The Wrong Kind Of Future?

The year has commenced with its usual future-fest in the form of the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.  The show has its ups and downs, but whatever any given year may reveal on the show floor, it can be relied upon to provide an opportunity to network with 130,000 of your closest friends, attend as many conference sessions as you can stand (possibly more) and to generally chew the fat on all things media and tech.

And if you’re smart, you’ll get to eat well while you’re there.

While CES may be almost unique in our industry in terms of its sheer enormity (IBC is about the only event to be comparable in that respect), its relentless focus on the future of media and technology make it entirely familiar to anyone who’s taken a turn around the conference circuit.

After all, “The Future of…” is a favorite theme among conference organizers, a pretty safe bet when it comes to creating content that delegates will pay for.  Whether talking about the future of TV or any other particular medium, the future of news or the future of media in general, conferences seem to find a willing audience -– and a host of willing speakers (at this point I put my hand up -- I’ve done it  before, and no doubt will again).

However, while a focus on the relatively near-term future is undeniably important and necessary for any business, the content bias at almost all such events means insufficient consideration is given to arguably the most critical influence on the future of any medium: namely, the evolution of consumer lifestyles.

It’s easy to see why people veer toward discussing technological change, their business models and their goals – these factors are generally more within their control and flow more predictably in a linear fashion.  Consumers, on the other hand, are much more difficult to predict, apt to evolve their behaviors inconsistently and often in ways unforeseen.  Sometimes this works to the advantage of the media business and sometimes not.

My guess is that if you asked people in the business to list some of the most significant things to have influenced TV, say, you’d probably hear things like time-shifting through the DVR and VOD, the proliferation of video-capable platforms, audience fragmentation across more channels, the ascendance of  cable, etc.

You’d be less likely to hear about things like the rise of the dual-income household, the erosion of any consistent work-life balance that has resulted in a shift in when the family is together as a whole, the advent of convenience meals and the microwave oven (not to mention fast food and the take-away business) and so on.

Yet it’s factors like these that shape our nascent desires, and ultimately have a huge bearing on how we develop our use of media and technologies.  Sure, the technology has to be there, but as we’ve seen time and again, technical capabilities without consumer desire (or comprehension) tend to crash and burn.

So perhaps if we really want to understand the future of TV, media, advertising, etc., perhaps we ought to spend at least some of our time debating the future of consumers and their likely lifestyles, work-styles and family dynamics.

Questions relating to the length of the working day; the possible continued proliferation of multi-generational households; how schools develop curricula in media and how they apply technology; the probable increase in unemployed (or under-employed) graduates, are all relevant to the fortunes of the media and tech world.

We know that media and technology don’t exist in their own bubble; they exist in a sociological and behavioral context informed by the lives of those who use them.  So why is so much of our discussion based on the product and the related processes -- and so little on the bigger picture?

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