Christopher Hill’s The World Turned Upside Down looked at the radical and free-thinking groups that flourished briefly around the time of the English civil war. Those watching the engaging Channel Four series New Worlds have been asked to think about some of the immediate consequences of that turmoil through the Restoration period, a time more troubled and troubling than the idiotic Govian view of British history would allow, when monarchy was the unabashed figurehead for the tyranny of the wealthy.
The world is on its head again, albeit this time without such violence. We are trying to adjust to the wholesale disruption created by information technology, particularly the internet. That sounds prosaic in contrast to the dreams of the Levellers or the Diggers, but the revolution in progress may prove more enduring.
There is a political dimension even to this bloodless upheaval, not least because in the UK and the US we’ve had to watch an extraordinary widening in the gap between the wealthy and everyone else, a new nakedness in the wealthy’s sense of their entitlement, while the internet conversely promises an unprecedented distribution of potency (if not power) to the mass of the population. It would be foolish to make too much of this just yet (foolish to try to predict the counter forces it could bring into being) but I want to spend some time thinking about some of the underlying cultural changes apparently in progress, and what they could mean for the future (this will probably be spread across several blog entries).
Much of the disruption lies in the fact that what once seemed solid (notably writing whether in books or newspapers, or music in recorded formats) has become disembodied, digitised.
This new ephemerality has in turn stimulated the spread of the “free” internet, where that idea of the free has a double edge: it is liberating, in the way it has allowed us easy and immediate access to much of the world’s knowledge, as well as allowing us to make our own contributions to that knowledge (on platforms like this, without the usually stultifying mediation of a traditional publisher). But of course there is also the other sense of “free”, in the way the internet is habituating us to the idea that we should not be paying for any of this stuff. This brings some obvious problems, because if people won’t pay how are the creators ever going to be rewarded for their efforts? According to expectations established by the end of the last century, without that immediate financial reward the creators will simply stop producing things for us to enjoy.
The truth is less obvious, more complex.
Certainly old production models will have to change, probably beyond recognition. I no longer have a normal TV. Whatever I watch, I watch through a computer, which apart from liberating me from the tyranny of schedulers, until recently offered me the pleasure of ad-free viewing even on commercial channels.
Commercial TV was launched on a kind of contract with the viewer, a contract which is still influential in the digital world. Instead of having to pay to watch, we would sit through ads. In this business model, we the audience actually became the product, our attention the thing that was being sold to paying customers (the advertisers).
In the UK at least the satellite broadcaster Sky first broke this model, charging a (high) monthly subscription and forcing its subscribers to watch even more (and more intrusive) ads than they’d been used to on terrestrial channels. But as the channels multiplied the audience fragmented, and as broadband connectivity brought good quality video to computer screens “traditional” TV viewing has gone into a permanent decline.
The response of the traditional TV companies, like most other pre-digital publishers, has been pathetic, as they attempt to extend their old revenue models to the new media.
I watched the aforementioned New Worlds on 4oD, Channel 4’s catch-up service. Channel 4 has followed ITV (the UK’s main commercial terrestrial broadcaster) in blocking the ad-block software on my browser, so now if I want to watch any of its programming I have to disable the ad block and sit through some crass sales messages.
Isn’t this reasonable? Actually, since I’m not the customer, but the product, it’s just dishonest, because it still doesn’t deliver my “eyeballs” to the advertiser. I wonder what world the channel managers (and their customers) are living in if they don’t understand that watching something on a computer is quite different from lounging passively on a sofa. I still don’t watch the ads; when they come on I simply switch to something more interesting for a few minutes, (the normal internet experience has trained me to flit between content streams or pages) and feel irritated with both broadcaster and any possible advertiser for intruding on whatever dramatic tension the programme might have built up.
I do understand that the broadcaster needs to have some kind of revenue to pay for the programming, but it can’t expect a sustainable revenue stream from this kind of behaviour; it can’t sell a receptive audience to advertisers by creating irritated viewers. The audience “product” needs remodelling, to understand in what circumstances I might be happy to watch a sales pitch for something I probably don’t want or need. It probably means being far more carefully intrusive, perhaps only running ads at the beginning of the programme, and certainly far less frequently through the programme itself (probably just once every 45 minutes). It might mean asking me to log in then using my profile to show me only products or services I’m probably interested in, actually using the differences between internet and traditional broadcasting to create a more compelling offer to advertisers. Someone must be thinking about this stuff, but there’s no sign of it in the way those broadcasters behave.
To be fair I’m not sure many people apart from Google have really cracked how to make advertising work in this new media world (Facebook is clearly making lots of money but its user base remains fragile and vulnerable to fashion change). It may be subscription models and streaming offer a better way forward for many. I’m certainly happy to pay Netflix a few pounds every month as long as there are a few things queued up in my watch list, and to pay Google a streaming rental for new films. Spotify and similar services are fast becoming the commonest way for people to enjoy music, though here there’s a different problem with the music labels grabbing the lion’s share of whatever royalties might be available. Then again this is probably a temporary issue, as artists work out how best to take advantage of the direct access to their audiences offered by digital technology (I can see a future for specialist music marketing services, but certainly not the labels as we have known them).
In future blogs I’ll be looking at further implications for creativity, the individual and the corporate world. For the moment suffice to say that the can is open and the worms wriggling.