In his doctoral dissertation, Transforming Audiences, the Swedish media researcher Jakob Bjur describes how television audiences, and thereby television as a societal phenomenon, are changing. “Social viewing” is decreasing. Television viewing is undergoing individualization.
Explanations for this are many but the main reason is an underlying overall individualization within the developed welfare state democracies. Of course, there are both technical and economic components involved as well.
Nowadays it’s common to have several televisions in one household. Children and young people often have their own television in their bedroom. Television is also available on the computer and is soon available in cell phones. Everyone watches in his or her own way. Taken as a whole, the groundwork is laid not just for individualization but also for both “space shift” and “timeshift”. The television viewer is no longer bound to the family room or to the viewing schedule found in his or her TVGuide. Not only does each individual watch what he or she prefers, but they also can do it when and where they want.
With individualization and its accompanying changes, television viewing has been relegated a different place in daily life. The French historian FernandBraudel coined the term “the structures of everyday life”. A slight shift in the meaning of the expression—although actually less than one would think at first glance—makes it useful in providing a descriptive framework for the changes that are now occurring within media use.
In the “radio and television society”, media consumption had no central place in daily life. Reality wasn’t experienced through media but, rather, media told of the reality of others. One’s own reality was experienced first-hand. The newspaper has always been the individually consumed medium. Radio had elements of a collectively consumed medium but it, too, was essentially an individually consumed medium.
A veritable cultural revolution began when television moved into the home. The family watched television together. Although Marshall McLuhan described television as a “cool” medium (as opposed to radio which was “hot”), television engaged people in a totally different manner than radio and newspapers did. Starving children moved into the family living room. Victims of napalm bombings over Viet Nam were side-by-side with the “TV dinners” served in the living room on “TV trays” . Perry Mason became everyone’s family attorney. In the words of the Swedish sociologist Hans L Zetterberg: “The ‘big world’ and the ‘small world’ passed seamlessly into each other.”
The shape of reality was that of the television screen. But reality became media enriched in a much wider sense. Television brought radio and newspapers with it. People wanted to read and hear about the world that television had brought into their living rooms.
This is being dissolved by individualization—and the resulting timeshift, spaceshift and fragmentation. The structures of everyday life are changing. It’s becoming many-faceted or perhaps multiform.
Despite our assumptions that development only goes faster and faster, the fact of the matter is that the economic and social relationships of the last 50 years have changed significantly less than during the 50 years prior. All Western Europe and North American societies changed more radically from 1910 to 1960 than they did from 1960 to 2010.
When we attempt to understand how the media structure is now on its way to changing, this fact becomes a central insight. The new technology doesn’t determine through some innate mystical power what tomorrow’s media structure will look like. The individualization in television viewing that JakobBjur describes occurs when it becomes possible due to technological and economic changes. And it’s a change that is going to take time.
Everyone won’t begin to view television in their cell phones simply because it’s possible. It will continue to be a richer experience to watch a soccer match between Milan and Inter on a television with a 32-inch screen than on an Iphone. Not everyone is going to hook up the computer between the coffeepot and jam jar on the breakfast table simply because one could then also listen to BBC’s and Radio France’s news broadcasts. Even in the future, folks will prefer having a convenient source for news updates in the morning at the breakfast table.
The Changed Everyday Life
To achieve a realistic picture of media development, one must see the technological development from the perspective of economic conditions and possibilities as well as from the perspective of if and how “the structures of everyday life” are changed for other reasons.
For almost 20 years, the newspaper branch has speculated on the big IT impact on newspaper publishing and distribution. Their starting point, simply put, is that people want to have something to put on the table next to their coffee cup in the morning.
There’s been speculation on the washable newspaper. With the telefax as the unspoken publisher, one has conjured up a sort of “home press” that would print out those pages one wants on the same paper used yesterday that has since been cleaned of it’s home-pressed text and photos.
The e-reader is about to make that entire idea obsolete. Instead of cutting down all trees in the world in order to feed the giant global newspaper machine, an alternative is simply to send out ones and zeroes to all the e-readers of tomorrow. It’s extremely difficult to imagine that the e-reader won’t begin to replace the printed newspaper.
But for every speculation regarding a timeline for this replacement, one must take into account that it is one big technology block, containing huge investments and strong interests that must abandon their bastions.
It’s the newspaper press, press manufacturers, paper manufacturers, a worldwide distribution operation, entire departments within all the existing newspaper companies with huge numbers of press and distribution managers and specialists of all sorts that would be sent home to do something else. And the e-reader manufacturers will struggle for a number of years over who will monopolize this type of distribution form through winning dominance for their technology, their operating system, their format, and thereby winning power over all that is to come in the future of e-readers.
Everyone knows that no one will succeed. But it’s the nature of the beast to throw away billions and billions of dollars, pounds, euros and yen on a battle that will end undecided.
Every generation forms its own habits. Some are rituals: to read the morning paper printed on paper, to listen to the morning news on the radio, to view the evening television news, to hear the voices of one’s family on the telephone.
Some are standing needs: to keep oneself oriented to what’s happening, to be sufficiently informed so that one can participate in the discussions of the workplace, to know which stores are having sales and which entertainment event is scheduled, to relax to music, to keep in touch with family and friends.
Rituals change. Needs remain.
The e-reader doesn’t change needs but it does influence rituals. The need for the daily “update” remains. At the same time, everyone recognizes that the everyday routines we have developed can be stubborn. The transition from broadsheet newspapers to tabloid format didn’t involve any change in routines. To the contrary, it made life at the breakfast table simpler.
It will take longer for the e-readers to replace the tabloid newspaper.
Do TV Guide Schedules Remain?
What happens with news viewing on television when the new technology makes it so that one is no longer tied to the television program schedule? The news at 19:30 could just as well be seen at 20:25, or after one has come home from dinner with good friends at 23:10.
Will there even be a program schedule in a society where one can freely choose when one views a particular television program? What is television without a program schedule? Will the flat television screen become a home arena for viewing soccer, big events and films?
If one wants an update on world events, one can simply pause in the middle of the evening meal, remove the smart phone tucked in its pocket, and glance at the newspage of a television company, a newspaper or even a bank. What will a radio become in this society? Does one obtain a special device just to listen to the radio when—or rather, if—radio is available on all the different devices one already has: cell phone, e-reader, computer and the soccer screen in the living room? What happens to radio listening if radio isn’t available in these devices?
In the USA, a suggestion has been put forth to legislate that radio must be included in all new smart phones.
Will radio listening occur via scheduled program stations or is radio heading toward the same development as television? Preferred programs can be downloaded to one’s cell phone via the Internet and live radio listening would become interesting only when the live broadcast itself adds a particular quality: a large sports event or other live events.
Will the need for radio as social company and the authenticity of the live program cater to the continuation of live radio, even during a time when it’s technologically possible to freely decide oneself when and what one will listen to?
The Audio Renaissance
It’s important to realize that the same things can be said about radio and television as about newspapers: it’s no small economic structure that’s challenged, should one remove from today’s radio and television companies the advantage afforded by ownership of the chain of distribution—everything from the scheduled program broadcast to the receiver technology in the home, car or workplace.
As long as there is a special radio device in the home, it’s easy to preserve the morning routine of scraping the bits of egg from your whiskers to the tones of the morning radio news broadcast.
Since we know that part of a winning recipe is always simplicity, it may be that many of us want to have a special radio device at home. In support of this, radio devices have become simpler and simpler over the years in contrast to television, which has only become larger and more unwieldy over the years.
Everyone assumes that our age is that of moving images. That is a peculiar perception. We live in an age of competition and simultaneity. Sound reproduction—music but also stories—is a simultaneity function. Our age is characterized by travel and movement, by mobility: we walk, we jog, we drive cars, we fly, we wait at bus stops and airports, we move between different places. Listening is movement’s function. It’s difficult to read The Economist while jogging. Familiar radio voices, in contrast, are excellent jogging companions in the ether or as an invisible passenger in the car of a lone driver—direct or time shifted.
In 25 years, all that which creates rituals, and that which exists in the power of rituals, will certainly have changed. By 2035, half of those born in the 1990s will have celebrated their 40th birthday. The printed and home-delivered newspaper will be gone. Television news programs—those evening broadcasts that gathered most of the population—will only exist in history books. “Program schedule” will be an unknown media term. Grandparents will tell of a time when families looked in the newspaper to see what they would view on television together.
Audio is experiencing its renaissance in the ever more mobile society. But it isn’t obvious who provides audio and images. In practice, is it only public service that is responsible for radio and television with editorial content? Have the radio and television branches become fully structured into separate sub-branches: commercial stations that provide pure entertainment and public service stations that provide news, current events and culture?
It’s no bold guess that a global “Facit crisis” is on the way for newspapers and traditional television. The failure of the Swedish company Facit , whose existence was built on the manufacturing of mechanical calculators, occurred faster than anyone could have imagined. In three years it went from record profits to bankruptcy. For newspapers and traditional television, it will presumably take longer. The structures are tough. Enormous value will dissolve into nothing.
The Future as it Will Be
Conventional wisdom says that the future doesn’t allow itself to be explored. Presumably, this is inaccurate. How it will be in the distant future isn’t especially difficult to predict. What’s difficult is the intermediate future and determining just how long the intermediate perspective is.
The introduction of the Ipad, and all the other variations that have been introduced by other manufacturers, is making it easier to sketch out a picture of the future—that is, the distant future. A freehand sketch of the future might look like the following:
The e-reader becomes a universal instrument. It will be the computer one has always at the ready: big enough to make it easy to read newspapers, journals and documents and yet small enough that it doesn’t take up more space than a book in one’s bag. But the cell phone has its role as well, as does the computer at home on the desk with its convenient keyboard.
In this future, some sort of structuring occurs: each device is used for its purpose and in its context. Fundamentally, they’re not totally different computers but rather different fully integrated devices—integrated with each other through programs and remote connections. What’s found in one device is always accessible from the other two devices. And in this combination of cell phone, e-reader and computer are all the functions necessary for private and professional operations—saved documents, links to internal and external networks, Internet access, continuous downloads of all the “streams”—RSS feeds but also newspapers and journals—that the user subscribes to. Radio and television is there, too.
A calendar is there as well. Payment apps are there that replace not only credit cards but, for many, all cash in general. The house key is there, the connection to the alarm system for the house and workplace is there. All basic information and contacts for both professional and personal life are there: insurance information, reminders of various types and much more.
One’s entire private economy is contained in the three devices, a “management account” with information on wages paid, expenses, bills with due dates entered—implicit a continuously updated private budget with budget review and follow-up. The financial accounting one has for one’s private affairs can be complemented with a corresponding accounting from the division, department or workgroup for which one is responsible or active within one’s professional life.
The huge advantage with the different devices is that one can choose the size and convenience of screen and keyboard depending on the situation and purpose for which it’s needed. Someone writing a book doesn’t do it on a cell phone but on a computer. One doesn’t take the computer to bed for nighttime reading but rather the e-reader. One doesn’t listen to radio using the e-reader while taking a morning walk but rather the cell phone.
One must then keep track of three gadgets. Yes, well, many of us have several computers to keep track of already, and cell phones as well. The e-reader is something extra but it replaces the wallet, keys, newspaper, journals and all kinds of documents imaginable that today we fill our workplaces and bags with.
But what vulnerability, one might say. Everything in one place. Lose your cell phone or e-reader and lose your life. Not at all. Since the three devices are, in practice, connected, all three can be blocked if one is lost. That’s the way it is today for iPhones. Today one can already create one’s electronic shadow in “the cloud”. Every credit card, every telephone and every computer certainly does not need to “live” its own life.
The technology for what was just described is, in principle, already available today. The thought of the three different devices for different needs is not even something entirely original. Nick Bilton, who writes about media for the NewYorkTimes and teaches at NewYorkUniversity, holds a course that he calls “1, 2, 10” . The screen of one’s cell phone is read at about a distance of a foot (30 cm), the computer screen at about 2 feet, and the television screen at about the distance of 10 feet.
The uncertainty regarding the development of the described triad of devices just described rests with the transmission capacity and battery life of the cell phone. But both of these issues are restricted to the cell phone. There’s no issue with battery life for the e-reader or computer and connection with the Internet is usually managed most of the time by local wireless networks.
Transmission of data in cyberspace is no problem regarding frequency space. What actually is missing is a smoothly functioning payment application.
A central question raised by every future sketch is what happens with economic and social differences. We see that society is stratified already according to media use with differences in education level being the main determining factor although economic differences also factor in.
Households are paying more and more for total media use but competition is increasing within this media budget: pay channels on television compete with subscriptions to a morning paper, cell phones are expensive to purchase and costs for use can be high.
One main thought behind public service radio and television has been that citizens should have equal access to the infrastructure of democracy without special cost of use. What is the effect of total convergence of the media society in this regard?
Inertia and Power Structures
The above freehand sketch of the future might appear self-evident. Why aren’t we already there?
The first explanation, which may sound simple and possibly for this reason is seldom addressed, lies with that which is usually called user interface. More simply put: the devices and their management must be simple.
Electronic calendars illustrate this. At meetings, it is almost always those with e-calendars that significantly slow the process of booking the next meeting time. Despite the fact that e-calendars have been around for more than ten years, and despite the fact that they have such obvious advantages as constant updating, they remain impractical. They don’t satisfy the basic demand of simplicity.
Another important reason that the triad of cell phone, e-reader and computer isn’t right away going to replace all of today’s technology and devices is that there are a number of different functions within the various business areas, each with their own business structure, that need to be integrated. This includes hardware manufacturers, software manufacturers, banks, media companies, telecom operators, etc.
The integration of these various business areas will thoroughly change the power and, not the least, value of the entire world economy. A new technology structure is going to “steal” the value from many companies and place it with those players who are driving development.
A particularly interesting aspect from a media perspective is that media use is merely one part, and certainly not a dominating part, of this triad-integration process. The combination of various devices is built up, to a large extent, of an Internet of Things, or M2M, machine to machine. One could say that this suggests what might be in store during the transition from Web 2.0 to Web 3.0.
Note that the driving force behind this development is hardly going to be media companies but rather telecom companies who foresee the profits to be reaped by a continuous and comprehensive transmission of data. A company such as Apple, that has reasonably envisioned this future process—and therefore has a unified product line, both conceptually and regarding software—could turn out to be a major player. But it could just as well be companies within the banking or insurance sectors that drive development.
Illustrative of this point: Google belongs to the old structure. Fundamentally, Google’s operation is about helping consumers of information to sort through that which is created by producers. Media development, including payment models for media services—which happens to be of utmost interest to Google—can become a sideline function in a development that is optimized toward other functions.
The future that we have sketched is quite similar to a sketch of a new, cohesive IT-system in a company—something that as a rule takes much more time to implement than what was expected and almost always costs much more than what was projected by the investment calculation.
Michael Krigsman lists five general points accounting for the failure of IT-projects in the broader context:
- Information gets stuck in different “silos”
- Communication—dialogue between the various parts of the project—doesn’t work
- The processes are well-defined but nevertheless too complicated
- Outcomes are consistently in error but the project nevertheless continues
Krigsman refers to Naomi Bloom’s blog as an illustrative figure. If the freehand sketch of “the triad” is to be realized, the company that is going to be changed is, simply put, “The World”. Therein lies possibly an intimation that it’s going to take some time before the complete future is here.