Bill Wasik Takes Modern Media to Task

Question: What are the pros and cons of viral media?

Bill Wasik: Well, in terms of pros, I think that it is amazing how much the internet has leveled the playing field for people who want to find a large audience and to find it very quickly. You know, all of the clichés about, you know, the sort of amateur explosion in the way in which that the little guy can compete with the big media, all of that is essentially true in the sense that somebody can throw up some YouTube video that took them 20 minutes to make using just the tools that were available to them in their basement or their garage and if it’s good enough or if it’s grabby enough then it can get millions and million of hits in the span of just a few days and so that’s just remarkable and you can’t help but be…you can’t lose sight of how revolutionary that is, you know, and also the pros are you know the way in which the internet allows us to find things that are very, very specifically relevant to us, you know, the long tail idea that Chris Anderson gets into, that having sort of infinitely accessible culture allows us to segment ourselves in ways that can be very satisfying and very useful.

You know, if you’re a particular fan of a particular band or particular actor, or a particular style of music or anything, you can very quickly through the internet find communities of people who are like you, you can find recommendations for other things that you might have not have known about that you would like because, people who have similar taste to yours like them to. The internet can be very useful in helping people feed very niche passions and thereby to create market opportunities for people in a very mass culture would have a hard time getting by, you know, if you play a particular obscure kind of music then, you know, you might have had trouble finding the 5,000 people out there in the world that would be inclined to buy your CD but over the internet, you know, you can have a growing business for anywhere in the world, you know, taking orders and mailing out CDs and that can be very useful.

In terms of the cons though, you know, I feel like the technology both on a personal level and on a cultural level encourages this relentless distraction. It encourages short-term thinking in the sense that the internet is always dangling in front of us these incredibly sort of viral, contagious, little bits of culture, you know, whether they’re videos or songs or little pieces of political news that sort of thing that we become obsessed with, you know, in any given day then that sort of drowns out any more boring kind of, but like more important than longer-term considerations that we might have. That to me is the fundamental downside and it’s to me the thing that we really need to come to terms with, you know, because right now I feel that for a lot of us the level of distraction in our own lives and the level of distraction in the sort of media ecosystem has become unsustainable

Question: How can today’s media companies make money? 

Bill Wasik: I think that the Kindle is a really interesting device and a great thing to keep your eye on. One of the things I love about the kindle is the fact that it separates the act of choosing the information from the act of consuming it and that I think is more valuable than a lot of people think. I think part of the reason why people hesitate to pay for any content online is that, you know, it slows them down. They want to be, you know, surfing from this thing to this thing to this thing and just the idea of having to stop and pay for something feels like too much of an intrusion in this kind of like hyper-textual surfing through, you know, what’s going on in the world.

The thing I like about the Kindle is that, you know, you either through the Amazon store you buy a book of there’s an email address through which you can send yourself say a long article or even your own word document that you want to read and then it beams down to your device and then you are able to take your device to some other place. It’s not connected to the internet, you sit there and you read, you know, in a more leisurely way to things that you picked up for your self. That I think contains the seeds of a sort of possible business model because it seems to me that the kind of content that it seems clear that short stuff is inherently going  to be free in part because there’s so many people making it, you know, in part because, you know, its going to be a part of this sort of big, sort of churny conversation but that the longer stuff even if you’re aren’t getting in the physical form I think you might still be able to convince people to pay for especially if what you’re essentially giving them is an experience away from your computer, away from your BlackBerry, away from your iPhone, you know, where it comes into a special device that’s designed to, to be a respite for all that.

So, I’m hopeful that the Kindle might represent a way for not just book publishing companies but also for…for magazines and sellers of long form journalism to potentially make money off of their work. For the shorter stuff, I don’t really know what the answer is. There is just never been…there’s just hasn’t been a successful business model where they’ve been able to get people to open up their wallets to pay for access to these, these streams of information. Maybe after somebody’s company start to fail and information becomes scarcer that then the value proposition becomes clearer for consumers, you know, that if you’re local paper shuts down, you know, then maybe you start to see value of letting…of giving New York Times some money, you know, or else it’s going to go out of business, you know. I think I agree with people also who say that the nonprofit business model looks pretty good to newspapers right now in that maybe it’s may be even the best way to think about newspapers a sort of public trust that we don’t expect them to turn a profit, we don’t expect them to be used as profitable corporations which is what, you know, the big companies that have bought them like, you know, have expected them to be over the past decade or so but then instead, you know, they can mostly make back what they…what they spend meanwhile they’re providing us some incredibly important public service. That I think is going to become a really big model in the future as well.

Question: What are your favorite media sites? 

Bill Wasik: Well, you know, the New York Times is certainly number one and, they, by the way, I think have done a great job in the past few years of reinventing themselves on the internet model and integrated blogs and multimedia stuff. You know, they’ve gone big on to twitter—they haven’t figured how to make it pay yet, but certainly they’ve been nimble on the editorial content side of figuring those things out. I really like MetaFilter, which is a group blog that’s been going for I think ten years now. It’s motto is, “best of the web” and it’s essentially just a bunch of members who go out and find really interesting stuff and post them for other people and it’s to me a sort of constantly fascinating way to find new and interesting stuff online. I read a lot of different blogs,

There’s another sect called BuzzFeed, which is run by Jonah Peretti, who I profiled in part in the book, which is another great site that’s out there. They actually have sort of automated engines that call through blog statistics and everything to find interesting trends and what people are doing and talking about online. BuzzFeed definitely give me lots of great stuff. I think I’ll leave it at those three.

Recorded on: June 3, 2009


Electronic media builds communities but also distracts us relentlessly.

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Why "nuclear pasta" is the strongest material in the universe

Through computationally intensive computer simulations, researchers have discovered that "nuclear pasta," found in the crusts of neutron stars, is the strongest material in the universe.

Accretion disk surrounding a neutron star. Credit: NASA
Surprising Science
  • The strongest material in the universe may be the whimsically named "nuclear pasta."
  • You can find this substance in the crust of neutron stars.
  • This amazing material is super-dense, and is 10 billion times harder to break than steel.

Superman is known as the "Man of Steel" for his strength and indestructibility. But the discovery of a new material that's 10 billion times harder to break than steel begs the question—is it time for a new superhero known as "Nuclear Pasta"? That's the name of the substance that a team of researchers thinks is the strongest known material in the universe.

Unlike humans, when stars reach a certain age, they do not just wither and die, but they explode, collapsing into a mass of neurons. The resulting space entity, known as a neutron star, is incredibly dense. So much so that previous research showed that the surface of a such a star would feature amazingly strong material. The new research, which involved the largest-ever computer simulations of a neutron star's crust, proposes that "nuclear pasta," the material just under the surface, is actually stronger.

The competition between forces from protons and neutrons inside a neutron star create super-dense shapes that look like long cylinders or flat planes, referred to as "spaghetti" and "lasagna," respectively. That's also where we get the overall name of nuclear pasta.

Caplan & Horowitz/arXiv

Diagrams illustrating the different types of so-called nuclear pasta.

The researchers' computer simulations needed 2 million hours of processor time before completion, which would be, according to a press release from McGill University, "the equivalent of 250 years on a laptop with a single good GPU." Fortunately, the researchers had access to a supercomputer, although it still took a couple of years. The scientists' simulations consisted of stretching and deforming the nuclear pasta to see how it behaved and what it would take to break it.

While they were able to discover just how strong nuclear pasta seems to be, no one is holding their breath that we'll be sending out missions to mine this substance any time soon. Instead, the discovery has other significant applications.

One of the study's co-authors, Matthew Caplan, a postdoctoral research fellow at McGill University, said the neutron stars would be "a hundred trillion times denser than anything on earth." Understanding what's inside them would be valuable for astronomers because now only the outer layer of such starts can be observed.

"A lot of interesting physics is going on here under extreme conditions and so understanding the physical properties of a neutron star is a way for scientists to test their theories and models," Caplan added. "With this result, many problems need to be revisited. How large a mountain can you build on a neutron star before the crust breaks and it collapses? What will it look like? And most importantly, how can astronomers observe it?"

Another possibility worth studying is that, due to its instability, nuclear pasta might generate gravitational waves. It may be possible to observe them at some point here on Earth by utilizing very sensitive equipment.

The team of scientists also included A. S. Schneider from California Institute of Technology and C. J. Horowitz from Indiana University.

Check out the study "The elasticity of nuclear pasta," published in Physical Review Letters.

How a huge, underwater wall could save melting Antarctic glaciers

Scientists think constructing a miles-long wall along an ice shelf in Antarctica could help protect the world's largest glacier from melting.

Image: NASA
Surprising Science
  • Rising ocean levels are a serious threat to coastal regions around the globe.
  • Scientists have proposed large-scale geoengineering projects that would prevent ice shelves from melting.
  • The most successful solution proposed would be a miles-long, incredibly tall underwater wall at the edge of the ice shelves.

The world's oceans will rise significantly over the next century if the massive ice shelves connected to Antarctica begin to fail as a result of global warming.

To prevent or hold off such a catastrophe, a team of scientists recently proposed a radical plan: build underwater walls that would either support the ice or protect it from warm waters.

In a paper published in The Cryosphere, Michael Wolovick and John Moore from Princeton and the Beijing Normal University, respectively, outlined several "targeted geoengineering" solutions that could help prevent the melting of western Antarctica's Florida-sized Thwaites Glacier, whose melting waters are projected to be the largest source of sea-level rise in the foreseeable future.

An "unthinkable" engineering project

"If [glacial geoengineering] works there then we would expect it to work on less challenging glaciers as well," the authors wrote in the study.

One approach involves using sand or gravel to build artificial mounds on the seafloor that would help support the glacier and hopefully allow it to regrow. In another strategy, an underwater wall would be built to prevent warm waters from eating away at the glacier's base.

The most effective design, according to the team's computer simulations, would be a miles-long and very tall wall, or "artificial sill," that serves as a "continuous barrier" across the length of the glacier, providing it both physical support and protection from warm waters. Although the study authors suggested this option is currently beyond any engineering feat humans have attempted, it was shown to be the most effective solution in preventing the glacier from collapsing.

Source: Wolovick et al.

An example of the proposed geoengineering project. By blocking off the warm water that would otherwise eat away at the glacier's base, further sea level rise might be preventable.

But other, more feasible options could also be effective. For example, building a smaller wall that blocks about 50% of warm water from reaching the glacier would have about a 70% chance of preventing a runaway collapse, while constructing a series of isolated, 1,000-foot-tall columns on the seafloor as supports had about a 30% chance of success.

Still, the authors note that the frigid waters of the Antarctica present unprecedently challenging conditions for such an ambitious geoengineering project. They were also sure to caution that their encouraging results shouldn't be seen as reasons to neglect other measures that would cut global emissions or otherwise combat climate change.

"There are dishonest elements of society that will try to use our research to argue against the necessity of emissions' reductions. Our research does not in any way support that interpretation," they wrote.

"The more carbon we emit, the less likely it becomes that the ice sheets will survive in the long term at anything close to their present volume."

A 2015 report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine illustrates the potentially devastating effects of ice-shelf melting in western Antarctica.

"As the oceans and atmosphere warm, melting of ice shelves in key areas around the edges of the Antarctic ice sheet could trigger a runaway collapse process known as Marine Ice Sheet Instability. If this were to occur, the collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) could potentially contribute 2 to 4 meters (6.5 to 13 feet) of global sea level rise within just a few centuries."

Why the worst part about climate change isn't rising temperatures

The world's getting hotter, and it's getting more volatile. We need to start thinking about how climate change encourages conflict.

Christopher Furlong/Getty Images
Politics & Current Affairs
  • Climate change is usually discussed in terms of how it impacts the weather, but this fails to emphasize how climate change is a "threat multiplier."
  • As a threat multiplier, climate change makes already dangerous social and political situations even worse.
  • Not only do we have to work to minimize the impact of climate change on our environment, but we also have to deal with how it affects human issues today.

Human beings are great at responding to imminent and visible threats. Climate change, while dire, is almost entirely the opposite: it's slow, it's pervasive, it's vague, and it's invisible. Researchers and policymakers have been trying to package climate change in a way that conveys its severity. Usually, they do so by talking about its immediate effects: rising temperature, rising sea levels, and increasingly dangerous weather.

These things are bad, make no mistake about it. But the thing that makes climate change truly dire isn't that Cape Cod will be underwater next century, that polar bears will go extinct, or that we'll have to invent new categories for future hurricanes. It's the thousands of ancillary effects — the indirect pressure that climate change puts on every person on the planet.

How a drought in the Middle East contributed to extremism in Europe


Nigel Farage in front of a billboard that leverages the immigration crisis to support Brexit.

Because climate change is too big for the mind to grasp, we'll have to use a case study to talk about this. The Syrian civil war is a horrific tangle of senseless violence, but there are some primary causes we can point to. There is the longstanding conflicts between different religious sects in that country. Additionally, the Arab Spring swept Syria up in a wave of resistance against authoritarian leaders in the Middle East — unfortunately, Syrian protests were brutally squashed by Bashar Al-Assad. These, and many other factors, contributed to the start of the Syrian civil war.

One of these other factors was drought. In fact, the drought in that region — it started in 2006 — has been described as the "worst long-term drought and most severe set of crop failures since agricultural civilization began in the Fertile Crescent many millennia ago." Because of this drought, many rural Syrians could no longer support themselves. Between 2006 and 2009, an estimated 1.5 million Syrians — many of them agricultural workers and farmers — moved into the country's major cities. With this sudden mixing of different social groups in a country where classes and religious sects were already at odds with one another, tensions rose, and the increased economic instability encouraged chaos. Again, the drought didn't cause the civil war — but it sure as hell helped it along.

The ensuing flood of refugees to Europe is already a well-known story. The immigration crisis was used as a talking point in the Brexit movement to encourage Britain to leave the EU. Authoritarian or extreme-right governments and political parties have sprung up in France, Italy, Greece, Hungary, Slovenia, and other European countries, all of which have capitalized on fears of the immigration crisis.

Why climate change is a "threat multiplier"

This is why both NATO and the Pentagon have labeled climate change as a "threat multiplier." On its own, climate change doesn't cause these issues — rather, it exacerbates underlying problems in societies around the world. Think of having a heated discussion inside a slowly heating-up car.

Climate change is often discussed in terms of its domino effect: for example, higher temperatures around the world melt the icecaps, releasing methane stored in the polar ice that contributes to the rise in temperature, which both reduces available land for agriculture due to drought and makes parts of the ocean uninhabitable for different animal species, wreaking havoc on the food chain, and ultimately making food more scarce.

Maybe we should start to consider climate change's domino effect in more human and political terms. That is, in terms of the dominoes of sociopolitical events spurred on by climate change and the missing resources it gobbles up.

What the future may hold

(NASA via Getty Images)

Increasingly severe weather events will make it more difficult for nations to avoid conflict.

Part of why this is difficult to see is because climate change does not affect all countries proportionally — at least, not in a direct sense. Germanwatch, a German NGO, releases a climate change index every year to analyze exactly how badly different countries have been affected by climate change. The top five most at-risk countries are Haiti, Zimbabwe, Fiji, Sri Lanka, and Vietnam. Notice that many of these places are islands, which are at the greatest risk for major storms and rising sea levels. Some island nations are even expected to literally disappear — the leaders of these nations are actively making plans to move their citizens to other countries.

But Germanwatch's climate change index is based on weather events. It does not account for the political and social instability that will likely result. The U.S. and many parts of Europe are relatively low on the index, but that is precisely why these countries will most likely need to deal with the human cost of climate change. Refugees won't go from the frying pan into the fire: they'll go to the closest, safest place available.

Many people's instinctive response to floods of immigrants is to simply make borders more restrictive. This makes sense — a nation's first duty is to its own citizens, after all. Unfortunately, people who support stronger immigration policies tend to have right-wing authoritarian tendencies. This isn't always the case, of course, but anecdotally, we can look at the governments in Europe that have stricter immigration policies. Hungary, for example, has extremely strict policies against Muslim immigrants. It's also rapidly turning into a dictatorship. The country has cracked down on media organizations and NGOs, eroded its judicial system's independence, illegalized homelessness, and banned gender studies courses.

Climate change and its sociopolitical effects, such as refugee migration, aren't some poorer country's problem. It's everyone's problem. Whether it's our food, our homes, or our rights, climate change will exact a toll on every nation on Earth. Stopping climate change, or at least reducing its impact, is vitally important. Equally important is contending with the multifaceted threats its going to throw our way.