Yesterday I found myself at the Houses of Parliament (yes, the picture above is from yesterday) as a speaker for the motion ‘Technology companies are the new media owners’ at an International Advertising Association UK debate. I was seconding Rory Sutherland, a very accomplished speaker and Vice-Chairman of Ogilvy & Mather, and we were both up against Hugo Rifkind, a well-known journalist for the Times, Spectator and GQ amongst others, and Chad Wollen, Head of Innovation & Commercial Futures at Vodafone.
I had way more fun than I thought I would. For such an august venue and gathering, I was also less nervous than I usually am. Unfortunately Rory and I couldn’t talk our way to a majority and the motion was defeated – but we had very worthy opponents. Here’s what I said:
One of my favourite books is by Kevin Kelly, the founding editor of Wired magazine, called What Technology Wants. Right at the beginning, it distinguishes between the traditional concept of technology – wires, bytes, megabytes, electronic devices – and what he calls the technium, the living, breathing system of ideas that underpin the creation of technology. In a sense, the creation of technology is inevitable because humans are thinking beings and we’re wired to come up with ideas – and with things that make them happen: technology.
That’s what technology is – more than the nuts and bolts, it’s the fact that it allows us to explore our thoughts and give them physical form. It is often said in fact that the history of technology is the history of humanity. That’s because it is tied to progress.
The link between technology and media is almost obvious. I wanted to avoid bringing up Marshall McLuhan but given that he is one of the Fathers of Media Theory I think it would be remiss not to mention his thoughts on media back in 1964: that it is an extension of ourselves, our ideas and in fact any technology. Technology is in fact, media. The earliest known technology is probably the printing press, the most modern include the tablet, 3D printing and internet-connected products. Technology companies are the new media owners but let us not forget they have been the oldest media owners as well.
Semantics aside, technology companies are vehicles of social capital – they’re vital for maintaining relationships crucial to a healthy society. Robert Putnam said it back in 1995. When your mother or grandmother is able to talk to you from hundreds or thousands of miles away, she is maintaining a relationship with you that wouldn’t be possible if we still depended on the fax or telegram. When was the last time you heard someone say they were going to fax or write a letter to their colleague in Singapore, or even Brighton for that matter? And then think about the last time you heard someone say they were going to Skype them. Politically, it is technology that saw Obama through to victory in both 2008 and 2012, and it is what will be used to help other governments into power in many parts of the world. Million dollar TV ads are fine and 5,000 word written profiles in the newspaper are absolutely important (I’m a big fan of well-written and researched longform journalism) – but Obama’s Tumblr account? Each short post got between 1,000 and 11,000 shares on the platform, and it reached millions of young people who very honestly are not about to read that 5,000 word piece. We’re living in a time where kids swipe a magazine thinking it’s an iPad. When you reach young people and motivate them enough to share – you have their attention, and when you have attention, you’re a true media owner.
Technology companies are also democratic media owners, in ways that traditional media owners aren’t. Whether it’s Twitter, Facebook, a digital OOH poster that streams tweets or a blog, technology puts the power of ideas and conversation into the hands of the public. This *can* go wrong – we do need curators – and to that end, there are curators. Communities have managers who very often perform a role similar to the newspaper editor. They perform traditional media tasks in a new media way: they edit, guide, advise content creators . And by and large, the interesting thing is that even ‘old’ media owners are technology companies today. Every single media outlet of old has a digital presence now; indeed they have to have one to stay in the game. The Guardian, the Telegraph – in fact we now have digital-only media publications like Quartz that are built for the modern age – optimised for the mobile, where most people spend their time. Penguin is a technology company now, as is the Economist – they publish great podcasts, not just books and magazines. They’ve evolved the nature of what they do, as do we all. If Penguin was a traditional media owner then they are now a new media owner.
Technology companies are also able to reflect culture better than more traditional media owners. One of my favourite examples of a technology that has understood social behaviour and woven a business around it is a company called ZipDial, based in India. They noted that people in the country used to give friends and family a missed call so that they could be called back, to avoid paying the call rates. Today businesses of all kinds in the region and beyond use ZipDial to allow customers to give them a missed call so that they can be called back at their convenience. It’s putting the power to determine when to be contacted back into people’s hands. Traditional media can tell you about a brand, a product, a piece of information – but when it comes to taking an audience’s voice into account, to really making a difference to your customers today then as a media owner you fall back on technology.
As someone who works for a media agency, I can tell you that technology is very much a part of our day to day business. Our broadcast department and video on demand teams are the same. Our press team takes care of the tablet versions of the media we plan and buy – because the media owners, whether Metro, which has a print and a tablet version, or Channel 4, which is a broadcast presence but also very much an online presence with 4OD – operate as one.
When you think of good ideas, you don’t want to be constrained by channels. Instead of thinking about a TV or a radio or a digital idea, what we should all be thinking about are the best ways to interact with people, of ways through which we can bring value to people, in places they’re already in rather than forcing them to go to a media property that you own – just because you own it. I’m not saying that people don’t read newspapers or watch TV – TV viewing continues to be as popular as it ever has, in fact it has even increased slightly from 2002 to 2012 – but attention is a different story. Multi-tasking is common, and media-meshing, the usage of multiple devices simultaneously is on the rise. Traditional media owners no longer have the attention they used to. The best ideas are therefore those that capture audience attention by merging content with device.
Most importantly, technology companies are the real media owners today because they allow us to speak to audiences that do not have access to more traditional media. It is very easy, sitting in our corner of London and the UK to forget about ground realities in other parts of the world. In Africa and Asia, farmers are enabled to set the daily price on their produce by getting access to market data through their phones instead of depending on middlemen. In those parts of the world, technology empowers women and children who would never have access to information. Last year’s TED prize winner spoke of a School in the Cloud where children could teach themselves in a self-organised learning environment. That is now actually a reality, and was released last week at TED 2014. Children in the villages of India are being taught by grannies across the world via the medium of technology. It is too easy to think of the world as our little corner of it. Technology companies own the media that shows us the rest of the world despite the best efforts of countries like Iran (thank you proxy servers and the TOR Project), they own the media that makes us better individuals (thank you to online education courses like Coursera) and a better society that is accruing plenty of social capital (thank you to community forums, social networks and blogs).
If media is about attention, if it is about progress, and if it is about society – then technology companies are the present and the future.