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The Short "Now"

This has been the week in which Compaq merged with Hewlett-Packard and, in a less visible development; Autodesk acquired Media 100’s software, including the widely used Cleaner 5. The common factor here is consolidation — a necessity in economically straightened times, and evidence to some observers that the tech slowdown — indeed, the slowdown in the streaming sector — is continuing. However, it should be mentioned that this has also been the week in which Arbitron released a report indicating that over half of online America has now consumed some kind of streaming media.

Reconciling the significance of these events is not straightforward, since on the face of the evidence they appear to point in opposing directions. The Compaq-HP merger suggests economic weakness, while the Arbitron research suggests that streaming technology is becoming increasingly ubiquitous (which, you would think, should point toward economic strength). If these events were somehow reprocessed as an audio signal, there would be a lot of white noise: A sound engineer would probably say that the signal-to-noise ratio was very low. The signal, in the current market maelstrom, is hard to hear. What we can say is this: Amid the white noise of economic uncertainty, the technology is here, it is being used, and it has a utility that sets it apart from other forms of media delivery.

But to say that the technology is here is not to say much, and saying anything more profound is made complicated by the extraordinary rate at which that technology is changing – a point well made by inventor and engineer Danny Hillis in an interview with BBC News Online on Tuesday. Hillis, one of the pioneers of parallel computing who predicted the invention of the microprocessor, is building a giant clock that, he hopes, will last for 10,000 years. He has bought a limestone mountain in Nevada, where he intends to construct a mechanical device displaying the sun, the moon, the stars, and the calendar date, and inscribed with text in a 1,000 languages. The oldest human artifacts, such as clay pots and baskets, are 10,000 years old, and Hillis believes that his clock could endure for a similar period of time, to be discovered by people in the distant future, as a 21st century equivalent of Stonehenge or the Rosetta Stone.

"I have been very interested in watching how people’s sense of the future has been shrinking," Hillis told the BBC. "Technological change is so rapid that it is hard for people to imagine next year, much less 100 years from now ... We live in a very short ‘now,’ and I think we have really cheated ourselves by doing that."

The "now" is very short, indeed, in the current streaming media industry. The Arbitron finding that half of online Americans have now accessed streaming media may suggest that, someday, the broadband audience will reach a size where webcasting goes mainstream, content companies thrive, and the Internet (or one of its next iterations) emerges as the media delivery system in excelses, as so many technologists expected it would. In terms of the 10 millennia lifespan of Danny Hillis’ clock, that day may in fact be very soon; a matter of a couple of years, perhaps. But because our investor-driven, stock price-sensitive "now" is so desperately short, one could be forgiven for feeling that it’s a long, long way down the road.

Why does Hillis think we’ve cheated ourselves by living in a very short "now"? Hillis thinks that the advent of parallel computing, peer-to-peer network technology, and biotechnology, means that homo sapiens are at a crucial stage of evolution, no less significant than the emergence of DNA, billions of years ago in the primordial soup. Genetic engineering combined with information- and intelligence-sharing through the Internet, is going to allow us to consciously mold and improve our species' destiny.Even if one regards this prediction as utopian — akin to the vision of early 20th century futurists who imagined that robots would eliminate domestic labor — the spirit of his point seems right, and very much applicable to our own industry at this economic moment. Market confidence is born from financial returns in the short term, while the true significance of technological change often becomes apparent only in the long-term. Streaming media companies thus find themselves in the unenviable position of touting technology benefits that become less and less visible as the "now" becomes shorter and shorter.

A short "now" is a moment outside history, prone either to excessive confidence (as in the millennial exuberance of the dot-com heyday) or — in our current instance — gloom. At such a time, evidence of anything real, vital and pulsing with energy and life tends to be rather refreshing. This morning, Microsoft’s PR department issued a statement defending the now-infamous "Monkey Boy" videos, one of which featured a sweaty and breathless Steve Ballmer leaping up and down at a Microsoft company meeting; the other featuring the Microsoft chairman chanting the word "developers." The videos shot down the Spam Backbone at a speed unseen since the "All Your Base Are Belong to Us" phenomenon earlier this year. Within days of dissemination, Monkey Boy was attaining the fame of the Dancing Baby and other online poster children, and had even been re-cut as a funky techno dance mix. "As this video demonstrates, Steve has tremendous passion and enthusiasm for this company and our industry, which consists of millions of software developers from around the world," Microsoft commented in relation to the "developers" clip. "As Steve knows very well and shows in this speech, such developers play an absolutely critical role in creating the magic of software."

Monkey Boy’s ascendance, and many other such viral explosions, occurred spontaneously, outside of the commercial arena, and it is hard to imagine how any commercial entity could have hoped to benefit from the video without risking serious legal assault from Microsoft. However, the success of Monkey Boy serves as a reminder of the powerful and unprecedented characteristics of viral, peer-to-peer media distribution. In a short "now," Monkey Boy will probably be ancient history by the time you read this article, only a few hours after it was written. But Monkey Boy’s architecture, his network DNA – the phenomenon of P2P distribution itself – is one aspect of digital media technology which, beyond the short "now," seems likely to proliferate.

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