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Idiocracy: We Have Been Warned

by Toby Bell  |  August 24, 2009  |  4 Comments

“The true course of every human journey that is set by money instead of by stars or better counsel is to meander inevitably toward misery.”

This might be a real quote, albeit by a relatively wordy poor person. It’s more likely that it is a logline – perhaps one from a Greek tragedy written centuries ago. Maybe I’d be more willing to spend my drachmas as a theatergoer if the description weren’t so complex… thus the emergence of pithy taglines: “Hero finds gold – pays with death.” And, thus too the emergence of today’s theme: “The clearer the information, the better the outcome.” Hmmm…. Must work on pithy.

Idiocracy, by the way, is a 2006 movie about a future imagined by our present focus on celebrities as culture and money as our only motivating force. Here’s its logline: “Private Joe Bauers, the definition of “average American”, is selected by the Pentagon to be the guinea pig for a top-secret hibernation program. Forgotten, he awakes 500 years in the future. He discovers a society so incredibly dumbed-down that he’s easily the most intelligent person alive.” Here are its taglines: “The Future is a No Brainer;” and, “In the Future, Intelligence is Extinct.” Really, the concept was more political: a future government of the idiots, by the idiots, for the idiots (see Gettysburg Address) emerged with a suspiciously southern drawl. Or maybe Texan. Maybe the movie had too much fodder for too few cows. The movie wasn’t a huge hit, though it does speak to some urgent issues demanding enterprise attention. I’ll note one or more here, I promise.

So, prompting this whole new outburst was a cursory inspection of what little remains of my daily newspaper. You remember newspapers, don’t you? They were the sometimes inspired result of a marriage of rhetoric, politics, and advertising that meandered toward misery over centuries. And, to my doorstep yesterday, bringing in it a section optimistically entitled “TV Listings.” This relic from a distant past haunts me now because I see how it could make even my future less meaningful. Here’s how… <insert sounds of static and tuning-in here> … oh, wait. I can actually insert that here.

Again… here’s how: having recently been bothered by the movie industry’s use of box office receipts to hype their product – thus “The Hangover” is now touted as having surpassed “Beverly Hills Cop” to become the “Most Successful R-Rated Comedy in History” – by measure of Money. By Accountants. Of the Studio. With an interest in Selling the Movies.  So, in the future I will no longer remember Beverly Hills Cop (BHC) as having two fine actors at the peak of their careers – one of whom went on to become my favorite Halloween costume of 2002. I will remember instead that it was not as popular as The Hangover (TH) and therefore will tend to prefer the more recently hyped movie. This despite the fact that BHC actually delivered more money in real (1984) dollars as well as a higher overall score from reviewers. (Rotten Tomatoes, by the way, routinely delivers value with a reputation scoring system worthy of 100 on the Tomatometer itself… and of being studied by every other Web community seeking a standard that works as well as RT in its media milieu).

So that’s what I’d remember If my memory serves – which it won’t. So, I’ll have to follow hyperlinks. Which are the trail marks of agile, instructive minds trying to develop a meaningful bridge from a discordant, Dewey decimal’d, paper-bound past to an elegant, persistently-connected idea-rich future where if one link fails, reliable redundancy among certified sources will sustain information’s value by bridging any gaps. The truth as we will come to know it retains currency and gathers even more over time. Memory becomes positively institutionalized unless wretched commerce intervenes in utopia.

So, scanning for movies in the TV listings in the newspaper I realized it wasn’t intended to benefit future civilizations. Or at least the one I want to occupy – where one version of the truth gets built from reliable sources. Entertainment Weekly has already embedded a video player in the print versions of its magazine in certain markets. This means something. Mostly it means that longer-form video (and less often film) will get snippetized and become source material for delivery to people with short spans of attention across a huge span of modalities. Like ringtones from songs got monetized without the need to expend any further creative effort. It also means that the relative cost and quality of the source (and its measurable popularity) will become the first pass criteria for its selection and insertion in whatever content it is I consume. Thus, I am more likely to see “Neil Patrick Harris” and less likely to see “Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio”. More “Dancing with the Stars” and less “Dances With Wolves”.

In sum, more is less. Setting the stage for this media-rich void are the present descriptions and ratings assigned as part of the source databases for movies shown on television. If you were surprised to hear that NASA had lost the original video footage from the live TV broadcast of Neil Armstrong stepping onto the lunar surface, you’d be flabbergasted by what else will fail to traverse the void from film or TV to Internet. Let’s broadly call it “metadata”. The stuff we partly use to describe content containers. Hence the taglines and stars associated with critical reviews constitute – along with titles and dates – common descriptors in these listings. The problem? It’s bad and getting worse. We don’t know the source of either the original review or the taglines. We can’t help but suspect, though, that linkage to either Rotten Tomatoes or IMDb is missing… and a cheaper source is mined. The “Faux-lex” of such data. Looks like the real thing but is constructed poorly and will not last. Maybe the next billionaire in tech will be a broker of cheap media context.

Here’s the listing for “My Cousin Vinny” – no year listed, no stars, tagline is “Brooklyn Lawyer.” (I’m sold…) “Saving Silverman” – (2001), two stars, tagline is “Wrong Woman.” (Wait… now I’m torn). “Sixteen Candles” – (1984), two and a half stars, tagline is “Girl’s 16th Birthday Gets Overlooked.” “Scream” – no date, three stars, tagline is “Teens Murdered.” And so on…. insufficient, incomplete, incompetent. By the time Gasblechistan gets cable, their program guides will be polluted by such mediocre metadata. By linking out from paper to reliable sources – as I’ve done in this posting – we set more reasonable expectations about what these movies are. And what they’re worth.

Enterprises should consider this example, too. Open any file and review the Properties to see all the missed opportunities to better describe content for present – and future – reuse. Though I have failed to follow my own prescription (see example below), I advise Gartner’s clients to do better. As content begins to traverse enterprise repositories and then migrates in whole or part to Cloud-based hosts or mobile devices and otherwise reconstitutes itself for various users and means, you’ll want to keep this in mind: The farther your content will ultimately have to travel, the more ways you’ll want to have to recommend it, protect it, and call it home.

All the Money is in Metadata. It’s the Plastics of the semantic Web.

Your comments as always are welcomed.

Actual Properties

Actual Properties

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Category: somewhat-serious  

Tags: dancing-with-the-stars  ecm  media  metadata  neil-patrick-harris  plastics  reputation-management  scream  video  

Toby Bell
Former Research VP
8 years at Gartner
25 years IT industry

Toby Bell is a former vice president in Gartner Research, responsible for a range of document and content management technologies for the High Performance Workplace group. Some key areas of coverage include vendors and trends in the enterprise content management (ECM) marketplace… Read Full Bio


Thoughts on Idiocracy: We Have Been Warned


  1. Glenn Euloth says:

    A very interesting and thought provoking post. I wonder how hard it will be to find a balance between the meta data we create (effort required) and how easy it is to find or search for?

    Also, Nick Nolte was not in Beverly Hills Cop – you are thinking about 48 Hours 😉

  2. Toby Bell says:

    Thanks, Glenn. I think the plan is to abstract as much metadata from content as possible leveraging analytics instead of people. Then we’ll relationalize it (XML) and bind to semantic layer over structured data. In labs. Mwahaha.

    That’s because people don’t have the time or inclination to serve the needs of others… or maybe the incentives. But if content and metadata had more obvious value, things might change quickly.

    As to your other remark… See ?!? My point exactly. Most readers wouldn’t wonder if my memory (or research) was accurate. So in years to come only your reminder will serve the truth. It was an intentional device about how individual memory isn’t viable. I even included a link to the movie with a list of the actual actors.

    Plus, I just wanted to use the Nolte mug shot somewhere.

  3. rita knox says:

    I find blogs very hard to read. Not because of the content but because the links, which I follow, disrupt my thinking . . These other threads are launched. They may or may not be close to the central theme, but they are there now as a parallel path to the main thesis.
    One approach may be to only tag things where it’s really needed . for example, I understand why you tagged the Gettysburg address, but if I followed would get me off on abe Lincoln and book I just finished about him though team of rivals was better . see, am going off . then thinking of doris kearns Goodwin, wondering what she’s up to . . you mention a texan so I start thinking about connection George to what you are writing, wondering what he’s doing these days . .
    So this is not good in an era of easy distractability. When I did serious work – certainly in 80s when I was doing research at Lockheed – people would sometimes walk into my cell while I was thinking . would interrupt me . and disrupt a line of thinking that had taken me 15-20 mins to develop . I didn’t take notes, might not have helped, but often couldn’t get back to what I was thinking about. .. much worse with gartner. I should turn off my volume so I stop getting auditory interrupts. .. see links are embedding a dictionary in the piece. Sometimes I’ll stop reading to look up a word, but will often wait until after if I can follow the topic with knowing the exact definition.
    Anyway, I digress . I’m missing your point . . when I read the last bit, I see it’s about metadata. But don’t understand the connections throughout the piece unless it’s to illustrate that there are many layers to anything that’s said.
    Don’t be insulted . . I am probably the densest person who will read your stuff .. I’ll read the comments people made to see how they saw this .. you suffer from being too well educated

  4. Toby Bell says:

    I guess I am referring to the semantic Web as a whole. That we’re being guided to think of information as a collective (Wikipedia links, Rotten Tomatoes, IMdb) all of which are fragile and random and tied to content objects loosely. To make sure we find and understand stuff in the new consciousness, we’ll have to make sure at the moment it is created it not only contains the best content but that all the ways to further describe and score and relate it to others are also as clear as possible. We need to rate the historians so that we limit pollution of opinion versus research/facts. Gartner is supposed to be part of the larger antidote to opinion.



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