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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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