Not so long ago I saw a presentation by Mike Walsh about future trends in media and digital technologies.   Mike is described as A leading authority and keynote speaker on the digital future and helps leading companies and brands embrace new ideas.

I will start by saying that I almost always view the opinions of these sorts of people with a high degree of scepticism. Much of what is stated by the so called visionaries and ‘experts’ seem to me to be dubious at best and sometimes just plain wrong.  Inevitably, the arguments seem to revolve around two main themes:

  • Traditional media is dead-and-buried or at least under serious threat, and will be replaced by a media increasingly generated by the public rather than by traditional corporations and producers. Television seems to be singled out for particular concern in this regard;
  • Children and young people are not consuming traditional media and therefore this represents a seismic shift away from the ‘norm’.  Since these people will be the adults of tomorrow, if we analyse their behaviour and habits today, we can predict the future.

Both these assumptions are nonsense of course. No one would doubt that traditional media is changing and having to co-exist with other demands on people’s time, and the internet is undoubtedly part of that, but the need to co-exist has always been the case.  As for television, well audiences in the UK have been going up in recent years.  Digital set-top boxes continue to fly off the shelves in the shops, sales of flat-screen TVs and other related equipment continue to be buoyant. Sky and cable continue to sign new subscribers. When I was buying my new flat-screen TV last year, I actually found it difficult to get the specific model I wanted as it had sold out everywhere.   All of this doesn’t seem to me to indicate an industry in terminal decline.

Of course, in the historic context, TV audiences aren’t as high as they used to be. In the so-called golden age – if that’s what it was - you might have shows getting 18 million or so viewers. Those days are over, but they were over long before the internet; and certainly before it was possible to view streaming content online. Yet to listen to some people you would be fooled into assuming that everything we know is on it’s way out due to the internet.   Not so.

As for children and young people not consuming traditional media, well this doesn’t indicate a future trend at all, since your views and opinions change throughout your life. Interview a 16 year old and you will get one set of ideas about the world, and interview them again at 21 and you will get something completely different. Not only that, but they will probably laugh about how nonsensical their earlier opinion was. Things change.

Part of the nonsense is due to the tendency of technology ‘visionaries’ to constantly think in terms of ‘migration’, ‘replacement’, ‘obsolescence’ and so on.  This is part of their psyche.  ‘We have this, so we don’t need that any more’ is their outlook.  If you look back in time there are plenty of examples of wild predictions, even emanating from some intelligent people. Yet how many turn out to be true? Or mean anything to the average person-in-the-street? It wasn’t that long ago that one very large technology consultancy company predicted the end of books.  Of course, we know – probably largely due to Amazon and the like – that book sales have if anything gone up in recent years.  The issue wasn’t so much about whether people wanted books any longer (they have never gone away), but more that it is now so much easier to find what is available.  At one time, people predicted radio’s demise due to television. “Why would you want something that didn’t have pictures” was the argument. Nowadays, radio in the UK is pretty much as strong as it has ever been.  “VHS tapes will kill off television viewing” was another prediction. “Television will kill off the cinema” was another.   I could go on…

These predictions weren’t made idly by the public but with seriousness, by the experts.

As for television and other forms of entertainment, I just don’t get the impression it is on the way out.

And remember the ‘Blair Witch Project’? The movie made with no money that was going to pave the way for everyone to challenge the traditional industry? Well that didn’t exactly materialise either – though I remember many serious predictions that it would.

The conclusion, I suppose, is that people want a mixture of ways of getting content. Furthermore, although self-generated content is part of it, there is still something to be said for just sitting back and watching the professionals at work.

Anyway, back to the book review. It’s really very good. It is published by Phaidon who are more well known for their books on art and design so it is well put together and very graphical. Each chapter contains interesting insights about different aspects of how humans and technology have interacted to cause new and often unexpected results. There are some thoughtful comments on the history of certain technologies and media, and perceptive observations about how different countries respond to the challenges and opportunities in very different ways. Yes, there is the future-gazing and ‘everything-traditional-is-on-it’s-way-out’ predictions but he doesn’t go too overboard. As I have indicated above, I just don’t agree with many of these predictions but he makes up for it on other ways and unlike other similar books I would recommend it.

On the whole, very good, worth buying and mostly believable.

One final thought. Isn’t it slightly ironic that he has chosen one of the most ‘traditional’ media in human history – the book – to describe traditional media’s demise.  He could have used a Blog I guess, but then at £20, there must still be life in the old dog yet, as they say…

Futuretainment: Yesterday the World Changed, Now it’s Your Turn.  By  Mike Walsh,  Phaidon Books £19.95