My wife is Chinese, she's from Singapore. We were about 30 when we met, and I was divorced. When we decided to get married, we went back to Singapore to meet her parents.
Cathy's dad had two wives. Cathy's mum was the younger of the two. He had three children by his first wife and five by his second. When they were young, they all lived together in one house. Cathy told me that when she'd meet new friends at school, a common question was: "Which wife is your mother: first, second or third?"
She didn't know that this was unusual until she came to England, to go to art school. I was brought up in London, so, for me, this was quite strange. The concept of one man having several wives. But, of course, when I met Cathy's dad, it wasn't something we discussed. Because he didn't speak English. After a few days, Cathy asked me how I got on with her dad. I said I wasn't sure I was comfortable with the idea of him having more than one wife. Cathy said: "That's funny, because he's not sure he's comfortable with the idea of his daughter marrying a man who just divorces his wives when he's fed up with them."
It's strange, seeing yourself through someone else's eyes. In the West, we've got a system that makes perfect sense to us. If the relationship isn't working, you call it a day and both get on with your separate lives. But he didn't see it like that. To him, if a man takes on the responsibility for a woman and children, he takes it on for life. He thought I took marriage trivially. Changing wives the same way you'd change cars. When you get bored, chop the old one in for a new one.
But, strangely enough, Cathy's dad and I were fundamentally in agreement. We both wanted to treat our wives with respect. But we both had very different ways of doing it. My way was to treat her as an equal, with all the same opportunities, but also the same problems and responsibilities that I had. His way was to shoulder all those problems and responsibilities himself. It was a real lesson for me.
We learn to think there's only ever one right way of seeing things. Our way. In order for me to be right, I must prove you wrong. I notice this particularly with the rhetoric about new media. Everyone and anyone involved in new media will tell you that the entire world has changed forever and can never be the same. Everything that everyone previously thought or knew is now redundant. All new media means the death of all old media. And yet I wonder.
In the 60s, the government was brought down because of a court case involving prostitutes. The more famous of the prostitutes was Christine Keeler, who had sex with the secretary of state for war, John Profumo. But the other prostitute involved was a small, Barbara Windsor-type blonde called Mandy Rice-Davies. She was giving evidence about having sex with Lord Astor. Lord Astor's counsel said: "Miss Rice-Davies, I put it to you that my client denies having had sex with you or, in fact, ever having met you. What do you say to that?" The prostitute turned to the judge and said: "Well he would say that, wouldn't he?"
I feel the same way about new-media gurus. They would say that, wouldn't they? They would say every other kind of media is dead. But that doesn't make it true. Of course the media has changed, but people haven't. We now have new ways to reach them, but we still have to motivate them. We still have to cut through the clutter of over-communication. We still have to engage, involve, persuade. We still have to talk to people, to influence their behaviour. Sure, we have lots of new ways to do it. And that gives us lots more options how we do it. But it still needs to be done by people who can do it. Because people are still the same.
We absorb the technological changes into our lives. We adapt them for our own uses.If you go on TED.com, you'll see Evan Williams, the guy who created Twitter, speaking about how he still isn't sure what it's going to end up being used for. Sometimes the invention happens before there's a need for it. Our minds work on a supply-and-demand basis. But technological innovation isn't always like that. There wasn't any demand for Twitter. But he thought it was a great idea, and people like great ideas. So he just thought he'd put it out there and see what people did with it.
The same was true of Akio Morita, a co-founder of Sony. In the 70s, one of his engineers came up with a little cassette tape player that gave fantastic sound. But you couldn't record on it and it only played back over headphones. Sony's marketing department rejected it. They said there was no demand for such a thing. Morita overruled them; he said it provided such great sound, people would find a way to use it. That was the Sony Walkman.
When Steve Jobs started Apple, his vision was always to create a computer hardware company to rival IBM. He didn't invent the personal computer. Rank Xerox engineers did, at PARC. They invented the mouse, the scroll down menu and WYSIWYG (a screen where "what you see is what you get"). Everything you know today as the personal computer. But the board at Rank Xerox rejected it. The public weren't asking for domestic computers, so why supply a demand that didn't exist? So Jobs took it all and launched the 1984 Macintosh. And let the public tell him what they wanted to use the computer for.
When you make the invention, you can't always see what the world's going to do with it. Marconi thought the purpose of wireless would be to bring church services to people in remote areas. He didn't know it would be used for radio stations because they didn't exist then. In the 30s, the people who invented radar didn't know they were inventing a means of detecting the unseen. They were trying to invent a Death Ray that could destroy enemy aircraft. As a Death Ray, the invention was a failure because the "rays" just kept bouncing back. And that became radar.
When something is first invented, it's just technology. Then it gets absorbed into people's lives and changes what exists. It doesn't replace it, it doesn't mean the death of it, it changes it.
Like everyone else, I go online at Amazon to buy books. But I don't use Amazon to browse books. I use it to send books to friends or order books I already know I want. I don't spend the lunch hour online at Amazon, browsing through its shelves like I do in Waterstone's. I go to Amazon with an answer, not a question.
The same with Ocado. My wife uses the website to deliver heavy, regular purchases. Bottled water, cleaning products, paper towels, bathroom tissue, cases of wine. But she doesn't use it for food shopping. She enjoys walking around Waitrose or the local deli. Seeing new things, smelling the aromas, maybe tasting something, getting ideas. We can both get involved on a visceral level at the shops in a way we can't online.
So online is an addition to our lives, not an alternative. You see, "new media" is two words. And although everyone falls in love with the first word, it's just an adjective. The second word, the noun, is more important. It might be new, but it's still media.
My son's reading 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea by Jules Verne on his iPhone every morning on the Tube. He downloaded 20 classic books, including Kipling, Kafka and Dickens, from iTunes for 60p. You don't have to junk everything existing just because something new happens. Great stuff still works. That's the difference between a good idea and a technique. If you've got a good idea, it can go anywhere. If it's dependent on a particular media, and won't work anywhere else, then it's not an idea, it's a technique.
The most important thing I learned at art school was Form Follows Function. Form FOLLOWS Function. We don't start at the solution, we start at the problem. New media now opens up a terrific new range of possibilities for us. But like any new set of tools, we need to know what we're doing before we choose which tool to use. We don't grab the electric screwdriver, just because it's new and exciting, and then find the job calls for a spanner. First, we define the job, then we choose the tool. We need different media like we need different tools. Because they do different jobs. So the more we've got the better. We don't need to get rid of one in order to use another.
Why are people creating such a dichotomy between new media and traditional media? Why does one have to be wrong in order for the other to be right? Why can't they both be right? As Alfred North Whitehead said: "Sometimes the opposite of a great truth is another great truth."
A year or so ago, I was standing in the agency reception in Soho reading The Sun. Suddenly, there's a newsflash on CNN. A plane had just crashed into a building in Manhattan. It's only a small single-engine plane but, because this is a couple of years after 9/11, it's big news. No-one knows if it's another terrorist attack or just an accident. It's hit a building on 72nd Street and Second Avenue. The building's on fire and debris is showering down into the street. Fire trucks are blocking the street and cops are keeping everyone away. I'm watching the pictures broadcast from a news helicopter. I'm worried because my sister lives two blocks away from there, on 74th Street and Second Avenue. I figure she should be at work by now, so I call her at her office on Madison Avenue.
I say: "Hi Shirl, I just want to check you guys are OK." She says: "Sure, why?" I say: "Because of that plane that just hit the Upper East side?" She says: "What plane?" I say: "It's on CNN, an apartment block at 72nd and Second." She says: "WHAT?" She calls her husband, Jerry, back at their apartment. He says: "I didn't hear anything. Let me look out the window." He looks, comes back and says: "Gee, there sure are a lot of cops and fire trucks around." He goes out on the street to see what's up. The cops won't let him out of his building. They say: "Sorry, buddy, we gotta keep the streets clear. A plane just hit a building on the next block."
Now here's a thing. I'm more than 3,000 miles away. On another continent. And I know a plane has hit a building next to him before he does.
The way we receive media has revolutionised our lives. I learned about the crash from a multichannel news network via digital cable TV. But I could have got it just as quickly over Twitter or SMS.
The point is, my normal human reaction was to pick up an old-fashioned phone and dial my sister. I want to know if my family's OK the fastest way possible. That hasn't changed. That's how we are. We don't differentiate between old and new. We don't care, we've got lives. And we are always more deeply involved with our own lives than whatever else is going on. In fact, we're mostly not even aware of media at all.
I heard a man the other day saying he'd just had an unsettling experience in a motorway service station. He'd pulled into the rest area to use the toilet. He went into a cubicle and locked the door. He sat down and heard someone enter the cubicle next to him. They locked the door and sat down. Then the voice said: "Hello mate, OK?" He was a bit embarrassed, but he didn't want to appear rude. So he replied: "Er, yes thanks." He hoped that would be the end of it. But the voice next door said: "How are you getting on then?" He didn't quite know how to answer. So he said: "Er, yes, everything's fine, thank you." Then the voice said: "So what are you up to, you old bugger?" He thought this was starting to get a bit personal. So he said: "Exactly the same thing as you are, I imagine." Then the voice said: "Hang on a bit, Chris. I'll have to put the mobile down for a sec, the bloke in the next cubicle keeps trying to talk to me."
Some people adapt to changes in media faster than others. Seth Godin, the new-media guru, says we don't know where any of this is going to end. We can't see the future until it gets here. So anyone who predicts the death of anything is pretending to a knowledge they don't have. All we know is stuff changes. Always has, always will. And we'll absorb it into our lives. Always have, always will. Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose.