenzy of financial speculation and social change.  Fortunes were made and lost, pre-existing media companies turned upside down.  In all cases the first few years of the new technology created confusion and false starts and gave little indication of the media landscape that would finally emerge.  This time it has been no different.

But now, as we enter the second decade of the 21st century, there is a better understanding of how digital media will fit into the broader picture. Old media formats have suffered disruption but are adapting to the changed conditions. New media are emerging to exploit screen-based, internet-enabled devices.   In 2010 Amazon sold more e-books than hardbacks; film studios were beginning to make money out of streaming; record companies were finding legal solutions for downloading music; newspapers were experimenting with charging for on-line content, Google made record profits and Facebook recruited its 500 millionth member. After the initial chaos a more ordered and re-engineered media industry is taking shape. The technology is in place, the challenge now is to develop the political and economic frameworks to allow creativity to flourish, reward innovation and preserve quality.

In trying to understand all this it became clear to me that looking back at media history provided real insights into its future.  That is why the Palo Alto article became this book. 

Part 1 considers the building blocks of mediated content namely speech, music, images and writing. Part 2 analyses the three forces which have shaped the media: politics, economics and technology and it goes on to describe the people, organizations and events that have defined the sixteen main media types that make up the industry.  Part 3 speculates about the future of media in the context of past experience.

Media are going through a time of great change and are entering one of great opportunity.  This book tells the story of their unstoppable ascent.