April 20, 2008

The Medium is the Message: what is the message of security today?

Who said that? Was it Andy Warhol or Marshal McLuhan or Maurice Saatchi?

A few days ago, we reflected on the medium of the RSA conference, and how the message has lost its shine. One question is how to put the shine back on it, but another question is, why do we want shine on the conference? As Ping mused on, what is the message in the first place?

The medium is the message. Here's an example that I stumbled across today: Neighbours. If you don't know what that is, have a look at wikipedia. Take a few moments to skim through the long entry there ...

If you didn't know what it was before, do you know now? Wikipedia tells us about the popularity, the participants, the ratings, the revamps, the locations, the history of the success, the theme tune, and the awards. Other than these brief lines at the beginning:

Neighbours is a long-running Australian soap opera. The series follows the daily lives of several families who live in the six houses at the end of Ramsay Street, a quiet cul-de-sac in the fictional middle-class suburb of Erinsborough. Storylines explore the romances, family problems, domestic squabbles, and other key life events affecting the various residents.

Wikipedia does not tell the reader what Neighbours is. There are 5998 words in the article, and 55 words in that message above. If we were being academic, we could call them message type I and type II and note that there is a ratio of 100 to 1 between them!

At a superficial, user-based level, the 55 words above is the important message. To me and you, that is. But, to whoever wrote that article, the other 99% is clearly the most important. Their words are about the medium, not what we outsiders would have called the message, and it is here that the medium has become the message.

Some of that stuff *is* important. If we drag through the entire article we find that the TV show does one million daily audience in Australia, peaked at 18 million in the UK, and other countries had their times too. That you can take to the bank, advertisers will line up out on the street to buy that.

We can also accurately measure the cost and therefore benefit to consumers: 30 minutes each working day. So we know, objectively, that this entertainment is worth 30 minutes of prime time for the viewers. (The concept of a soap opera guarantees repeat business, so you know you are also targetting a consistent set of people, consistently.)

We can then conclude that, on the buy side and the sell side of this product, we have some sort of objective meeting of the minds. And, we can compress this mind meeting into a single number called ratings. Based on that one number alone, we can trade.

That number, patient reader, is a metric. A metric is something that is objectively important to both buyer and seller. It's Okay that we don't know what "it" is, as long as we have the metric of it. In television, the medium is the message, and that's cool.

Now, if we turn back to the RSA channel .. er .. conference, we can find similar numbers: In 2007, 17,000 attendees and 340 exhibitors. Which is bankable, you can definitely get funding for that, so that conference is in good shape. On the sell side, all is grand.

However, as the recent blog thread pointed out, on the buy side, there is a worrying shortage of greatness: the message was, variously, buyers can't understand the products, buyers think the products are crap, buyers don't know why they're there, and buyers aren't buying.

In short, buyers aren't, anymore. And this separates Neighbours from RSA in a way that is extremely subtle. When I watch an episode of Neighbours, my presence is significant in and of itself because the advertising works on a presence & repeat basis. I'm either entertained and come back tomorrow, or I stop watching, so entertainment is sufficient to make the trade work.

However, if I go to the RSA conference, the issue of my *presence* isn't the key. Straight advertising isn't the point here, so something other than my presence is needed.

What is important is that the exhibitors sell something. Marketing cannot count on presence alone because the buyer is not given that opportunity statistically (1 buyer, 340 exhibitors, zero chance of seeing all the adverts) so something else has to serve as the critical measurement of success.

Recent blog postings suggest it is sales. Whatever it is, we haven't got that measurement. What we do have is exhibitors and participants, but because these numbers fail to have relevance to both sides of the buy-sell divide then these numbers fail to be metrics.

Which places RSA in a different space to Neighbours. Readers will recognise the frequent theme of security being in the market for silver bullets, and that the numbers of exhibitors and participants are therefore signals, not metrics.

And, in this space, when the medium becomes the message, that's very uncool, because we are now looking at a number that doesn't speak to sales. When Marshal McLuhan coined his phrase, he was speaking generally positively about electronic media such as TV, but we can interpret this in security more as a warning: In a market based on signals not metrics, when the signals become the system, when the medium becomes the message, it is inevitable that the system will collapse, because it is no longer founded on objective needs.

Signals do not by definition capture enough of the perfect quality that is needed, they only proxy it in some uncertain and unreliable sense. Which is fine, if we all understand this. To extend Spence's example, if we know that a degree in Computer Science is not a guarantee that the guy can program a computer, that's cool.

Or, to put it another way: there are no good signals, only less bad ones. The signal is less bad than the alternate, which is nothing. Which leads us to the hypothesis that the market will derail when we act as if the the signal is a metric, as if the Bachelor's in CompSci is a certification of programming skill, as if booth size is the quality of security.

Have another look at Neighbours. It's still going on after 22 years or so. It is around one million, because of some revamp. That metric is still being taken to to the bank. The viewer is entertained, the advertiser markets. Buyer and seller are comfortable, the message and the medium therefore are in happy coincidence, they can happily live together because the medium lives on solid metrics. All of this, and we still don't know what it is. That's TV.

Whereas with the world of security, we know that the signal of the RSA conference is as strong as ever, but we also know that, in this very sector that the conference has become the iconic symbol for, the wheels are coming off. And, what's even more disturbing, we know that the RSA conference will go from strength to strength, even as the wheels are spinning out of view, and we the users are sliding closer to the proverbial cliff.

I know the patient reader is desperate to find out what Neighbours really is, so here goes. Read the following with an Aussie sense of humour:

About 10 years back I and a partner flew to Prague and then caught a train to a a Czech town near the Polish border, in a then-devastated coal belt. We were to consult to a privatised company that was once the Ministry of Mines. Recalling communist times, the Ministry had shrunk from many hundreds of thousands of miners down to around 20,000 at that time.

Of which, only 2 people spoke English. These two English speakers, both of them, picked us up at the train station. As we drove off, the girl of the pair started talking to us, and her accent immediately jolted us out of our 24 hours travel stupor: Australian! Which was kind of unexpected in such a remote place, off the beaten track, as they say down under.

I looked slowly at my friend, who was Scandinavian. He looked at me, slowly. Okay, so there's a story here, we thought... Then, searching for the cautious approach, we tried to figure it out:

"How long have you lived here?" I asked.

She looked back at me, with worry in her face. "All ma life. Ah'm Czech." In pure, honest dinkum Strine, if you know what that means.

"No, you're not, you're Aussie!"

"I'm Czech! I kid you not!"

"Okay...." I asked slowly, "then why do you have an Australian accent."

Nothing, except more worry on her face. "Where did you learn English?"

This she answered: "London. I did a couple of year's Uni there."

"But you don't have an English accent. Where did you pick up an Australian accent?"

"Promise you won't laugh?" We both duly promised her we would not laugh, which was easy, as we were both too tired to find anything funny any more.

"Well," she went on, "I was s'posed to do English at Uni but I didn't." That is, she did not attend the University's language classes.

"Instead, I stayed at home and watched Neighbours every lunchtime!"

Of course, we both cracked up and laughed until she was almost in tears.

That's what Neighbours is -- a cultural phenomena that swept through Britain by presenting an idyllic image of a sunny, happy place in a country far far away. Lots of fun people, lots of sunshine, lots of colour, lots of simple dramas, albeit all in that funny Aussie drawl. A phenomena strong enough that, in an unfair competition of 22 minutes, squeezed between daily life on the streets of the most cosmopolitan city in the world, it was able to imprint itself on the student visitor, and totally dominate the maturing of her language. The result was perfect English, yet with no trace of the society in which she lived.

But you won't read that in Wikipedia, because, for the world of TV, the medium is the message, and they have a metric. They only care that she watched, not what it did to her. And, in the converse, the language student got what she wanted, and didn't care what they thought about that.

Posted by iang at April 20, 2008 05:30 PM | TrackBack

"...and that's cool".

Nice (but being in Chicago, I am biased).

Posted by: Chris at April 21, 2008 09:45 PM
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