In the 1960s TV show Star Trek, Captain Kirk would flip open his
hand held sensor/communicator and survey the planet he'd just landed
on. Today, on this planet, I can open up my hand held device and
take a picture or get the news. On vacation, I can dial a number
and hear a walking tour of the neighbourhood I'm in. If I'm car
shopping, I can download information on a new car in a showroom
that's closed for the weekend.
We are finally seeing a fundamental change in the way people send
and receive information. I say finally, because this has been predicted
for 60 years.
Flying cars, mail delivered by rockets and robots cleaning our
homes just didn't materialize.
But technological convergence is actually happening. In 1968 Canadian
journalist Patrick Watson wrote a book predicting that one day we'd
come home, sit in an egg shaped chair and push buttons to see movies,
shop or get the news.
Fast forward thirty five years and phone companies are putting
TV, piano lessons, nanny cameras and such on computer screens. The
egg shaped chair isn't part of the deal though.
Whether campaigning or governing, a successful politician has to
keep up with new technology. It is said that President Roosevelt
and Winston Churchill wrote letters to each other during World War
II. The information would have been four days out of date by the
time the letter arrived. They also occasionally used the telephone,
time zones and line quality permitting.
During John Kennedy's time, documentary maker Robert Drew invented
a light weight camera with sound. If you haven't seen it, you can't
imagine the difference between the coverage this afforded versus
the static shot of stuffed shirts standing behind a microphone.
In the Vietnam war, reporters would talk a flight attendant into
carrying a can of film to London or Hong Kong so it could get on
the network news the next day. All those shocking reports from the
war were at least 18 hours old.
But in those days sixty million Americans watched the network newscasts
every night. Now it's dropped to twenty million, and their average
age is sixty.
The young demographic is getting its news from late night comedy
and talk shows, the Internet (chat rooms, radio, blogs), Much
Music, satellite radio and cable.
Here are some facts and figures:
* Bloggers are young, wealthy and educated
* Blogging is publishing and subject to all relevant laws
* Some companies encourage employee blogging as a way to reach out
* Some companies fire employees for blogging about company information
* Blogs helped propel Howard Dean into national prominence
* Blogs helped destroy Dan Rather's career
* Some days 10,000 new blogs are created
But about 50% of Americans have never even heard the word blog.
Only about 5% of US companies use blogs and fewer are interactive.
Even political blogs only attract about 5% of Internet users.
Some say blogging has crested.
The first step in really understanding this fundamental change
is to recognize that it's a change in form, not meaning. In the
Harvard Business Review, Business guru Michael E. Porter
says "in our quest to see how the Internet is different, we
have failed to see how the Internet is the same". Lawyers,
businesses and politicians are having the same discussion about
blogs as they had over a decade ago about E-mail.
No one is entirely sure how any new technology will shake down,
but, look at it this way. The glass window in the car show room
is a medium of communication. We look, become tantalized and buy.
A TV set in an electronics store window broadcasting pictures of
the car does the same thing through a different form of communication.
Ditto the hand bill, barker on a soap box and even the WiFi (Wireless
hook up to computers) or VoIP (Voice Over Internet Protocol). These
are all different ways of downloading similar information about
The consumer doesn't care whether the pictures of the car are being
broadcast over the air, arriving on cable , broadband (copper wire
or fibre optic), VCR, CD-ROM (small or large), 8mm (16 or 35), beta
or WiFi. Consumers care about content - the car.
The important thing for a politician to address is fragmentation,
not new technology. Constituents are still watching a screen - computer,
TV, cell or Blackberry. The issue is control. If you wanted the
news 30 years ago, you watched the networks. Today there are a dozen
choices and the consumer controls which to use. Cumbersome technology
like hot type empowers elites. Simple technology like transistor
radios or interactive Blackberry blogs empower users. This is almost
as important as content.
The issue is also immediacy. In the old days, if you were angry
at a newspaper column, you had to drag out a typewriter, bang out
a reasoned response and pop it in the mail. Then E-mail meant you
could skip a few steps and get your message out quicker. Now blogs
feature both instant access and the possibility of instant response.
Cyber-democrats can now say they "put it on their blog"
or "told off a blogger." This may feel satisfying, but
what if only one person reads it? How is it fundamentally different
than sending a telegram forty years ago?
The trouble with technology is that there's no free lunch. You
may gain immediacy and interactivity with the Web, but you may also
lose permanency and power. You may get high status with a Globe
and Mail piece, but you miss the Much Music crowd.
But with a blog, a piece in the Globe or an appearance on
a cable show that only two percent of the population watches, you
can get a bounce or multiplier effect. Mainstream networks and cable
news shows are reading blogs on the air to viewers, thus giving
them legs. The Globe piece can scanned and E-mailed to thousands
who would never otherwise read that newspaper.
All media try to extend their brands into other media, gobble up
existing media content, or want to be gobbled up. Historically,
newspapers gobbled up handbills and signs by putting advertising
on their front pages. They also ate up political pamphlets by providing
commentary, coverage and advocacy. Early radio newscasts were written
by newspaper journalists. TV gobbled up film, radio hosts and wire
service reporters. Now, everybody's trying to put music, entertainment
and news on a computer screen or a hand held device.
The trouble is the old media won't go away. Sure, we don't use
hand-held megaphones much anymore. The Victorian Stereopticon with
two pictures that simulated depth when the wooden device was held
up to the eyes morphed into Viewmasters and then all but disappeared.
For the most part a new media of communication don't replace old
ones. They are just added on to the mix and overlap a little with
It is not clear how convergence is going to work out. One good
guess is that we will all have an information appliance to carry
around which acts like a phone, computer, TV, stereo, movie theatre
and newspaper all at the same time. But we're still going to have
all those older media as well.
Politicians who need to connect with constituents need to surf
on the new media, while not ignoring the old.
Allan Bonner has coached approximately 30,000 people to deal with
some of the most controversial and public issues of our time. He
is the author of several books on business issues including: Doing
and Saying the Right Thing and The Bonner Business Series:
Media Relations. See Allan Bonner's Sources
Listing, phone 1-877-484-1667, or visit www.allanbonner.com.
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