Ten Reasons the 99% Should Care About Internet Television

Vision for an iTV Remote: Tablets, laptops, and smartphones turn into TV remotes. Manage thousands of your favorite specialty videos and channels, all from your lap. Each viewer has their own second screen, for social viewing, chat, feedback, ratings, rankings, suggesting what to watch next, games, etc. A serious entertainment and education platform. (Artist: M. Rojas, Fizbit.com)

Big cable and telco companies, in bed with captured legislatures, are actively slowing down the arrival of iTV in the US, Australia, and several other industrialized countries dominated by Big Media today. These deviants are trying to keep our internet bandwidth below 100Mbps for as long as they can, because around that number, TV-quality internet streaming video platforms can emerge, platforms with millions of channels, and which use much more clever and lower cost methods (highly personalized and localized commercials, subscriptions, micropayments, AdSense, etc.) of monetizing custom video content. iTV will take away Big Media’s monopoly of the living room screen, and will massively fractionate their TV advertising market. It will also create an environment that will support hundreds of thousands of new, independent, full-time specialty video producers, remixers, and commentators, and facilitate massive new entertainment and nonfiction (education, documentary, civic engagement) video subculture emergence. This is something the 99% can get very excited about.

Unfortunately, US consumers so far have been slow to adopt any form of “lean forward” television, where they have to occasionally lean forward in their chairs to search for content using the keyboard. Google TV adoption, for example, even though it is a relatively inexpensive move away from the closed telco set-top box,  has been a lot slower than some expected. Logitech lost $100M on their Revue box for Google TV in 2010, and have announced they’ll be pulling out. They made far too many of them, and learned that the consumer is far less interested in messing with yet another incrementally useful household gadget than they anticipated. I really like my Revue, it has served us well all year, and Logitech could have built some good will by serving its small customer base a lot better this year, and teaming up with Best Buy or another electronics retailer to work out installation deals to get them into more houses. But I’m in that 3% of Americans (and rapidly rising) who watch TV shows online but don’t have cable, often on principle. Had Logitech focused on us, the best market for Google TV at present, they’d have found a willing audience. No matter, LG Electronics and other hardware makers will step in for the next version of Google TV, which will only get better faster, now that a new Apple TV is in the works for 2012. Consumers are waiting for better “lean back” experiences, where the platform will automagically decide what they are interested in, and feed it to them, and they can occasionally give feedback to it, preferably by voice. They’re waiting for Xbox and Apple to wow them with something totally simple and easy to use. This will happen, but it will also be something that is quite closed. Not as bad as the cable companies present offerings, but not nearly as open as the web. What we can continue to expect from the big corps, excepting the few, like Google, whose business model revolves around openness, will be more bread and circuses, while the media plutocrats keep the system rigged in their favor, and the little guy keeps getting shut out of the living room video marketplace, and 21st century social diversity, specialization, collective intelligence, and democracy continue to suffer.

How do we help the tech literate, discriminating consumer, the 20% who are opinion leaders, see that the current Big Media-run TV universe, with $60B of annual TV advertising in the US alone, and endlessly repetitive ads for far too many crappy products, is going to inevitably be remade into something that is far more customized and relevant to each of us? How do we get them to see the value of TVs that have both amazing lean forward features (even if only occasionally used) and very intelligent lean back features, and that are truly open video marketplaces? How do we accelerate the irreversible developmental move to a platform where lots of money flows not only to studios, but also to hundreds of thousands of small company specialty video producers, and where ads become so diverse and specialized and local and context sensitive that they aren’t ads, but education? Once the bandwidth arrives, I expect (and hope) that better and far more open iTV platforms will be built, and people, starting with the youth, will migrate to them in droves. Big Media will likely still get 80% of the revenue, and provide 20% of the “fat head” of the distribution. But we’ll also have lots of Little Media, getting 20% of the revenue, and delivering 80% of the variety, the “long tail” of diversity on the video web.  And we’ll have a different kind of Big Media, corps that have adapted to a more service-oriented model, or died.  The world will be a much smarter (and more entertaining) place.

Here are ten reasons to get excited about the near future (circa 2020?) promise of iTV. In the meantime, I hope they help you become an early adopter of the most open access, true internet television you can get:

  1. 1 million+ specialty video channels on your TV. A worthy video platform for a 21st century democracy.
  2. Americans spend half their free time watching TV. They need much better and more specialized news, entertainment, and education.
  3. We all need the ability to like, dislike, and ban any types of ads that come into our home that we don’t want. Only ads you care about will be allowed into your home. Finally.
  4. Our tablets, smartphones, and laptops will become our iTV remotes, and our game controllers for amazing new iTV games.
  5. Social viewing, chat, and collaboratively filtered recommendations will be central to the best open platforms. Facebook, Google+, Twitter, etc. will help us find good content.
  6. We need user-customized commercials, with half-muting, or full muting with captions, of whatever duration we want (10, 12, 18 mins per hour, etc.). Watch more commercials, you automatically get access to more expensive, ad-supported content. Want to watch less ads? Pay a channel subscription, or micropayments for premium video.
  7. Realtime customized captions & sidebars. Never again watch news, or politician’s harangues, without great social commentary and analysis running in realtime in the side bar.
  8. Open source video licenses on video content will bring peer-to-peer, mashup culture to video, and greatly improve video content.
  9. If copyright holders offer a rental license to anyone, they must also offer a remix license, priced no higher than the rental license. This is law in some states, based on the editing licenses that Hollywood sells for edited versions of movies that play on TV, in airplanes, etc. This needs to become federal law, to empower global remix and editing culture.
  10. It’s time for a hundred competing specialty channels of [your interest here] TV!
Action Items: Share this post around, if you agree with it. Critique/improve it where you don’t. Be an early and preferential adopter of Google TV, Boxee, (Amazon?) and any of the most open, most citizen-empowering video platforms to come, run by companies or startups that are the most dedicated to open web access and open media empowerment. Choose these over XBox, Apple TV, and other more closed, yet often prettier platforms, both now and in their better versions to come. Use BitTorrent, BinTube, or other peer to peer video sharing solutions aggressively, to force big telcos and cable to upgrade their crappy networks. Push digital pigs through their tiny pipes. Seed and share open source and creative commons video content. Donate to and support the Open Video Alliance, openvideoalliance.org

For more, see my:

• 20 min video, The Television Will Be Revolutionized, TEDx Del Mar, 2010.

• 2-page summary, How the Television Will be Revolutionized, Accelerating.org

• 4-page article, Tomorrow’s Interactive Television, The Futurist, Nov-Dec 2010

• 48-page whitepaper, How The Television Will be Revolutionized, 2010.

  Thoughts? Comments? Let me know, thanks. [tweetmeme source=”johnmsmart” only_single=false]

BBC Doc: People’s Century, Ep 7, Breadline – The Great Depression, Fascism and Full Employment

Today I’m watching episode seven of People’s Century*, 1995, the amazing 26 part BBC series, 54 minutes each, that chronicles our entire 20th Century. I now realize it is likely to be the most impressive documentary series I’ve seen so far, so I’ve decided to selectively blog some of the insights it provides.

I hope that you will consider watching all 26 episodes for yourself at some point in your life, and showing it to and discussing it with your children. It is a singular experience. If it stays as good as it has been to date, I think it should be part of the core curriculum in every enlightened high school or college. The critical thing documentaries with this kind of scope in time (100 years), and breadth in subject (the whole world) provide is what computer scientist David Gelernter calls topsight, the ability to see and understand the whole of a system, from a vantage point that allows you to see an unusually large amount of it, in its essentials. People’s Century, at least the episodes I’ve seen so far, will give you unparalleled topsight into the nature of human life, the perennial opportunities and challenges of civilization, and our relentless and uplifting history of accelerating scientific, technical, and social complexification.

This episode is about the Great Depression. The greatest lesson I got from this is how simplistic and intransigent our capitalist governments of the time (Ramsay MacDonald in the UK, Herbert Hoover in the US) were, and how little they understood that only governments in modern market economies have the unique ability and responsibility to intervene in the business cycle, to make the inevitable bubbles shorter, and the inevitable crashes milder. Most importantly, their governments needed to save and spend countercyclically, as the economist John Maynard Keynes would eventually argue, as one of the foundational ideas of what we now call Keynesian economics.

In a depression, when no one in the business sector has money to spend (or is willing to spend, as with our big corps today), the government needs to keep shoes on everyones feet, keep the mines and the shipyards running, and do its best to create or subsidize jobs for the 20-40% of people who are forced out of work by the market system’s natural volatility, and by the increasingly rapid (yet increasingly short lived) waves of technological advance causing technological unemployment.  In a boom, the government needs to save while the businesses and consumers are spending more than they should, so the country won’t incur huge debts during the crash, by printing money none of us have. Our politicians since Hoover, with rare exception, don’t seem to have learned that second part of the cycle.

At least in this Great Recession many have unemployment insurance, health care, and we are seeing major fiscal interventions. In the US, the majority of our new weapons against unemployment truly can be traced back to the insights and convictions of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his canny request in 1933 for and acquisition of executive powers to rival his powers under war, so that he could engage in a war on unemployment through his New Deal. Yet with all the advances we’ve made since the 1930’s, these films make clear how poor our policies remain relative to their potential.

It was fascinating to learn in the film that Sweden’s Social Democratic Government was actually the first of the advanced democracies to offer a New Deal style intervention against unemployment, not the US. Using major debt-incursion by the state, and serious public work projects for all, they’d largely recovered by 1934, while every other country was still in high unemployment. An American journalist, Marquis Childs, wrote Sweden: The Middle Way, in 1936. Roosevelt was excited by this book (see his quote at the book link), and sent a team to study Sweden’s cooperatives, businesses owned by their users for mutual benefit. I would love to know how much Roosevelt’s New Deal was influenced by the Swedish Social Democrats programs of intensive public intervention, which started when they came to majority power in 1932, a year before Roosevelt in the US. What is clear is that the Social Democrat’s Minister of Finance, Ernst Wigforss, is often credited with inventing and implementing Keynesian economics before Keynes.  Here’s a crazy Wikipedia quote: “John Kenneth Galbraith writes in his book A History of Economics: The Past as the Present, 1991, that it “would be more fair to say ‘The Swedish Economic Revolution’ than the ‘Keynesian revolution’ in economics, and that Wigforss was first in this transformation of thinking and practice about economy”. Yeah Sweden!

Another of the great ideas in the film was mentioned with respect to one of the megaconstruction projects, I believe it was the Tennessee Valley Authority. The worker noted that they’d had a chance to create three eight-hour shifts or four six-hour shifts to fill their 24-hour construction cycle, and went with the latter to maximize job creation. That’s a 25% sacrifice on the part of the eight hour workers who were instead paid for six hours a day. Imagine if we had a President bold enough to ask folks to voluntarily cut back, for a full year, the hours they are paid to work by 10-25%, in order to create more temporary (year-long) “training jobs” for all those presently out of work. The job-creating workers could spend the unpaid time on themselves or family, or they could use it to help train those getting the temporary training jobs. How many people (3% of us? More?) would gladly take turns, each year of a protracted depression, volunteering make such a sacrifice once they truly understood the hope, self-respect, and industry this action would stimulate for America? How many temporary new jobs could we create with such a scheme, and how soon would the economy grow enough for some of those jobs to become permanent? I don’t hear this kind of thinking from our administration today, and it is a major shame. Folks like that exist, and they should be given the ability to rise to the call, and their actions would shame or inspire a much larger fraction of Americans into helping out in less dramatic ways.

Have you heard of Oswald Mosley? I learned about him watching this episode.  Mosley created and led the British Union of Fascists 1932-40. The BUF flag is left. Look a bit like the Swastika? No surprise, Mosley was inspired by and friends with the Nazis. He left the UK parliament in 1930, when the do-nothing classical capitalist government of the time rejected his plan for any state intervention to create more employment. At the time, Hitler and Mussolini were promising full employment and state intervention in the Depression under Fascism in Germany and Italy. This promise of intervention, of at least doing something to get people employed, seems to have been the primary appeal at the time of the fascists to the common voter. The fascists, for all their unsettling extremism, were at least promising some kind of state intervention, when MacDonald (UK) and Hoover (US) were counseling “belt tightening” and had squat else to offer. This was a great failure of nerve and vision on the part of the capitalists.

The 1920’s was, if you think about it in historical context, the last gasp of the libertarians. Their policies became untenable from this point forward. As much as I appreciate their desire to bring fiscal responsibility to our very irresponsible modern governments, Ron Paul and his ilk today haven’t sufficiently learned the lessons of history. The more complex a social system gets, the more regulation, and the more intelligent regulation, it needs. The Great Depression made it clear we needed some kind of intervention, and fascism got its day because it at least offered serious intervention, when the capitalists were being the cold-hearted and short-sighted bastards they can so often be. Of course, as the lessons of the 1930’s and 40’s taught us, you have to be very careful who gets the keys to the house. I’m looking forward to seeing those in coming episodes.

To bring this post back to the present, I propose our current economic policies, and the messages of our governmental, corporate, and social leaders, fall far short of what history teaches us in at least four major ways:

1. We remain ignorant of defining, measuring, and managing technical productivity, the scientific, technological, and knowledge capital that is the real productivity base and foundation of every modern society. Technical productivity can be defined as all the elements and processes of a society that most directly drive its accelerating complexification, to the best of our current theories of machine and social intelligence. Gross domestic productivity is a very poor proxy for technical productivity. Entertainment, aesthetics, religion/philosophy, philanthropy, defense, and many other aspects of human commerce and activity, for all their many evolutionary benefits, simply do not have the same survival importance to modern society as a complex system as science or engineering, and never will. (If you doubt that large scale defense budgets are less important to society today than ever before, read Steven Pinker’s new masterpiece, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, 2011). Even the financial industry is also not of the same critical importance. Wall Street could vanish tomorrow and we’d rebuild our financial, credit, and monetary systems quickly, as long as Main Street had sufficient engineers and know how to run all the machines that modern society depends upon. In fact, sometimes debt forgiveness and starting over is the best thing for a financial system that has become too uncompetitive, too biased to reward the few players at the top. Evolution would argue that we need as much diversity and specialization of activity as possible to increase our wisdom and resilience, but development would argue that some products and services are much more important to social resilience and acceleration than others, and we need to recognize this, and do our best to support, subsidize, and advance the social, economic, scientific and technological policies that will accelerate technical productivity.

2. We need much smarter and more aggressive job-creation policies during a recession, some of which, like the job-training idea described above, don’t require extra spending, just some sacrifice, extra mental and physical effort, can-do spirit, and boldness from business, government, and media leaders. Corporations, the state, and the media can do a massive amount to combat unemployment in a recession without going to the unacceptable extremes of state socialism or fascism, methods of creating full employment that may work in the short run but are ultimately unsustainable.

3. This said, we also need to create consequences for spending money we don’t have. Countercyclical spending only works as intended if you’ve done countercyclical saving. Spending money you don’t have can only go on for so long, before the debt you create is worse than not spending. We need to know where that point is, and there need to be serious consequences, including the loss of political office and inability for reelection for those who cross it. We need to revise our governments rulesets so in the future, unless we are in a serious recession, politicians can only spend a bit over what they’ve saved. And if we are in a serious recession, there also need to be severe consequences to the politicians (loss of office, loss of ability to lobby after leaving office) and the wealthy and corporate leaders (new recession taxes imposed) who let us get there.

4. We need to address fifty years of growing corporate and social income and wealth divides. We have to recognize that the corporations and their lobbies fully captured the governments some time near the middle of the 20th century, as their wealth grew far faster than governments because of mass markets, connectivity, and globalization, and we need to take steps to getting corporations back under the control of democracies. Govt reform, tax policy reform, rich poor divides, far better regulation of the financial industry, and many related issues fall under this challenge.

Lots to do, but we can count on accelerating technical productivity delivering an ever more capable human civilization to empower our reform efforts as well. If accelerating complexification is a universal developmental process, as I think it is, then the acceleration will continue whether we grow wise enough to recognize and actively guide it, or not. It will continue whether we grow humble enough to recognize the laws of the universe seem to be doing most of the work, and we just need to stop getting in the way so much with our short term and selfish desires, or not.

*Finding People’s Century online isn’t easy at present. Episode 2, Killing Fields (WW I) is available free, if you have Amazon Prime, on Amazon Instant Video. A few more can be found online here. For now, to see all 26 you will have to go to the torrent or usenet sites (use an anonymizer of some type so your ISP doesn’t throttle your connection), or buy a VHS copy ($99 for the series) off Amazon or eBay. DVDs don’t appear to be available at any price. As I’ve written in How the Television Will be Revolutionized, until good educational video that is reasonably priced for middle classes (in every society) emerges, we should have no qualms going to the internet for them, and recommending others to do the same.

Objections? Additions? Omissions? Let me know. Hope you can find time to watch the series, it’s amazing.

The Buffett Deficit Amendment – A Great Idea, Worth Doing When We Can

You probably know Warren Buffett’s excellent idea, now being pushed as the Buffet Rule tax plan by our current administration, to reinstate a more progressive income tax for ultrawealthy Americans. From 1936-1963 we had a top income tax rate of 80-90%, and a truly redistributive capitalist society. Deviant lobbies for the ultra-rich have dismantled this Depression-era wisdom since, and our society has paid the price of a growing rich-poor divide since 1972. If you haven’t read Buffett’s August NYT op-ed, Stop Coddling the Super-Rich, it’s worth five minutes.

You may not know that Buffett gave us another great idea in July, when he made a humorous comment during an interview that we could penalize all sitting members of congress with ineligibility for reelection whenever the US deficit exceeds three percent of GDP. Buffett’s comment may have been in jest, but some see a serious idea at its core. Congress would never vote themselves such a penalty of course, but in the age of the internet, direct democracy could allow something like this to eventually happen, and it may just be the medicine the patient needs.

An attorney, Jarrad Holst, pointed out that this deficit responsibility rule could eventually be enacted via a constitutional amendment, what we can call the Buffett Deficit Amendment, if a Convention for Proposing Amendments was called for by 2/3 of the states and if the amendment was then ratified by 3/4 of the states. If our state legislators in turn are elected largely by online campaigns, and their behaviors tracked online with respect to their campaign pledges, a world we can all work toward in coming years, we’d have the tools to get this done.

After a majorly fiscally unsound term, we’d probably want to retire just a majority or supermajority (say, 1/2 to 2/3) of congresspersons in each party, randomly chosen, with the rest remaining, so that some institutional memory is preserved. The best number is a detail the game theorists and behavioral psychologists could debate. I’m also not sure if a 3% deficit is the right number to use, but it looks close, on first approximation. As you can see from the chart below, showing our federal deficit since 1900, in addition to our current congress we’d have fired two thirds of the congress of the late 1910’s, the WWII congress, Reagan’s congress, and Bush II’s congress. With this improvement to our constitution, the big spenders and false conservatives in each era would be exposed. While any congress could overspend any time they felt it necessary for the nation, they’d also face real consequences, the way the rest of us always do. They’d have skin in the game again. Political reform is all about realigning incentives.

US Deficit as a Percent of GDP, 1900-2010

US Deficit as a Percent of GDP, 1900-2010

In order to work as beneficially as we are envisioning it might, this amendment would also require the coexistence of congressional term limits, that great impending reform (see TermLimits.org) that has made halting progress in some state legislatures, but remains blocked in our federal bodies for now. When we limit a congressperson’s term to twelve years, as in the most popular proposals, that aligns them less with special interests, their parties, and extending their own political careers, and more with their own best judgments. Along with campaign finance reform, and an accompanying set of limits on the amount of time one can spend as a lobbyist before or after a political career (8 years seems reasonable there, for a total of 20 years in politics at any level, which really should be enough for any aspiring do gooder or autocrat) more politicians can more easily choose to live the Founder’s ideal of the citizen politician. Twenty years of political service, preceded by academic training or work experience would allow a level of professionalism, but not so much that corruption and cronyism become dominant. Add in a big increase in the representativeness of our democracy in the legislature, via the addition of hundreds more short-term politicians in the House, a reform that Congress can do without any constitutional amendment, and we could even do something about our toxic lobbyist to politician ratio, which is greater than 700 to 1 now (see No Place for Amateurs, Dennis Johnson, 2001) at the Federal level.

If we had the Buffett Deficit Amendment without these accompanying reforms, politicians might never be willing to run deficits, as they would have too much to lose by doing so. That might result in a government too fiscally hamstrung for its own good, as there are times when all of us need income beyond that which we can get via voluntary debt and credit (loans, bonds, etc.). But there also needs to be a cost to coercive borrowing of the state from the public and from the future, and a more rapid renewal of our political base seems to me a particularly simple and natural consequence. In particular, given the increasing frequency of deficits in recent years, and the increasing unaccountability of government, such an amendment seems to me like common sense.

Why do we need to have such a severe consequence? Isn’t deficit spending sometimes good, as it can lead to surpluses later? Yes it is, but as Keynes argued, countercyclical spending is best done from money that has been previously saved for a rainy day. Deficit spending is spending of last resort, spending money that doesn’t exist. And without some break on it, irresponsible voters in once-wealthy nations may increasingly push their politicians into it, until the national debt cripples their future and their standing in the world. We’ve seen this recently in Greece, Spain, Italy, and we are now seeing it in the US.

Let’s conclude with the following anonymous internet saying, commonly misattributed to the 19th century Scottish politician, historian, and democracy critic Alexander Tytler. Ask yourself what else other than bankruptcy and financial disaster (which may well happen to us, if saner heads don’t prevail) would form a systemic check and balance against our runaway debt, if we don’t eventually develop some kind of Deficit Amendment:

“A democracy is always temporary in nature; it simply cannot exist as a permanent form of government. A democracy will continue to exist up until the time that voters discover that they can vote themselves generous gifts from the public treasury. From that moment on, the majority always votes for the candidates who promise the most benefits from the public treasury, with the result that every democracy will finally collapse over loose fiscal policy, [which is] always followed by a dictatorship [of sorts].”

Amen, Mr. Anonymous. If you like this idea, please consider taking five minutes to create an account and vote for the Buffett Deficit Amendment at aGreater.US. This site is a promising early effort at using an online process to uncover and rank bipartisan bills, particularly those with a fiscally conservative, socially liberal focus. The site lists several other potential bipartisan bills, and unfortunately most of them aren’t yet well written or referenced, but they are doing their little part to help the 99% to bring an actionable bipartisan agenda to the 2012 election. I recommend reading the following bills and if you like them, giving them your vote as well. If you find any others there you like, let us know.

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