INTERACTIVE: BEHIND THE HYPE/ATTITUDES TOWARDS TECHNOLOGY: Will ignorance of new technology stunt the interactive age? - The limited appeal of the Internet is part of a wider uncertainty about hi-tech progress, John Owen says writes reports reports

If you’re an advertiser and you’re thinking of using the Internet, there are some things that you should know first. Most obviously, who actually uses the thing? But, with an eye on the future, you should also be considering what people in general think about it. And what are their attitudes to technology as a whole?

If you’re an advertiser and you’re thinking of using the Internet,

there are some things that you should know first. Most obviously, who

actually uses the thing? But, with an eye on the future, you should also

be considering what people in general think about it. And what are their

attitudes to technology as a whole?

The answer to the first question is ever-changing, but there are a few

constants. Only 13 per cent of the UK population have accessed the

Internet at some point according to the 1996 Internet Report, a

quantitative survey of more than 2,000 UK adults published by

Continental Research last year. A surprisingly high three-quarters of

these people claimed still to be users - making a total of 4.6 million

people, or one in ten of the population.

Eighty per cent of those who have accessed the Net did so either at work

or college. The user-profile is heavily skewed towards young, upmarket


If it’s an opportunity to target this narrow group of people with

specially tailored messages, then the Internet is a genuinely useful

marketing tool - today, immediately, right now.

The big question for most advertisers, however, concerns the medium’s

future potential rather than its current attributes. Could the niche

appeal of today become the mass market of tomorrow? The answer to this

question hangs, at least to some degree, on the earlier one about the

public’s attitudes to technology.

It’s an issue everyone is trying to get to the bottom of and it’s why

Foote Cone Belding carried out an extensive qualitative research study

about technology last December and January. FCB conducted a series of

focus group meetings and in-depth interviews as well as ’hanging out’ in

cybercafes and talking to people online.

’The intention was to get a broad spectrum of views,’ Magnus Wood, a

senior planner at the agency, says. ’We talked to everyone from kids

playing with computers in their bedrooms, through newly redundant

40-year-olds making a living as consultants, to middle-aged women who

could barely manage a calculator.’

What the findings showed more clearly than ever is the degree to which

knowledge and appreciation of the Internet and technology in general is


As Wood puts it: ’Depending on your relationship with it, the Internet

is seen either as full of paedophiles, or a way of life.’

He continues: ’There are two opposite views - fear, uncertainty and

stress because you don’t understand it; or a certainty that it is the

future and that you ought to get on it now.’

Those falling into the first group are not necessarily all middle-aged

housewives from Derby. There is a sizeable group, which Wood labels ’the

lost generation’, and which comprises twentysomethings who just missed

out on a computer-based education at school and who are now seeing their

younger brothers and sisters getting on better than they are because

they were brought up with technology.

It’s an observation that doesn’t surprise Alex Letts, the chairman of

the hi-tech ad agency, SMI. ’We did some research last year which

revealed a stream of business managers coming through because they are

good at technology,’ he says. ’If you don’t understand how technology

can give you a business advantage, you’ve got a crucial hole in your


The SMI study labelled those with no experience gaps ’ex-tech-utives.’

If these people are unusual now - and thus able to progress at

extraordinary speed - they, and those like them, will be the only people

in business in a few years’ time.

The same logic applies to consumers. If few of your average TV-watching,

magazine-reading, radio-listening punters are found surfing the Net

today, the idea of interacting with digital media - though not

necessarily the Net per se - will be completely normal by the end of the

next decade.

’When the motor car was invented, people said it would never catch on,’

Letts explains. ’Initially, they were right - it was too expensive and

too complicated. But as the world developed to accommodate the car and

as it became easier to use, it became central to our way of life.’

Right now, cars and faxes are easier to use to their full potential than

computers. ’As a car driver, you don’t have to understand how it works

to use it,’ Letts says. ’You do with a computer. Even with Windows 95,

to use more than the basics, you need a science degree.’

So, will Bill Gates invent an interface that’s as simple as an automatic

gear box?

It’s one possibility, but, for Charlie Dobres, the head of Lowe Digital,

the pivotal moment will be when the Net - or whatever it becomes - is

made available on the TV. ’For those applications that are really going

to take off, like home shopping and home banking, the TV set, with a

remote control and probably a simple infra-red keyboard, will be the

delivery system,’ Dobres predicts. As for the computer-based Net: ’This

is the backstage rehearsal for interactive TV.’

Not much comfort there for the technophobes - be they consumers or


But Dobres adds an important caveat for the geeks who would take over

the world. As well as thinking up ways to make the technology easier to

use, there’s an even more pressing challenge: ’The thing we need to

worry about most is the content,’ he says. ’We need to address our

thoughts not to the early adopters, but to a much broader audience.’

Otherwise, this whole thing still might not catch on.


’For me, the Internet is how I define myself; it shapes my way of life.

I express myself through the Internet and without it I wouldn’t be a

whole person. Sounds kinda sad if you don’t understand.’

Benski, a helper at Ealing Studios

’Kids these days can’t even count without using a calculator. I’ve no

real idea what the Internet is - full of porn.’

Housewife, St. Albans

’I’m going to be the next Bill Gates.’

Student, at the launch of a Web-based magazine, Shoreditch

’I don’t need computers. I’ve managed for 50 years without them so


Senior executive, Wimbledon

’I don’t know how we managed without the fax.’

Middle manager, Clapham

’We had one computer at school. My brother’s got his own. Somebody

should have taught us - how do they expect us to get a job?’

Recent graduate, Finchley

’The Internet is the CB radio of the 90s.’

City analyst

’Yes, I spend a lot of my time playing computer games, but it sure beats

the hell out of nicking cars.’

14-year-old boy, Clapham.


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