Audience Is the Future

In his quarterly letter to the readers of Alta Journal, editor and publisher Will Hearst shares his excitement for the ways in which creative individuals are transforming how we consume information.

john von neumann with a stored program computer at the institute for advanced study, princeton, new jersey, in 1945
John von Neumann with a stored-program computer at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, New Jersey, in 1945.

There’s no sense in being precise when you don’t even know what you’re talking about.

Truth…is much too complicated to allow anything but approximations.

—John von Neumann

The inventor of the stored-program concept—the idea that machine instructions were another form of data and could be stored in a machine’s main memory—foresaw that automated computing would generate a revolution in human affairs. Mathematician John von Neumann made his discoveries in the first half of the 20th century but lived in the future. He imagined devices that could reproduce themselves, like living forms, a brainstorm that preceded the discovery of DNA’s structure and the mechanism of gene replication.

But he had the good sense to know that prediction is difficult in the details.

This article appears in the Winter 2022 issue of Alta Journal.

For example, it’s easy to see that technology has disrupted traditional media. That instant distribution and cost-lowering improvements in typesetting, photography, and communication have upset the structure of publishing and broadcasting. That these advances have created new winners, new losers, new business models, and novel media forms.

In fact, technological change is not a new thing. It’s a constant.

Some media is free. But the ability to tell compelling stories, report hidden facts accurately, entertain, amuse, and create spectacle takes talent and costs money. So, how to pay for it?

Services like Netflix have no advertising, so the user has to value the content as worth the price. Other services are advertising-based. The promise of technology is that the ads will be curated, precisely relevant to you and equally efficient for the advertiser. Still other services are entirely “free,” but the consumer is tacitly consenting to share personal data; you pay by donating your information.

Here at Alta Journal, we’re inspired by the Netflix culture. Create a great product and charge a fair price for it. We do insert advertising, but we don’t have a sales force. We love to accept ads from like-minded stores, creators, and institutions. We produce a website to serve members with stories that fall within the gaps of our quarterly frequency. We don’t sell your data to anybody. We solicit comments so members can tell us what we missed. And, of course, we embrace those members who don’t want a paper product at all.

We also host virtual events beyond the confines of the printed page: a book club, panel discussions, slideshows, interviews, and more. They are all free and offer new people a chance to sample the Alta culture.

We look at our paying members as a force more valuable than mere consumers. They are our community—neighbors, contributors, people who judge our work and pay our bills, whose opinions we value and depend on.

The question that interests us is not the future of technology but how creative people will use the new capabilities to advance storytelling, art, and culture.

When movie cameras were invented, one of their first uses was to film stage plays. It took a while for directors to realize that close-ups, pans, and shifting camera angles were techniques, a new language, unique to the medium. They could make stories more compelling and ultimately something different from theater.

In the early days of the internet, the established media barons sought to repurpose their content on websites—converting their publications into HTML on a server and thinking they were now adjusted for the disruption. But the next generation of web entrepreneurs saw that software, interaction, and user creativity would create something new, transcendent.

Not old content on new platforms, but actually new media. Those emergent trends were less susceptible to prediction. But they did yield to observation.

In this issue, we speak with people who are thriving in the New Hollywood—showrunners, cinematographers, costume designers, screenwriters—a creative community no longer controlled by studio bosses and whose work is intended for today’s diverse, global audiences.

The big idea: you can be right about the trends of technology, but if you are wrong about the interests of audiences, you will fail anyway.

We are not as insightful as von Neumann, or smart enough to figure it all out. But we are curious enough to ask the next generation of filmmakers what excites them most.•

Will Hearst is the editor and publisher of Alta Journal, which he founded in 2017.
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