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Majority report: looking through the digital hype

24th January 12

This post originally appeared as an article in Viewpoint at the end of 2011. Briefed to one of BBH London’s smartest strategists, Ed Booty, as a deliberate polemic, it’s a provocative argument designed to question our assumptions about the constant pace of change. We like being challenged (we enjoyed Matt Edgar’s post last year along similar lines) – please let us know what you think in the comments.

Author: Ed Booty, Strategy Director, BBH London

Image: Seattle Space Needle, by Patricia Kranenberg (via Flickr under a Creative Commons licence)

It is commonly accepted that a digital revolution is afoot. We have entered a brave new networked world. Individuals are empowered, social movements cannot remain contained and knowledge is free to all. Data is making our world more intuitive, bespoke and rewarding. We are mobile, always on, always entertained and hyper-social.

Things appear to be going swimmingly and never has the future been so clearly mapped out for us. It’s sexy, creative, inclusive and exciting. It’s one big SXSW festival.

Nothing new so far, and it does all sound rather good.

Maybe it’s too good to be true?

Unfortunately it is.

Advance apologies to neophytes, digital evangelists and west coast entrepreneurs. It’s time for a reality check. The speed, scale and depth of the so-called digital revolution has been wildly exaggerated.

What has caused this mirage of revolution?

Behind the hype, what might a more realistic vision of a digital world be?This isn’t a luddite’s defence of an endangered way of life, but instead an attempt to rationalise and reconsider some big digital assumptions. Only by realistically appraising the present can we begin to discern what the future might look like.

Digital media is undoubtedly the defining technology of our age. It has already reshaped entire industries, created empires and billionaires. There is little to debate over its reach and integration. Everything is now digital, from TVs and books to shopping. The important question is therefore not ‘How digital is the world?’, but ‘How different is life in this digital world?’.

For me personally, there has never been a more exciting time to be in the business of creative communication. Digital media offers us massive opportunities; new ways of interacting with content, of bringing to life ideas, and of making brands relevant and useful, far beyond traditional advertising.

It’s so new and exciting that it’s easy to confuse its potential with reality.  As we’ve explored and embraced the bewildering possibilities, we’ve increasingly convinced ourselves that a revolution is here. Meanwhile real peoples’ lives and needs simply aren’t changing at the same pace. What is possible is growing at an exponential rate, but how people actually live and use technologies has changed very little.  This gap between the myth and reality is ever-widening.

20 years ago the average Brit watched 4 hours of TV a day [1 - see footnotes]. Their favorite show was a soap. The most popular news source was The Sun[2]. The number one brand was Coca Cola[3]. The best selling car was a Ford Fiesta[4]. The two biggest issues in people’s lives were the economy and the NHS[5]. 20% of people enjoyed a night at the pub. 27% were always improving their home. 11% rarely had a family meal. 23% enjoyed clothes shopping. 17% hated housework[6].

This is all also true in 2011. Life is fundamentally much the same.

Of course there have been changes. Mobile phones are ubiquitous, the internet is in 3/4 of homes[7], digital TV in 93%[8]. Facebook has 31m monthly users[9]-numbers regularly cited as irrefutable evidence for the radical shift in how we live. Despite their scale, their actual impact has been overstated.

Purchase is too often confused with adoption. People do often buy and subscribe to new technologies. They then infrequently (if ever) use them. Only 20% of the average smartphone’s capacity is ever used.[10] Of the 20% people willing to pay for TVs with internet connectivity[11], under half of them even connect it[12], let alone find it useful.

Even where a new medium is being used, it is primarily facilitating old behaviours. Despite the breadth of user-generated content, 98% of the UK’s viewing is of professionally produced film content[13]. The UK’s most popular news website is the BBC. The vast majority of people remain passive recipients of the same content they have always liked. Only 2% of web users actively create and contribute[14]. Even within Twitter subscribers, 83% have not sent a tweet in the last month[15]. However, the illusion of revolution is so convincing that it affects how people perceive their own behaviour. On average PVR owners believe they watch over 70% of their TV on demand. The real figure is 14%. 86% of their viewing is traditional real-time broadcast. This ratio is not changing.

Despite having it at their fingertips, people are just not making use of the richness of the technology that is available to them. They aren’t living the digital lives they should be. What’s going on? Surely they should be as excited as we are? Are they just laggards who will eventually embrace the glistening and inevitable digital future? Or, perhaps it’s us who’ve missed the point?

We have bought our own hype. So desirable is the digital dream that we have mistaken its potential for reality. This delusion has been driven by an unprecedented bubble of hype, driven by the media, digital advocates and technology brands. They have created, believe and propagate the myth that life has changed irrevocably.

Journalists, whose own industry has been heavily affected by digital media, give it disproportionate coverage and importance; seamlessly suggesting causal relationships between the advent of technologies and real life events. Twitter caused the Arab spring. Blackberrys were the London rioter’s secret weapon. Elections are now won and lost on Facebook. No story is complete without an unquantified reference to the impact of digital media.

Under 8% of Britons have ever used twitter, 1.9% use it regularly[16].  It’s only the UK’s 27th most popular site[17], but is the most mentioned- with an average of 1,446 times per month in the national press alone.

The cult of technology has also been passionately advocated from within; by a minority with disproportionate influence. The web is an ‘echo-chamber’ where digital enthusiasts have their beliefs reinforced and re-tweeted. This creates a self-referential cycle of self importance. The web’s favourite subject is unsurprisingly ‘computers and the web’. It accounts for over 34% of site visits (versus just 12% for social media and forums)[18]. These self-proclaimed ‘early adopters’’ assumption is that the rest of society is simply yet to catch up[19]. This is rarely the case. Real people more often than not, have better things to do, like watch Eastenders.

The myth of radical change is furthered by technology brands. They are a powerful influence, representing over 10% of all bought advertising[20] (ironically, the majority of it in traditional media[21]). With ambitious sales targets and consumers that have literally got more technology than they know what to do with, communicating marginal innovations will not suffice.  Every new technology or product is  promoted as revolutionary;  a life-changing breakthrough.

Who wouldn’t want to get involved?

In this era of economic uncertainty, in contrast to the zeitgeist, technology has become a beacon of hope. It’s cool, synonymous with success and promises to enhance life. Like alchemy in the Renaissance, technology brands offer a potent combination of wonderment, distraction and optimism. Their CEOs are evangelistic figures; revered and admired. They promise a brighter future on a rainy day and we believe it because we want it to be true. They show us what is possible. Herein however, is the crux of the problem. Technology is tech-centric. There is the assumption that because something can be done, it will be popular, important and useful. However, ‘We are now able to…’ is not the same as ‘People now want to…’. Possibility is mistaken for demand.

The dotcom crash of the late 1990s was driven by the same misunderstanding. Price/earnings ratios were overlooked and belief placed in technological advancements. porn A decade later mobile networks paid over inflated prices for 3G licenses to facilitate video calling. Not because there was demand, but because it became possible.

Too little attention is given to what will be required and what will actually be useful.

Rather than thinking about the future in terms of what technology that will be available, a better method may be to ask what will people want in the future; what will actually improve how they live?

While a minority excite themselves and propagate the belief that the future is here, it is real ‘consumers’ that will dictate the pace of change and ultimately have the final say in what the future really looks like.

That’s why there is no Digital Revolution. Cultural revolutions are not created in R&D labs.

They represent radical changes in how people live and society operates. The agricultural and industrial revolutions changed the fundamental shape of society. Digital media has barely scratched the surface. As Steve Jobs was visionary enough to acknowledge:

“This stuff doesn’t change the world. It really doesn’t… it’s a disservice to constantly put things in this radical new light — that it’s going to change everything.”

The early impact of digital media has then been wildly overemphasised.

This does then beg the question famously voiced by Roy Amara: What are the long-term impacts we simultaneously under-estimate? That’s a topic for another day. But its an important one, because they’re going to be fundamental, dare I say ‘revolutionary’…


[1] BARB
[2] NRS
[3] Marketing Magazine/Grocer: Britain’s Biggest Brands
[4] SMMT 2011
[5] source: Ipsos Mori)
[6] Source: TGI
[7] ONS
[8] ONS
[9] Facebook
[10] Source WDS Global.
[11] Quarterly TV Design and Features Report, 2011
[12] Gartner/ Wired Magazine, September 2011
[13] BBH research
[14] eg Wikipedia
[15] RJMetrics
[16] Gaining accurate numbers is difficult. These are the assumptions in the calculation:17% of Twitter accounts have sent a single tweet over the past month, 4.9m people have accounts, UK population 61,838,154
[17] Source: Comscore
[18] source: Experian Hitwise, actal web usage data, UK, August 2011
[19] Anyone remember SecondLife?
[20] Nielsen
[21] Nielsen

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