Future talk


Jeroen Matser, Strategy Director, Tribal DDB, Jeff Swystun, Communications Director of DDB and Gerd Leonhard at the Futurist Event, Trinidad Hilton, October 08, 2008. Photography by Mark Lyndersay

I've always like to spend my time in the future. Even as a child and young man, my favorite entertainments were science fiction based, maturing from Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons through Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea and the Star Treks with healthy dollops of written speculative fiction by the Herberts, Sturgeons, and Asimovs of the day.
I still spend lots of my time there, writing a column about personal technology that feels out the pulse of what's important among the vibrations of a lot that's transient.

The future is pretty cool because none of us are ever going to get there. Once we start talking about something that exists, no matter how weird and useless it may seem, it's already in the present and it's only a matter of time before it becomes popular or drifts into the fetid watercourses of the forgotten ideas of yesterday.
So Wednesday's talks about the world of tomorrow, pitched to an audience almost completely composed of marketing and advertising people was really about the bleeding edge, the technologies that look likely to become part of our daily lives and the underlying principles that drive them, which are much more likely to capsize the odd little applecart that selling to consumers has become.

I always like to hear people talk through their understanding of the unbridled chaos that modern technology has made of communications and the ideas that made it into my notes are worth a second churn.
Two ideas from Jeff Swystun, Communications Director of DDB got the jot. One note is about his advice to marketers that this is the "age of reference, not deference" advocating the notion that Internet users do not assume superiority because of a sales pitch, and are more likely to buy in to a product's benefits when they are endorsed by peer review. On that note, Swystun warned of the dangers of posing as peers either in content presentation or in presence, noting that today's users are sensitive to such sheep in wolf's clothing, and will flee attention "predators."

Jeroen Matser, Strategy Director, Tribal DDB the web focused production and strategic arm of the agency offered two valuable questions that users ask, usually implicitly with their mouse clicks, "Do I really want to spend my time with you?" and "Do I waste time or save time with you?"
An interesting twist on the answers he proposed for these questions is their drift from the usual notion that value should be added to every customer experience, specifically offering examples of sites that invite users to "waste time with the brand," encouraging entertaining little "micro interactions" the tiny interfaces with the product or service that build the perception of the brand.

Gerd Leonhard, a Swiss musician who now travels the world talking about the future, was the main speaker of the event and had some compelling quotes.
At the core of Leonhard's message to the audience was the urging to "play," to become immersed in the new web enabled communications options even when they seem to make no sense at all. Read Leonhard's notes about his talk and
download his presentation here.
Two of his quotes speak to the nature of the change that's been underway for a few years now, "what boggles the mind today quickly becomes normal tomorrow" and "we often overestimate how quickly change will happen and then underestimate the magnitude of the changes when they happen."

Ed Kless, "without chaos, nothing can grow."
This kind of turbulence and uncertainty can be deeply disturbing for anyone looking at major changes from the outside and make no mistake, it's even more mind bending for people when they are in the middle of it.
I experienced a highly focused example of this kind of change in 1989, when the Trinidad Publishing Company, under the tenure of Managing Director Alwin Chow, began the kind of revolution that you only read about.
At the time, the Guardian's staff had settled in nicely with what they thought was "the computer age."
Microtek computers, great honking terminals with huge screens full of glowing green text had largely replaced the monolithic typewriters that were the writing tools of journalists for almost a century.

That text flowed to output devices that rendered it as neatly justified column inches of text that were pasted into place on large pre-printed cardboard layouts.
Chow introduced the new fangled Macintosh computers and brought Trinidad and Tobago's oldest paper into the newest ways of print reproduction but it was an ugly, often brutal process. The first people to latch on to the new computers were office assistants and new interns who saw only new opportunities where newspaper veterans saw upheaval and annoyance.
Chow first encouraged, then goaded and finally threatened the editorial staff before his migration was complete. Holdouts found their requests for raises to be tied to their use of the new systems and on one notable weekend, dozens of the old Microtek systems were simply removed from the desks and replaced with Macs.

Today's changes are markedly different. Technology is no longer thrust on unwilling users, it is embraced with enthusiasm in a winnowing process that speeds Darwinian evolution theory to the speed of bits.
Successful ideas in an Internet world are embraced with dizzying speed and faltering ideas are abandoned with equally chilling speed.
What takes time is the capacity of people to catch up with what's happening, particularly when they are only marginally connected. Ergo, the value of Leonhard's enthusiasm for play.
It's not about the technology, as he notes, it's about the cultural changes that follow that the unplugged have enormous difficulty grasping.

Let me indulge in a "for example" here. The Trinidad Express has banned access to Yahoo Mail on their Intranet, and the Trinidad Guardian has locked down access to Facebook. Enterprising users will find ways around these artificial limitations, but they speak to more than the traditional IT department's focus on "enterprise needs" so ably embodied in Dilbert's nemesis, Mordac, the Preventer.

The wrong questions are being asked in these instances, so it isn't surprising that the wrong answers have resulted. The question isn't "how can we limit this waste of our bandwidth?"
It's "what's going on here and how can we make it work for us?"
In the case of the Guardian, it would seem that if your newsroom is enjoying Facebook, their peers and colleagues are as well and this is an opportunity to plug into a new medium backed by the enthusiasm of your staff.

There are larger issues at stake in this kind of blinkered thinking, of course. While The Futurist Event was pointedly marketed to advertising and well, marketing people, it could hardly have escaped the notice of the national media. But if there was any representative of either the reporting echelons of the media, or, more usefully, the management and decision makers of the traditional media, I missed them and stand subject to correction.
So here was an advertised event focused on moving advertising dollars out of traditional media aggregations that stirred no interest in the people who profit from advertising money.

I wish that I could describe this as some kind of surprise. But instead, I will offer a proposal I gave to the Guardian in January this year,
linked here.
(Caveat: This was offered to an executive who no longer works there as an overall guide and aide memoire to a conversation we had about an issue that the paper faced. It was not paid for. It has since been roundly ignored and with the departure of that executive, my thinking on these matters has not been sought since, so it's pretty safe to say that as far as my paper is concerned, this document doesn't exist.)

In what I would have to describe as absolute defiance of the ideas articulated in this note, the Guardian has since launched a print supplement aimed at teenage readers in schools, the gieNetwork, with no companion website (there is a
Facebook page, though).
I have no words for this development.
By its actions, the Guardian is implicitly saying that their content is for print and if you want it, you'll come get it where we want to publish it. This is what Leonhard describes as "user enforcement."
This isn't the way information works anymore and it's something of a tragedy to see it playing out like this in 2008.
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