Vol.8, No. 7 • July/Aug. 2000
When More is Less
Barbara Quint
Editor, Searcher

Tell me, my beloved readers, have you ever noticed how autobiographical these little musings of mine have become? Month after month, I reveal the events and changes in my life, ostensibly to give a little flesh-and-blood reality to my opinions and predictions, but actually because I’m too cheap to buy a diary. One also recalls the advice of Doctor Johnson, “Only a fool ever wrote for anything but money.”

Well, here comes another tale in the unending saga. You may recall how, in an earlier “Searcher’s Voice,” I proclaimed my goal for the New Year as the “Acquisition of Wisdom” and vowed that the first step on the march toward that goal would be to save the time I wasted watching television. Not that I ever meant to give up watching television (until they invent in situ DNA restructuring that could never occur), but I did intend to stop watching shows I’d already seen.

So how are my New Millennium resolutions coming along? (“What’s it to ya’? Who asked you to poke your nose in?”) Well, as G. K. Chesterton observed in another of his insightful paradoxes, “A thing worth doing is worth doing badly.”

But the other day, a major change occurred in my personal video landscape. I got a call from a telemarketer (ggrrrrr). Before I could deliver one of my icily polite, deadly ripostes and hang up, it turned out the caller represented Adelphia, the new owner of my area’s cable television company. Like most addicts, I have a policy of never alienating a pusher. It turns out the caller wanted me to subscribe to their new digital cable service. “What’s that?” I asked. And what an answer I got!! For only $10-12 more a month, my channel count would jump from 50 or 60 to over 240. My single premium service (HBO) would go from one to 13. The offer even included an upgrade to a second premium service — I chose Showtime — which now covered 18 channels, including six from The Movie Channel, a Showtime subsidiary.

So what did I do? That loud gurgle you hear is my Millennium Resolution journeying to the sea. True to my nature, I immediately ordered the service.

However, the massive array of video alternatives now available to me has had a curious effect. Instead of watching more television, I’m watching less. In fact, for most of the time, my set has become a radio, playing commercial-free music. Did I mention that the digital cable service also incorporates 45 music channels? Everything from “progressive” (whatever that is) to two jazz and two classical stations. Not only do I play music as a background to work, but, more and more, I seem to spend my discretionary time reading books, choosing music channels to match the reading matter (light classical for Regency romances, big band for WWII spy novels, etc.). What I’ll play when the new Harry Potter book arrives from Amazon I don’t know — Atmospheres?, Alternative? Maybe just New Releases.

Why less television? Well, partly because the new digital set-up has one huge problem. It does not, at present, support the same time-shifting features available through the VCR as the old analog system did. One cannot program the VCR to record one channel while watching another channel on the TV. One cannot even program the VCR to change channels. The digital receiver feeds the same images to the VCR as the TV. So, if you want to preprogram the VCR, you have to remember to switch to the appropriate channel before the timer kicks in. If you want to watch something else while the program records, you’d better have another TV handy, one equipped with another digital receiver (“For only a few dollars more…”).

But I have already begun to work through those problems. (Alright, alright, I do have two TVs, two VCRs, and — now — two digital receivers! So, are you happy now? Is there anything else you want to know?! Sheesh!!) The larger problem is the sheer volume of options. One can winnow down the immediate offerings using the “Favorites” function to eliminate channels from quick scanning. In my case, that meant a fond adieu to sporting events (until the NFL starts its season, at least), foreign language services, and most of the virtuous documentary channels. (Do I really need to watch Speedvision, a channel devoted entirely to things going fast, e.g., auto car racing, space shuttles, tractor pulling contests, etc.? Not when I can watch fashion shows on Style or the renaissance of ancient burlesque skits in sitcoms from BBC America.)

But that still leaves masses and masses of programming, all complete with detailed descriptions available from the TV Guide database underlying the service, and only a click away using the “Info” button on the special remote. But even using a menu that divides events by type (movies, sports, etc.), by time and channel, by pay-per-view categories, one simply gets stymied by the sheer volume. It takes 10-15 minutes just to scan the titles of what’s on for the next four hours or what movies will appear on 31 premium channels, three channels for independent art movies (Bravo, Sundance, and International Film Channel), two classical movie stations (Turner Classic Movies and American Movie Classics), not to mention all the made-for-cable and superstation options, as well as regular broadcast channel movies. By the time you find something to watch when you have some time free, it’s already been on for half an hour. If you schedule your time around the database options, you soon come to feel like the television owns your life. (Shaddup!!)

So back to a book and some music. How did I get so virtuous so fast after years of practiced villainy? Nothing exceeds like excess.

Drum Roll, Please.

And that brings us to the true topic of this editorial — finally — a new Quint’s Law: The cure for “wrong” information is more information.
Look around and see if I’m not right. In the e-commerce arena, economists call “perfect information” a key factor in producing a perfect market. In the presence of “perfect information,” people will always get what they want at a price they are willing to pay and never get stung paying more than they should or could. The closer consumers get to “perfect information,” the closer they get to a perfect market. As all we Web shoppers know, price information is widely disseminated in the “e-tail” world, but more and more, so is product quality information, particularly for product categories selling big on the Web such as computer hardware and software. Instead of censoring prices, e.g., setting price controls, market economists would probably prefer to promote the distribution of Consumer Reports or its equivalents in whatever shopping situations might arise.

Already goods offered on the Internet consistently sell at lower prices on average than those bought from traditional stores. Of course, the Internet offers process cost savings for various businesses, but one wonders whether such savings explain the prevalence of lower pricing. After all, the new business start-ups dominating the Net might not have to spend their money on useless brick-and-mortar operations, but they still have to build businesses from scratch and that surely involves expenditures not borne by established firms. No. I expect the difference in prices is better explained by the amount of “perfect information” a consumer can gather in an hour of research on the Web, as compared to an hour of shopping in a mall, and the pressure that improved consumer knowledge puts on the sellers. When e-consumers read predictions by e-commerce gurus about pending price increases, e.g., the demise of “free shipping,” we just snicker up our sleeves and keep on clicking.

And what about the acquisition of “wicked” information — like pornography or private data on individuals? If you try to stop the information from flowing out, then you run into First Amendment censorship issues in the case of the former and perhaps issues concerning the concealment of public records in the latter. So what’s there to do? What about using a strategy of expanded information? For example, if someone uses their institution’s Internet connections, they are free to go where they will — no filters. After all, users are responsible adults. But if some decide to download pornography, that comes up in a public user survey for all and sundry to see. If, like the Duke of Wellington, your motto is “Publish and be damned,” fine. Your choice. On the other hand, mayhap you will follow the advice another has given: “Never do anything you wouldn’t want published on the front page of The New York Times.”

A test of this approach has already occurred. After the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) came out several decades ago, requests for data poured in. Then the feds decided that FOIA requests themselves constituted public records, available for FOIA access. It might be interesting to see how that policy affected the flow of requests. If it narrowed the flow, as I suspect it did, then perhaps we could expand the approach. Anytime someone asks for information on an individual, details on who asked and what they asked for go to the target. If the query is benign or, at least, expected, no problem. If not, at least everyone starts from an even playing field.

Or what about spam? We all hate it, but it’s hard to avoid and still experience the full serendipity of the Net. How do you filter it creatively? What about a “ping” test? I’ve noticed that if you hit the Reply button and tell a spammer to go away, the message almost always gets returned as undeliverable. Notice the spammers don’t like getting what they give. I’d pay extra to an Internet service provider who ran through my incoming e-mail and tested to see when the Reply function wouldn’t work. They could then shove all messages from people who didn’t want a response into a separate folder for me to peruse at my leisure — or trash in one fell swoop. See? More information drives a solution to bad information.

I remember years ago hearing a harrowing tale of two young ladies — both around 19 or 20 years old. One lunchtime they were walking along a downtown street in a major metropolis. Suddenly, to the horror of observers, the wall of a multi-storied building being razed by a demolition crew started to fall outward toward the street instead of inward. The girls were directly in the line of the collapsing masonry. They both looked up and froze for a second. Then, in two smooth, swift movements, the girl closest to the building dived toward it, while her companion jumped straight ahead for a specific location still in direct line with the falling wall. When the dust cleared and the screaming of witnesses died out, both the girls shoved scattered debris off themselves, stood up, and started brushing the dust off their clothes. Apparently, the safest place to be when a wall starts falling is either at the base near the foundation, the choice of the first girl, or in the empty hole where a window used to be, the second girl’s selection. Nonetheless, the natural instinct of most people would have been to run from the danger as fast as possible, an instinct which could have gotten both girls killed. When amazed police officers and abashed construction crew members asked the two prodigies how they knew just what to do, they attributed their crisis skills to regular perusal of a popular WWII television show of the period.

See? Perfect information. And from a television set, too. Nyah!!

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