Welcome to the David Victor Vector Blog

Welcome to the David Victor Vector blog. This is blog that covers religious observances around the world international affairs and global business. This blog describes religious holidays for most major religions as well as raising issues dealing with globalization, international business ethics, cross-cultural business communication and political events affecting business in an integrated world economy. I look forward your discussion and commentary on these articles and subjects. Enjoy!

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Jeff Chester's Digital Destiny: Is It Really All That Bad?

I just finished reading Jeff Chester's  Digital Destiny: New Media and the Future of Democracy. New York: The New Press, 2007. This is supposed to be one of the most important books on media policy. No less a personage than Bill Moyers wrote of it that "Jeff Chester is the Paul Revere of the media revolution. Read this book and you will understand the stakes." http://thenewpress.com/index.php%20option=com_title&task=view_title&metaproductid=1348 
I am aware that Jeff Chester I am aware that Jeff Chester is an important advocate of privacy rights and is well informed on the subject. He is the executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, an organization with the mission  to foster democratic expression and consumer protection in the digital media era.”   You can see the information on the book, including Moyers' remark at http://www.democraticmedia.org/staff  

All of this is to say that I will admit that I probably approached reading the book with a bias in its favor. I was, however, somewhat underwhelmed. While Chester has laudably raised awareness of digital media encroachments (both real and potential) on individual privacy. That said, the question arises as to where customer identification, niche marketing and the of the needs of specific consumer groups crosses into the level of invasion of privacy. On the opening page of the book,  Digital Destiny, Chester starts what could perhaps be best described as a screed on the dangers of having programming that “will be personalized, selected by us with the help of increasingly sophisticated, but largely invisible, technologies that will ‘sense’ or ‘know’ our interests, dislikes, and habits.” (p. xv)

Chester sees this as menacing the use of such data as “the basis of computerized profiles that generate in a flash commercial pitches honed to precisely fit our psychology and behavior.” (Ibid.). While Chester’s observations are accurate, the conclusion that tailored communication is somehow nefarious seems ungrounded. The honing of any communication – whether for a marketing end or otherwise – should take into account the make-up of the audience. Indeed, the most that such communication is “honed to precisely fit our psychology and behavior,” the more effective it is likely to be. The counterargument seems to be that simply because general, untargeted messages are less effective for business communication, they are somehow better for the consumer. Why consumers would prefer messages that were not targeted to their needs is never explained.  Chester’s bias seems to reflect a zero sum game in which someone must win and someone must lose, when the matching of targeted communication from companies to consumers is perhaps better described as a win-win scenario. The company’s commercial pitches give the customer what he or she is most likely to want to receive. The company does not send messages to those unlikely to be interested and the consumers do not have their time wasted with messages of little interest. 

This targeting of markets through digital technologies can be extended to the cross-cultural arena. The sender of communication can best accommodate cross-cultural differences when the recipients themselves identify the points of variation across culture. Without modifying one’s message to adapt to the culture of the message’s recipient is to ignore variation of cultural differences within a broader national setting. This reduces international business communication to – at best-- appeal only to the majority culture or – in a worst case scenario – to assume that one’s own cultural norms would work as effectively in other nations as they would in one’s own. By contrast honing one’s message to cultural and national differences diminishes the risks of stereotyping and embraces individual variations within a broader national cultural setting. In other words, the international communicator (for business or any other field) should attempt to craft messages that actually do (to turn Chester’s derogatory words cited above) “fit our psychology and behavior.” Indeed, that is the goal of this book. 

On the plus side, Jeff Chester argues convincgly that the concentration of media (electronic or otherwise) in the control of an increasingly small number of corporate owners endangers the objectivity, neutrality and freedom of the press. That said, he seems to argue that the outreach to minority audiences for commercial gain is innately condemnable. For example, he writes that

"the cable industry viewed minority programming as a means to an end. Initiatives to serve diverse audiences have been driven by strategies designed to secure the support of politically powerful allies and neutralize potential opposition. That’s one reason why cable industry giant TCI backed the creation of BET, acquired in 2000 by Viacom/CBS. It was also a key factor in why Comcast supported the new African American channel in 2003 called TV One. Many of the channels specifically serving Hispanics and African Americans are primarily controlled by the biggest media companies, including Time Warner, Fox, and NBC. In the controlled world of cable TV, substantive minority programming is off-limits. A proposal by BET that it launch an African American public affairs channel, according to press reports in 2000, was swiftly nixed by the industry.” (p. 166)

What Chester, in his concern about the monetization of the media does not address, though, is that before the advent of large cable networks, virtually all programming excluded minorities in the United States (and one could equally argue in many other nations as well).  The very presence of any broadcasts targeted specifically to Hispanic or African American audiences, therefore, represents a step toward accommodating cultural differences in audience tastes and needs than had existed previously. As for Chester’s lament that “substantive minority programming is off-limits,” one might just as readily argue that this really has to do with one’s own opinion of what is or is not “substantive.” Depending on one’s definition,  it would be possible to claim that all programming – whether intended for a majority or a minority audience -- was less than “substantive.” Likewise, depending on one personal definition, much of the programming present in either broadcast market could be seen as being “substantive.” Regardless of one’s personal definition of what is or is not acceptable substantive content, though, it seems reasonable to argue that culturally tailored content is by its nature more likely to have a substantive nature than programming that ignores those needs altogether.

So... those are my thoughts. I welcome yours.

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