See Saw

The opening of the 2006 Winter Olympics was a picture of postmodernism. The athletes pointed still, phone, and video cameras back at the world watching them. It is interesting so many chose to be chroniclers of the moment rather than simply experience the fact they are living history. Yet, as each Olympics offers a time-lapse look at how humans push the boundaries of physical achievement forward—for me embodied in the women's halfpipe snowboarding competitors, who only four years ago barely met TV cameras head on and now soar high above them—they provide similar insight into the way technology and the coverage of the events changes as well.

Philosopher Jean-François Lyotard believed postmodernism represented the culmination of the process of modernity—at the rapid pace of cultural change—to a point where constant change has become the status quo, rendering the very notion of progress obsolete. Lyotard also believed that the rise of computers, telecom, and digital information processing (technologies he calls cybernetics) has transformed the way that knowledge is legitimized. Knowledge was once vetted by what he calls meta-narratives—all-encompassing historical philosophies that defined ethical and political prescriptions for society. In a postmodern world, Lyotard suggests that knowledge derives meaning through much smaller contexts—roles like executive, journalist, or athlete. It then derives importance by how well it performs, or enables a person to perform in a particular role. Thus (for better or worse), the value of knowledge is no longer based on abstract principles, but on how effective it is at achieving desired outcomes.

However, like the Olympics, postmodernism isn't all goal-orientation; it can be fun, too. The term postmodern is most often used to describe architecture that rejects the strictures of classical and modernist styles, resulting in whimsical—even silly—structures. In art and literature, postmodern works are often hyper self-reflective, with audience or reader response replacing empirical notions of "meaning": picture an endless series of mirrors reflected in themselves.

When I saw athletes entering Torino's Stadio Olimpico with cameras hoisted high, I wondered if they were filming for personal posterity or if it was a further signal of the fading distinction between the media and the information-seeking public—watcher and watched, reader and read. Who better to cover the Olympics than the Olympians themselves? Then again, we rarely have insightful perspective about our own actions; self-reflection is so often self-indulgent. (Yes, female snowboarder chatting on the phone during the parade of participants, I'm talking about you.)

The same can be said about B2B coverage or industry trade shows, where vendors sometimes position the industry as a reflection of their products rather than vice versa. McGraw-Hill's recent Media Summit was peopled by a Who's-Who of media—with bigwigs from Fox, Disney, ABC, NBC, and MTV in attendance. Given McGraw-Hill's allegiance with Digital Hollywood, it isn't a surprise that entertainment media powerhouses dominated the event. But collecting the most important players doesn't guarantee a good game. It is an inherently flawed concept to have a conference about the media with sessions dominated by the media. Still, I saw glimmers of an industry beginning to accept the consumer-generated realities of the online content marketplace.

One panel, the Piracy Freight Train, seated Fritz E. Attaway, EVP and Washington general counsel of the Motion Picture Association of America, next to Michael Petricone, VP of government relations of the Consumer Electronics Association: content watchdog vs. tech pundit. The juxtaposition of their views offered some amusing scuffles, yet StreamCast CEO Michael Weiss (also of Morpheus infamy) proffered one of the most astute observations about the content business today: "The real challenge is how to turn downloaders into buyers." Several panelists made promising comments: Marty Lafferty, CEO of the Distributed Computing Industry Association, got a dreamy look in his eye when he said, "If you look at the numbers of pirates and conceive of monetizing them . . ." while Petricone added, "Downloaders can be your best customers." Yet again, Weiss summed it up beautifully: "Consumers will dictate the business model."

Weiss alluded to a trend that arose in other sessions and vendor conversations: the emergence of legitimized P2P networks. Content providers are working with their former nemeses, P2P companies, to build business models. "One of the things we all appreciated about the old Napster was that you could find anything," said Atri Chatterjee, marketing VP of Mercora, which has partnered with former outlaw P2P brand Grokster. "Now you have to do this in a copyright-compliant way." His company provides an old-school, peer-based music discovery universe without the piracy by using a radio model (listen but don't record; labels receive royalties as in terrestrial radio) within a closed P2P environment, in which rights can be rigorously managed.

Ian Blaine, CEO of thePlatform, said he can envision "a day when user-generated content reemerges as traditional media." And according to Lafferty, "consumers are outpacing both the entertainment and technology industries and we are just trying to keep up." The customer continues to push the boundaries of what is expected from the media and even the definition of media itself. We need to see the future of media reflected in the eyes of its consumers.