What Are Causing the Media Environment to Change?

Earlier: The Greatest Change in the History of Media

Let’s be frank about the media industries. Most of its executives don’t care a hoot about exactly what is causing the tumultuous changes in their business environment. What they want, almost regardless of the problems, are solutions that can propel their careers and businesses into profits. They’re like recreational surfers: they just want someone to tell them where the good waves are rather than them spending time learning ocean hydrodynamics. Indeed, if the majority of media executives care at all about what’s causing the gargantuan changes in their business environment, they’ll look at the proximate, not the ultimate, causes of those changes.

Yet champion surfers know to look beyond the proximate and understand the ultimate causes of waves. Although they know that finding great waves is the most practical and proximate of their needs, they can reliably find those waves only if they understand the ultimate causation. I’ll thus detail in the next chapter the proximate and practical causes of the gargantuan change underway in the media environment, but first let’s examine what ultimately are causing all of it to happen.

When differentiating between the proximate and ultimate, I ask my graduate students what caused the destruction during the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami or the 2010 Japanese tsunami. Most answer a great wave of water. That indeed is the proximate causation of the destruction. However, the ultimate causation was the undersea earthquake that causes the great wave.


At various times in human history, scientific or technological breakthroughs have caused seismic changes in civilizations and humans’ lives. Discovery of how to make fire was the first. Discovery of agriculture was the second. A third discovery, metallurgy, immeasurably increased the power of humanity’s tools and weapons. The invention of writing allowed knowledge to be recorded beyond what could be passed down through oral history. The invention of the telescope 400 years ago led to knowledge that humanity isn’t the center of the universe, a discovery which had huge repercussions on religion, philosophy, and polity. In 1776, mechanical engineer James Watt’s invention of the motor fomented the Industrial Revolution, transforming civilization in ways still occurring. Most people today know that an invention several decades ago is now reshaping people’s lives, livelihoods, societies, politics, knowledge, and all else that preceded it. During the late 1950’s, electrical engineers Jack Kilby and Philip Noyce invented the integrated circuit (commonly known now as the ‘semiconductor’ or ‘microchip’) upon which technology all of today’s computers and microelectronics is based.

Hardly anyone who works in media today doesn’t know that offices, homes, vehicles, phones, and myriad other devices and even appliances are being revolutionized or ‘disrupted’ by computerization. Many have notice or heard that these changes are accelerating. Some hope it will stop. Yet few truly understand that whatever they might have so far seen will pale by comparison to what are going to occur or just how quickly.

This chapter is a primer about that, aimed at people who work in the media industries. The chapter outlines the three dynamics whose combined effects are ‘disrupting’, revolutionizing, and transforming the media environment in ways that are only starting to show. It looks at each of those three ultimate causes of the changes underway and briefly examines the three causes’ combined effects.

The ultimate formulation is simple: the ever-accelerating interactions of Moore’s Law, Cooper’s Law, and Butters’ Law ultimately cause the gargantuan changes underway in the media environment. Moreover, changes in the media environment are merely side effects of those principles’ more comprehensive effects on the world.

Despite their nomenclature, Moore’s, Cooper’s, and Butters’ laws aren’t legislation but principles based upon empirical observations about advanced technologies.  Moore’s Law concerns the advancements and expense of computer processing power; Cooper’s Law describes the advancements and capabilities of wireless communications; and Butter’s Law focuses on photonics, the communication of information through optical fiber cables.  These three principles are similar (indeed, the latter two were prompted by the first). The laws’ rippling interactions are transfiguring most of the world’s other industries, and even governments, societies, and civilization itself.

Examine these three ‘laws’, their dynamic interactions and effects on media, plus some corollary ‘macro-effects’:

Moore’s Law

Moore’s Law is named for physicist Gordon Moore, co-founder of the Intel Corporation, who knows that the more transistors a computer chip contains, the more computation power it has, the more calculations it can make, and the more problems it can solve. In 1965, Moore noticed that the sheer numbers of transistors that manufacturers were able to miniaturize, and for the same cost were able to place on a chip, had been doubling approximately every 18 to 24 months. All of which means the power of new computer chips effectively doubles every 18 to 24 months or, looked at another way, the cost of computing power halves in that time. His published observation of that dynamic became known as Moore’s Law.

Gordon Moore (1960's)
Gordon Moore (1960’s)

His observation proved prescient. Moore’s Law has held true for more than 50 years. A state-of-the-art computer chip in 1965 contained hundreds of transistors. Such a chip today contains several billion.

During this past ten years, the accelerating advance of what Moore observed has been nearing some theoretical limitations of physics–namely that a transistor cannot be manufactured smaller than a molecule, yet most computer scientists believe that Moore’s Law will continue apace at least through the remainder of this decade. And if quantum computing, which doesn’t utilize transistors and operates at the subatomic level, proves practical, Moore Law will profoundly accelerate rather than slow or stop. (Quantum computers are hugely difficult to manufacture. Current ones are as primitive as the first electronic computers were in the mid-1940’s. However, the first commercially available quantum computer has apparently been developed by a Canadian firm, which has a U.S. defense contractor as its initial customer. Google purchased one in the spring of 2013.)

Many media executives can’t fathom what the sheer numbers of transistors on a computer chip can do to their business. They ask, isn’t Moore’s Law something that affects only the computer industry or computer retailers? I tell them the more transistors that can be placed on a computer chip, the more replacements there will be for traditional media products, applications, and practices, in turn creating ever-accelerating disruptive effects on traditional industries. Woe to any industry or company that doesn’t adapt quickly before the acceleration of these changes overwhelm it. For some, it’s already too late. Publishers frequently ask me, “When is all this change going to stop?” The answer is, baring catastrophic war or economic collapse, it isn’t.

If you think Moore’s Law hasn’t had any effect on your life, then look at the disruptive effects of the world’s most commonplace computerized devices—the personal computer. Look at how Moore’s Law has accelerated what they can do (I’ll generalize a bit here but won’t be far off the historical mark):

  • The personal computer was invented during the 1970’s. One of its earliest applications was to replace the typewriters. When combined with an electronic printer, a personal computer can do everything that a typewriter could, but better and faster.
  • Then as Moore’s Law progressed during the subsequent 18 to 24 months, new personal computers became twice as powerful without costing more, and likewise their capabilities doubled: besides as a replacement for the typewriter, personal computers replaced manually calculated accounting spreadsheets. A personal computer can calculate and update spreadsheets far more quickly and accurately than accountants can with ink with paper.
  • As another 18 to 24 months progressed (a total of 36 to 48 months from the personal computer’s invention) and two more new capabilities or applications were developed –for the sake of brevity, let’s not list those here, bringing the total to four.

And so the geometric progression of new applications and capabilities of personal computers, mainly replacing traditional devices or practices, began to climb:

  • By 54 to 72 months (six years after the personal computers’ inventions), the overall number of new capabilities and applications grew to eight.
  • After 72 to 96 months (six to eight years), to 16.
  • After 90 to 120 months (ten years), 32.
  • By the late 1980’s, 108 to 120 months after personal computers’ invention, there were 64 new capabilities or applications, replacing traditional devices or practices.
  • After ten to 14 years, the number of applications or capabilities for personal computers was in the hundreds.
  • By the 1990’s, 16½ to 22 years after the personal computer’s invention, there were thousands of capabilities and applications for these machines.
  • Today, 30 to 40 years later, there are millions of capabilities and applications for personal computers. Most of these applications have replaced traditional products, practices, or even eliminated types of employment (such as typists).

Moreover, as more and more other devices, conveyances, constructions, and contraptions – such as mobile phone handsets, televisions, automobiles, refrigerators and other kitchen appliances, lighting fixtures, mirrors, and walls, etc. – become equipped with computer chips, the capabilities and applications that have already become established in personal computers are transplanted into those. This is why the relatively new categories of devices known as ‘smartphones’ and tablet computers already have more than half a million applications within only a few tens of months after their own introductions.

Coopers’ Law

If a geometrically increasing number of disruptive effects due to Moore’s Law weren’t enough of a threat to traditional media business models and practices, the two other ‘laws’ creating change compound that challenge almost cubically.

Martin Cooper
Martin Cooper

The acuity of Moore’s observation prompted radio telecommunications scientist Martin Cooper, the inventor of the mobile phone, to notice a similar dynamic in the progression of wireless communications. He observed that the number of wireless signals that can simultaneously be transmitted without interfering with each other has been doubling approximately every 30 months since the early 1900s.

When in 1901 Guglielmo Marconi began wirelessly transmitting (‘broadcasting’) Morse code across the Atlantic, radio technology was so primitive that his signal used a significant fraction of the world’s radio spectrum. Had radio not advanced technologically, today there would be room within the electromagnetic spectrum for no more than eight radio stations in the world.

Yet wireless communications technology has been advancing at the pace Cooper’s observed. The number of radio signals in the world that can today be simultaneously sent without interfering with each other (calculations involving effective signal strength and how finely technology has diced the electromagnetic spectrum) is more than one trillion. If Cooper’s Law continues apace, by 2070 each person on Earth will theoretically be able to use the entire radio spectrum himself without interfering with anyone else’s signals. An infinite answer!

The practical effects of Cooper’s Law are readily observable to people who live in developed nations. It is why a roomful of people can now simultaneously use their mobile phones, Bluetooth headsets, WiFi laptops, etc., without those devices’ signals interfering with one other. There are ever fewer places where mobile phone voice and Internet connections can’t be received and at ever higher speeds.

This steady rise of wireless capabilities also has allowed access and distribution of news, entertainment, advertising, and other information to become truly mobile. Not only are homes and offices now equipped with wireless information access to the Internet, but so are some entire cities and countries (Bahrain, Barbados, Estonia, and Malta have become wireless information fields.) During 2011, a new WiFi standard called WRAN was announced, which is capable from a single antenna of delivering a 22-megabyte per second Internet connection over 12,000 square miles (30,720 sq. km.), an area the size of the country of Taiwan or the U.S. State of Maryland.

Cooper’s Law means that readily obtaining a wireless Internet connection of tens, if not hundreds, of megabytes per second speeds anywhere in the developed world will be the norm by the end of this decade. Wireless Internet access will reach an even larger human population than will have access to electricity. And the very concept of waiting for something to download wirelessly will soon fade away as a practical concern, as will the questions of whether or not a person in those countries can connect wirelessly to ‘cloud-based’ services. (The only barriers that remain won’t be technological but corporate or governmental policies.)

Butters’ Law

The progress of Cooper’s Law won’t make wired communications obsolete. The only thing obsolete about wired communications is the wire. Metal fiber has reached its transmission capacity limits.

An oddity of consumer telecommunications in the second decade of the 21st Century is that so much of it is still carried by copper wires, a technology that has changed little since 1839. Metal wires have communications capabilities that were marvelous when Abraham Lincoln lived, and were still superb back when the Wright Brothers invented the airplane, but had become a constraining technology by the dawn of the Space Age. The simplest form of communications over copper wires, such a telegraphy or telephony, involves changing the voltage over the wire. It works at a reasonable distance but cannot convey more than approximately 34 thousand bits of information (0.034-megabytes) per second. That was an acceptable speed for voice communications with, at best, A.M. radio quality, and within 30 seconds could send the text of an average length book, but wasn’t enough for stereophonic audio or video or for conveying multimedia information quickly.

During the middle of the 20th Century, the television industry began stretching the limits of wired technologies. This industry discovered that the information-carrying capacity of copper wire could be greatly increased by broadcasting radio signals through the wire rather than varying the voltage of the wire. This worked if the copper wire was shielded from outside electromagnetic interference by encasing it in a tube or ‘cable’ of woven aluminum filaments. The industry initially used this cable TV technology for its own internal communications purposes, and during the late 1960’s adapted cable TV technologies (‘CATV’) to deliver television channels directly into people’s homes without antennas, and later adapted the technology to deliver high-speed Internet connections through the same cable. The telephone industry invented a similar delivery technology, the Asymmetric Digital Subscriber Line (ADSL or DSL), that didn’t use the aluminum shielding. CATV and ADSL technologies are capable of delivering hundreds of megabytes of information per second, enough to deliver hundreds of video feeds simultaneously.

However, CATV and ADSL have a range of no more than several kilometers (which is why CATV and ADSL services aren’t available in very rural areas). And even with those transmission speeds, and certainly with that distance limitation, these ‘shielded’ copper wire technologies are no longer capable of sustaining the growth of 21st Century telecommunications’ needs and demands. The era of copper wires is ending.

Photonics, the science of communicating via laser light sent optically through glass fibers, is replacing it. Flexible glass fibers’ don’t have copper fiber’ limits of capacity or distance. For example, physicists recently demonstrated a photonic system capable of delivering the contents of 700 DVD discs in a single second (nearly 3 terabytes or 3 million megabytes per second) an unlimited distance over a fiber optic cable thinner than a human hair.

Those extreme speeds won’t be commercially available in homes or offices for several years, but advancements in photonics are already having effects on the speeds of broadband modems, the numbers of cable TV channels and ‘on-demand’ television programming available in homes, and on the clarity of long-distance telephony. Although relatively few homes are directly connected to fiber optics, most of the world’s telecommunications companies have replaced their own internal cables with optic fibers and are beginning to replace the remaining copper wires that deliver television and telephone services into homes and offices. The European Commission has proposed that all new households in the 27-nation European Union be wired for 100-megabyte per second Internet access by 2020 (the initial minimum proposed is 30-megabyte per second).

Photonics is a relatively new technology compared to wireless communications or computer chip manufacturing, yet its accelerating progress more than compensates for its youth. Gerald Butters, the scientist who formerly headed Lucent’s Optical Networking Group at Bell Labs, calculated that the speed at which information can be communicated through fiber optic circuits has been doubling every nine months, an observation since become known as Butters’ Law.

Butters’ Law means that by late in this decade the time it takes to download or upload a song, a photograph, or a high‑definition movie via a modem connected to fiber optics won’t be perceptible. People now old enough to remember dial-up modems might think that to be incredible, but by the end of this decade at the current pace of Butters’ law all the information currently in the U.S. Library of Congress could be downloaded within a minute.

The ramifications of Butters’ Law’s on 20th Century media industries, such as telephony, broadcasting, and cinema, as well as 21st Century media developments such as holography, augmented or virtual reality (and whatever comes next after those) are mind-boggling.

Interactions of the Three Laws

Much as Moore’s Law inspired Cooper’s and Butters’ laws, the progress of computer chip technology is indeed the root of progress in wireless and photonic communications. The more advanced the chip, the greater the delivery bandwidth and capacity of communications.

However, the same cannot be said about consumers’ usage of computer chips, wireless communications, and photonics. For example, it makes little sense for a consumer to purchase or use the latest smartphone in a country where the fastest wireless access is still 2G or 2.5G (i.e., equivalent to dialup speeds); or to connect a 1980s-era Macintosh Classic computer to a broadband modem. Instead, Moore’s, Cooper’s, and Butters’ laws feed each other’s popular usage: more powerful chips create demand for faster communications, and faster communications create demand for more powerful chips in computers and other computerized devices.

The effects of Moore’s Law have been visible for several decades, the effects of Cooper’s Law for only a few years, and those of Butters’ Law are only beginning to be perceived. Computer chips now power so many of devices in offices and homes and vehicles and appliances, and are so powerful that we can now communicate with them by merely talking rather than punching buttons or typing. These devices, even those in vehicles, can interactively access information wirelessly anywhere in the world, at speeds which in most developed countries can be measured in megabytes per second. In those countries, wired Internet access at speeds of tens of megabytes per second in homes and offices is now affordable for most households. As more and more traditional devices (automobiles, airliners, refrigerators, bicycles, student and teacher desks, bar tops and counter tops, furniture, ski goggles or eyeglasses with heads-up displays, etc.) become not only computerized but connected wirelessly or photonically to the Internet, the interactions of Moore’s, Cooper’s, and Butters’ laws gather ever more momentum.

Cooper’s Law began intersecting with Moore’s when the first Wi-Fi-equipped personal computers gained widespread use, as well as usage Bluetooth. In the years since, wireless capability has enhanced and increased usage of computerized devices and vice versa. When ‘smartphones’ began coming into widespread use, the effects of the laws’ intersection sent a wave a change media and people’s ability to access news, entertainment, and information anywhere.

Most consumers are only now becoming aware of the effects of Butters’ Law. They see telephone companies string fiber optic cables above or under their streets and from there, more and more, into their offices and homes. They are beginning to see fiber optic USB 3.0 cables replace copper wired the USB 1.0 and USB 2.0 cables that connect computerized devices. They see their local CATV system offer increasingly faster broadband Internet access thanks to that system’s own use of fiber optic trunk lines feeding the copper coaxial cable leading into consumers’ home. (It’s largely been those fiber optic trunk lines that have enabled consumers to download and view movies easily on-demand via online services such as Netflix, Hulu, etc.) Although CATV and telephone companies can’t afford to double their systems’ delivery speeds every time Butters’ Law doubles, these companies periodically upgrade to offer the newer speeds. Due to its doubling every nine months, the accelerating effects of Butters’ Law will soon become even more apparent than those of Moore’s and Cooper’s laws.

The interacting effects of Moore’s, Cooper’s, and Butters’ laws have become an ever-accelerating clockwork that is fundamentally changing media, commerce, politics, societies, and civilization. The three laws’ interactions are the ultimate cause of the changes underway.

Let’s now examine what proximate, profound, and practical effects that the interactions of those three laws have wrought in the media environment.

However, if you’d also like to read about some corollary macro-effects which go far beyond just the media industries, continue here.

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