BROOKE GLADSTONE:: A headline in the current issue of Wired magazine poses the question, "Who's afraid of Google?" The answer? Everyone. Video, e-commerce, software, telecommunications - wherever media and technology intersect, Google wants to be there. It's the interconnected future of our media, our economy and our democracy. But is that what we want? The total omnigooglization - as the French have called it - of our lives? Imagine the future 10 years from now, and the answer's unclear. [FILM CLIP]
MATT THOMPSON:: It is the best of times. It is the worst of times. In the year 2014, people have access to a breadth and depth of information unimaginable in an earlier age. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER] Everyone contributes in some way. Everyone participates to create a living, breathing mediascape. However, the press as you know it has ceased to exist. The Fourth Estate's fortunes have waned. Twentieth-century news organizations are an afterthought, a lonely remnant of a not-too-distant past. [END FILM CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE:: The voice you hear is that of Matt Thompson, who a year ago co-created an eight-minute Internet movie called Epic 2014, which lays out in chronological detail some important Internet developments to date and then imagines a future media landscape dominated by a single, and at least, for now, fictional company called Googlezon. Matt Thompson joins me now. Matt, welcome to On the Media.
MATT THOMPSON:: Thank you very much, Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:: So you created this movie while working at the Poynter Institute for Journalism. Where did the idea come from?
MATT THOMPSON:: It was me and my friend, Robin - Robin, who was also working at the Poynter Institute. We took a weekend, went to Miami and he happened to bring along this speech from the CEO of the New York Times Digital, a kind of opaque, meandering speech. And we're going back and forth on what Martin Nisenholtz, the CEO, actually meant. And in the course of that discussion, we ended up coming up with this idea for what if news looked like this?
BROOKE GLADSTONE:: And you created a PowerPoint presentation for lectures. And then what happened?
MATT THOMPSON:: Our audience then was mostly journalists, journalism professors, folks interested in journalism. And more than anything, we wanted to get people thinking about a really different model for what news could look like in the future. And at first when we were presenting this, journalists were getting scared but they weren't really taking it very far beyond that. So we mixed the presentation up a little bit and decided to present it as though this future that we imagined had already happened. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER] [FILM CLIP]
MATT THOMPSON:: Today in 2014, the New York Times has gone offline. In feeble protest to Googlezon's hegemony, the Times has become a print-only newsletter for the elite and the elderly. [END FILM CLIP]
MATT THOMPSON:: That definitely changed the dynamics of the discussion a little bit.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:: [LAUGHS]
MATT THOMPSON:: They stopped getting just scared and they actually started to think up solutions.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:: But then it started filtering out well beyond the journalistic community into the wider world. It became a kind of viral Internet phenomenon. You must have been hearing from everyone.
MATT THOMPSON:: A few months after Robin and I both left Poynter, we just kind of released the thing on to the Internet, thinking, hey, a few journalists will pick it up and enjoy it. But it turned out to draw a lot of interest from not just journalists but Australian medical professionals and software experts and people from privacy fields, people who were concerned about democracy in general. All of them found some sort of a hook to it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:: Well, let's get into the nuts and bolts of the movie. You begin with a kind of short history of the Internet and its major players. Specifically you talk about Google, Amazon, TiVo and Friendster. Could you take them one at a time and briefly explain what it is all of these individual companies' technologies bring to the table?
MATT THOMPSON:: We used Google mostly because of their search technology, and then, for Amazon, the idea that people's recommendations could power a marketplace. We pulled in TiVo partially because of a statistic we heard, that almost every person that uses TiVo ends up being won over by it. And Friendster was really the social networking component of it. [FILM CLIP]
MATT THOMPSON:: 2007. Microsoft responds to Google's mounting challenge with Newsbotster, a social news network and participatory journalism platform. Newsbotster ranks and sorts news based on what each user's friends and colleagues are reading and viewing, and it allows everyone to comment on what they see. [END FILM CLIP]
MATT THOMPSON:: That social networking layer we imagined doesn't really exist anywhere in news yet, and could have a really potent place.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:: Newsbotster combines all these evolving technologies and that sets the stage for the big imagined merger in 2008 of Google and Amazon.
MATT THOMPSON:: Two companies that have been very prescient in how the Web has worked. More than anything, honestly, the idea of Googlezon as a name probably [LAUGHS] spurred us on - [OVERTALK] [LAUGHTER] - as much as anything else.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:: And under the Googlezon scenario, you imagine that news is gathered and disseminated almost entirely by computer, which, of course, Google News does now.
MATT THOMPSON:: We did kind of leave in a human element. We did talk about a generation of freelance editors springing up, filtering the content to the tastes of their particular audience.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:: But I guess not enough of a human element to stave off what you call the "News Wars of 2010."
MATT THOMPSON:: We really intended to tell journalists, "Look, Microsoft, Google, Amazon, all of these companies are playing in the same space that news organizations are. And if it's not until 2010 that we really began realizing that, then we're out of luck." [FILM CLIP] [MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
MATT THOMPSON:: The News Wars of 2010 are notable for the fact that no actual news organizations take part. Googlezon finally checkmates Microsoft with features the software giant cannot match. Using a new algorithm, Googlezon's computers construct new stories dynamically, stripping sentences and facts from all content sources and recombining them. The computer writes a new story for every user. [END FILM CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE:: It's the fact-stripping robots that work for Googlezon that prompt the New York Times to sue the company in 2014, according to your scenario.
MATT THOMPSON:: [LAUGHS] Yes. Ultimately, as I imagine it, one of the arguments that Google's lawyers end up making is that what Google is doing is essentially equivalent to what the New York Times does with its sources when it goes out and collects an interview. It's taking information that they freely provide and remixing it and compiling it into a news report. Google is merely taking this information that the New York Times makes publicly available and remixing it, compiling it into another news report.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:: The movie culminates with the creation of something called EPIC. It doesn't sound like a good outcome for journalism.
MATT THOMPSON:: Part of the thing about EPIC is it describes a world that in many ways already exists. [FILM CLIP] [MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
MATT THOMPSON:: EPIC produces a custom contents package for each user, using his choices, his consumption habits, his interests, his demographics, his social network - to shape the product. [END FILM CLIP]
MATT THOMPSON:: If we're talking about a news product that's completely customized to our tastes and preferences, that's already what I have as my news product every day. The first place I go when I turn on my computer is to bloglines.com, where I pull in feeds from all the blogs that I've chosen. And what I've found is that my little news universe that I've made for myself ends up actually being more diverse, covering a broader variety of topics than generally my local newspaper does. [FILM CLIP] [MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
MATT THOMPSON:: At its best, edited for the savviest readers, EPIC is a summary of the world - deeper, broader and more nuanced than anything ever available before - but at its worst, and for too many, EPIC is merely a collection of trivia, much of it untrue, all of it narrow, shallow and sensational. [END FILM CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE:: It sounds to me like you're standing on the fence on whether you think EPIC is a good thing or a bad thing.
MATT THOMPSON:: Definitely. I think Robin and I are both ambivalent about it. It is, like we say at the beginning of the presentation, the best of times and the worst of times.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:: Matt, thank you very much.
MATT THOMPSON:: Thank you, Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:: Matt Thompson is a deputy editor of interactive media for that old dinosaur, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
BOB GARFIELD:: That's it for this week's show. On the Media was produced by Megan Ryan, Tony Field, Jamie York and Mike Vuolo and edited - by Brooke. Dylan Keefe is our technical director and, and this week Rob Christiansen our engineer. We had help from Katie Holt and Kevin Schlottmann. Our webmaster is Amy Pearl.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:: Katya Rogers is our senior producer and John Keefe our executive producer. Bassist/composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. This is On the Media, from WNYC. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD:: And I'm Bob Garfield. (MUSIC TAG) (FUNDING CREDITS)