Thursday, July 02, 2009

Distermediating Media (or Media for Disintermediation)

Likely the term used most often in an unintentionally ironic manner is the word disintermediation. And in the past year or so, it has become among the top buzzwords in use, flung around freely from every pulpit everywhere, typically delivered in a booming, authoritative tone. Disintermediation is what the New Media or Social Media is all about, we are told. Disintermediation takes away the media so that there is nothing -- nothing -- that remains between you and the thing with which you choose to interact. Take this one, for instance:

Social media is a de-institutionalising and disintermediating force. It gets rid of institutionalised functions. This is the lesson from every sector it has touched. In music it has got rid of the music business (and the creation and sharing of music has flourished). In news it is getting rid of the news business (and the creation and sharing of information is flourishing). In government, logically therefore, it will get rid of the government business.
Ye-ep! Social media disintermediates! You read that right! Now how in heck does it manage that? Perhaps in the manner a dog chases its tail or a snake swallows itself?
Web-ons of Mass Disintermediation: Once the world is completely disintermediated, then we shall all be free! Liberte! Egalite! Fraternite! Revolucion! Che! Etc.!
Hey, it happened in Iran, didn't it?

A search on teh google for the term disintermediation came up with 231,000 hits [June 2, 2009; 8:09 am GMT]. Bing, on the other hand, delivered 208,000. The difference of 23,000 disintermediations seems to have gotten intermediated somewhere in the vast search space separating the two search engines. Interestingly, the Wikipedia definition came up first on both lists -- I'm figuring that Wikipedia is the most popular medium of disintermediation out there. [Disintermediate produced 55,000 hits on Google and 18,400 on Bing; disintermediating gave 61,300 and 12,400 on Google and Bing respectively. Wikipedia continued to rule.]

Google! Hey, there's a disintermediary (17,100 Google hits, but only 112 on Bing! Bing! and all the intermediaries crumble to dust), if there was one! Google eliminates everything that stands between you and the information you seek, right? Right?

A discussion of the larger problem with definitions and pronouncements is in order especially because of the currently raging controversy over the book, Free by Wired editor Chris Anderson, sparked off by a none-too-positive New Yorker review by superstar author Malcolm Gladwell and a plagiarism allegation. This controversy is being discussed all over the blogosphere (and is being disintermediated by Wikipedia even as we speak; 286,000 hits for the search string "chris anderson malcolm gladwell free").

The issue is what Anil Dash colorfully calls airport books: these are easy reading fare usually written intelligently and engagingly by brand name authors, and dealing with topics of broad current interest but written in a manner that is appropriate for cocktail party conversations. The material presented usually makes reference to scientific research and pithy, easily remembered (and quotable) conclusions are presented as if with authority; very often the language and phrases from the book quickly enter the general idiom and become part of folklore, accepted without the need for proof. Nevertheless, very often the pronouncements made are quite shallow and don't stand up to intense scrutiny. Cross-questioning by intellects of such stature as my hero Richard Feynman would likely cause the theories and pronouncement to crumble to dust instantaneousy. Indeed, the writers often take advantage of the fact that public memory is short and predictions made in the book are (to the relief of the authors) quickly forgotten, to make way for new ideas and new books (of limited shelf life) that come streaming down the airport aisles. The books, in fact, could be considered at best to be medium to high-brow entertainment, meant to tickle the mind and provoke thought and discussion. Unfortunately, especially due to the authors' reputations (and the extensive references in the books), they are often treated as having the force of real, formal scholarship, and in that sense serve only to muddy public discourse.

Back to the subject, though: I blame popular writers of airport books and similar blogs for having created this very flaky buzz around the idea of disintermediation. Apparently, New and Social Media eliminate the much reviled Middle Man thereby reducing costs, increasing transaction speed, etc. But is this really disintermediation? Let's see,
mediation: coming in the middle
media: something that comes in the middle
How in heaven can media disintermediate? The reality is that there will always be a medium of some sort whenever there are two or more parties involved in a transaction of any kind (physical or informational). Unless some means of effecting transactions is invented that instantaneously generates the required knowledge and information as well as goods and services inside a recipients brain and body respectively -- I don't see that happening anytime soon. So,
Please repeat after me: Media does not, and cannot disintermediate.
What social media are achieving is to replace one kind of medium that has outlived its purpose and now only creates inefficiencies with another sort of medium that seeks to eliminate the extant inefficiencies. It is not at all likely that the New Media will remain the Gold Standard forever -- there will come a time when they too will begin to show their age and will need to be supplanted by entirely new media. The danger of falling in love with the term disintermediation is that the label will become permanently associated with New and Social Media making their introduction and use unchallengeable. They will become the New Holy Cows and anybody challenging their use, even when the media become ineffective or inefficient, will risk inviting public scorn, and quite possibly be denied the space to publicly present their views.

So may I propose a new, more appropriate and relatively neutral term that correctly captures what's going on, i.e., the replacement of one set of media with another set of potentially more effective and efficient media? Well, ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, here it is:
RE-MEDIATION or REMEDIATION
But ... but ... but ... you say, that can't be, this ain't a remedy, that term's already taken, and it means something else. How about,
NEOMEDIATION or NEWMEDIATION
Don't lilke that, eh? Disintermediation rolls off the tongue, with so much gravitas and authority, that one is loath to give it up. Consider, then,
BENEMEDIATION
the bene- prefix meaning "good" in Latin. Or even,
PROMEDIATION
Then,
NOVAMEDIATION
Hey, I think I've got it!
TRANSMEDIATION: you know, as in TRANSformed MEDIATION?
Anyway, dear reader, think up some of your own. But for heaven's sake, please reconsider your indiscriminate employment of the word disintermediation for purposes that have everything to do with mediation.

Thank you!

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