Thursday, April 10, 2008

Asynchronous Information Consumption - Random Thoughts

We spend lots of money on various forms of asynchronous media converters. People seem to be moving their media and information consumption habits, and perhaps even a portion of our social habits, toward asynchronous, store-and-forward type mechanisms.

I find the shift to asynchronous consumption interesting. When time independence is combined with the location independence that comes from being un-tethered, a fundamentally different lifestyle results.

Interesting examples, in no particular order:

DVR's convert synchronous media into asynchronous media. I find it wonderfully ironic that we send film crews to deserted islands for weeks, filming ordinary people doing un-ordinary things to each other, send the film back to a studio, where several months are spent slicing it up and gluing it back together to make it somehow more dramatic and presumably more watchable, then synchronously spew it out over the air every Tuesday at 8pm to an audience of twenty million people who are leaning forward from their couches, holding their breaths, remotes in hand, waiting for their DVR's to record the show so they can watch it on Thursday at 10pm.

Broadcast networks are extraordinarily good at delivering media synchronously to huge numbers of people at exactly the same time. Some of us have images from the 1950's of a family around the TV, waiting for the test pattern to morph into the Lone Ranger. The rest of us can google for images from the 1950's of a family around the TV waiting for the test pattern to morph into the Lone Ranger. And millions of media consumers have become extraordinarily good at synchronizing their wind-up clocks, their farm chores, their meals and their lives to the broadcast schedules of first AM radio, then television. Yes, my family, in the 1960's, scheduled our evening meal around the Huntley-Brinkley Report. Dinner never was allowed to intrude on the news. And the news was never a minute late. Producers would have gotten fired if that ever happened.

CNN's Headline News is a strange hybrid attempt to make a synchronous delivery mechanism appear to by asynchronous, by endlessly repeating the same 3 minutes of news and 7 minutes of advertising at 10 minute intervals.

Movies in the theater are synchronous. Video rentals are asynchronous. You don't have to arrive on time for a rental. Netflix is asynchronous, and you don't even have to arrive at all.

Magazines and newspapers
are some sort of a hybrid delivery mechanism. They are edited and printed and delivered synchronously, but consumed asynchronously. My 'to be read' pile often has a months worth of weekly magazines piled up. The editors, press operators, truck drivers and postal carriers who broke their backs getting the press run printed, bound and delivered on time must not be happy with me for waiting a month to read their work.

Twitter is asynchronous, instant messaging is synchronous. Blogs are asynchronous, except for really popular blogs, where a small number of people with apparently nothing else to do lean forward from their chairs, holding their breaths, mouse in hand, waiting for the blogger whom they worship to post a new article so they can be the first with an irrelevant reply.

Podcasting is completely asynchronous. NPR and BBC podcasting effectively saves me the trouble of having to get a Tivo for my radio. In fact if media companies simply podcasted everything, appropriately wrapped up in DRM and embedded with advertising, we'd all be able to toss our DVR's.

E-mail is supposed to be asynchronous. Unfortunately masses of workers put e-mail pop-up notification on their desktops and immediately read and respond to all e-mails, effectively turning a store-and-forward asynchronous media into a synchronous real-time conversation. Didn't we invent chat for that? E-mail threads though, replace synchronous meetings, even when they shouldn't.

Second Life is some kind of anomaly. There is no store-and-forward at all, yet it is still popular.

Traditional Learning is horribly synchronous. Report to class every morning at 08:05am. Leave for your next class at 08:55am. Report to your next class at 09:05am. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Assignment #16 is due Tuesday, April 11th at 09:55. If you get behind, too bad for you. If you get ahead, shame on you. You are being far too disruptive. You need to stop that. If you are a grog in the morning and brilliant at night, too bad for you. Sounds synchronous to me.

On-line learning can be as synchronous or asynchronous as we decide to make it. On-line courses can, in theory be delivered asynchronously. Most are not. Students still have to structure the course start date, end date and most quizzes and assignments around certain time-date restrictions arbitrarily imposed on them by faculty and burrocrats.

It doesn't have to be that way. Hutchinson Technical College and a few other Minnesota tech colleges conducted a twenty year bold experiment in asynchronous education. They delivered high quality advanced education, including lectures, work assignments, quizzes and exams with almost no date-time restrictions, other than the restriction that they were only able to staff the labs between 7 am and 5 pm. Students could, if they so desired, start their semester any day of the week, any week of the year, complete any assignment, project, exam or quiz any time they felt ready, complete their program, get a degree and graduate the day that they met the program requirements. There were no arbitrary semester boundaries, other than an administrative billing boundary that occurred several times per year. (If you want to keep learning, you gotta keep paying....)

In other news, one of the largest higher education systems in the US finally achieved its decade old goal of a common calendar for all of its member colleges and universities. For the first time since its founding, all colleges and universities in the Minnesota State system will start and end their semesters on exactly the same date.


  1. "Blogs are asynchronous, except for..."


    "Second Life is some kind of anomaly..."

    I would say that it is synchronous. Like Real Life, you have to be there when something happens to participate. I don't know if there is a SL "replay" or "record" option but that would almost be a different medium (machinima?).

    Final comment: with the exception of books, synchronous used to be the only choice for info consumption. As asynch options become more widely available (and appropriate uses better understood) , institutions like the newsmedia and education will fundamentally changed. We're seeing that now.


  2. @Kevin - I agree that Second Life is synchronous. The part that I find interesting is that it is very popular even though is not asynchronous. It seems to be an exception to the general trend.

    Multi-player first person shooter games would be another exception.