INTERACTIVE: BEHIND THE HYPE/THE DIGITAL SCENE IN THE US - Are West Coast hotshops really leading a Web revolution?/Digitally, they say the US is two years ahead of the UK. Nigel Morris travelled West to look for the future

By NIGEL MORRIS, campaignlive.co.uk, Friday, 17 October 1997 12:00AM

I don’t know if any readers have ever had a crowbar swung at them, but it’s pretty unnerving at the best of times. At 7.45am, jogging in downtown San Francisco to shake off residual jet lag, it’s very unnerving indeed.

I don’t know if any readers have ever had a crowbar swung at them,

but it’s pretty unnerving at the best of times. At 7.45am, jogging in

downtown San Francisco to shake off residual jet lag, it’s very

unnerving indeed.



Fortunately, my would-be assailant had apparently taken enough acid to

fly a herd of elephants, so one bodyswerve later, I was out of trouble

and free to explore the US, pioneer of the digital age - whatever that

means.



Of course, it means different things to different people - and the only

thing we can be sure of is that most of us are wrong.



The original idea was that I would immerse myself in the media culture

of the US for six months and get a real feel for what may or may not

happen here.



On reflection, we agreed three months was far more practicable. So I

went for six days.



Having avoided the early morning assault, I headed straight to Silicon

Valley.



Readers should know I promised not to reveal any sources because I

wanted people to talk openly. The plus side of this was that, guard

down, Americans love to talk. And what they wanted to talk in the Valley

was politics.



To paraphrase numerous conversations, the general view was: ’Media?

Yeah, well it’s interesting but only as the consumer interface for the

information that we’re going to gather and disseminate.’



Trust me. If Al Gore is still around, his running mate in 2004 could

well be a current executive in Silicon Valley. If Al is busted by then,

all the chips are on a digital White House.



I spent the following day in Haight Ashbury talking to various

cyberheads and assorted digital travellers about their social and

cultural vision of tomorrow. One of the most attractive things to me in

the early enthusiasm about the Net was the potential democratisation of

information, ideas and communication.



However, most of the people I talked to seemed upset that their private

world was being invaded. What was fascinating was the contrast between

their ideals of openness and the reality of their closed, cocooned

world, where the thought of ordinary people taking over was viewed with

a mixture of horror and disdain.



This was all getting a bit depressing, so I spent the next two days in

observational mode, watching television, window shopping and soaking up

the commercial messages. Here, it really hits you how technology - and

the Web especially - have become central to people’s lives and to the

marketing strategies of seemingly every company. A Web address is

appended on to everything potential consumers see.



Importantly, the messages often communicate what function the site is to

perform - entertainment, information, the ability to order products - so

the potential for disappointment is reduced.



But most startling was the way entertainment technology and television

itself is marketed. I’ve always thought Americans had an enthusiasm for

gadgetry that outweighs even our own, but the focus on obscure technical

details was amazing.



And then I came across Smart TV, a magazine which launched the week

before I arrived in the US. Its focus is on how to get the most out of

viewing in a multi-channel, interactive environment. It runs columns by

a psychologist and a sociologist on how to manage life amid all this

choice and televisual interactivity, as well as a raft of features on

things such as how to get the best out of your set-top box, and surfing

the Web from your armchair.



This brought me to the nub of what I wanted to find out. Will people

really want to interact and how? I headed to Seattle, where I felt sure

I would be faced with a certainty of vision and might even get an

answer.



No such luck. To be honest, I was amazed at the openness of the

reception I got and at the candour of the people. I know it’s boring

but, throughout the whole trip, I didn’t meet anyone who was both really

consumer-focused and genuine - ie, not spouting the party line - and who

had a clue as to what the real impact of digital media would be in three

to five years.



No-one seemed to doubt digital innovations would, in the longer term,

transform both the trading and the entertainment environments to the

point where a new economic model and potentially a new political

structure would be required. This is, of course, easy to say because it

doesn’t demand any immediate action and therefore carries no risk of

getting things wrong.



The overriding impression I brought back from the US is of a society

much more eager to embrace all forms of media technology than ours, and

with a greater desire from both suppliers and consumers to make it

work.



But there was also a confusion and uncertainty born out of the

recognition that so many people who thought they’d got it right had

already got it wrong.



So, in short, the message I came back with was: ’It’s all right

everyone, they don’t know either.’



Nigel Morris is the marketing director of BBJ Media Services



This article was first published on campaignlive.co.uk

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