After exploring all sorts of scholarly nuances behind the phrase, “the medium is the message,” Abelson, Ledeen, and Lewis in Blown to Bits bring us to the real: The money isn’t in the medium or the message but whoever brokers access to the bits.
In the opening of Blown to Bits, Abelson, Ledeen, and Lewis state that we’re in the midst of a digital explosion since technology (bits) is intertwined with everything we do. The authors used the 2008 scandal surrounding a former governor of New York to illustrate their point that everything is a bits story, but I couldn’t help but make a more up-to-date comparison in the unfolding bridge-gate saga ensnaring the current New Jersey governor in 2014.
The now infamous traffic jam on the George Washington Bridge in Fort Lee is a bits story too since the smoking gun is an email; an electronic message, which even if deleted, is never, really obliterated (Koan #6) and now that seminal message (retrieved via a redacted Freedom of Information request, which by the way illustrates the examples in Chapter 3 effortlessly) has resulted in firings and subpoenas within the governor’s inner circle.
And, in keeping with the authors’ examples, I illustrated another of their discussion points about bits when I inserted a series of hyperlinks into this blog post. In an effort to pass along information about the bridge scandal, I used two different search engines (Bing and Google) to locate news stories about the New Jersey bridge scandal. Abelson, Ledeen and Lewis devote most of Chapter 4 (Needles in the Haystack) to the rise of the search engines, or in the authors’ phrasing “brokers in the bits bazaar.”
Originally, I read stories and watched videos about the New Jersey bridge-gate scandal in the digital editions of the New York Times, the Washington Post, CNN and MSNBC. I went straight to these various mediums to consume their messages on the unraveling saga, but the bits story doesn’t end there. In fact, it’s just starting, according to Abelson, Ledeen and Lewis, because none of these major media outlets control the ultimate digital access to their information; that power belongs to the information brokers: Google and Bing.
The open market understands that “information access has greater market value than information creation” (p. 158) because whoever controls the search engine has the power to shape what people see in the bits bazaar, which is the reason Google has a market capitalization of $157 billion versus the New York Times’ $3 billion (p. 158).
Once upon a time, such as in the 20th century, reliable information was assigned to such luddite-like information portals as encyclopedias and newspapers of record (the local daily in most places), but nowadays that job mostly resides with search engines and their endless spiders that crawl across the internet collecting and cataloging an assortment of digital information.
However, too many people are forgetting that just like producers of encyclopedias and newspapers, search engines are created by humans who on their best days might be impartial in creating their algorithms to collect information but nonetheless are always subjective in what they allow consumers to see in their aggregated listings (i.e. Google and China). In other words, humans are not bits, even though they have created an insatiable appetite for that search-engine technology with all its risks and opportunities (p. 15).