The 30 year switch

When I started working in broadcasting in 2001, the idea that digital technologies were changing the media industries was pretty much a fringe debate. Most people had barely any experience of the internet, and many of the people I was working with were planning long careers in broadcasting, publishing or advertising – industries that had hardly changed in the last half-century. By the time I left broadcasting in 2011, everything was different, and digital had transformed these sectors beyond recognition.

Instead of denial, the tone of conversation in traditional media industries now is weary submission, as each sector sees the tidal wave of digital change break over their old business models, and hopes that they can find enough high ground left to survive. But I think that we’re barely halfway through, and there’s evidence that most significant shifts in culture take around 30 years to fully play out.

The reason for this is that cultural change is not just about technology or economics, but about changes in behaviour. The important phase of cultural change is not the adoption of new technologies, but about the way those new technologies change the way we consume or engage with culture. Its often the case that the first cultural products for new technologies merely mimic old forms, and it isn’t until the majority of audiences have changed to the new technology that new behaviours emerge clearly enough to sustain new forms of culture, and in turn new business models.

For example – the CD is 30 years old this week. Reading accounts of the development and launch of the CD as a technology, its interesting how much it was defined by traditional ideas of what listening to music should be like – ie listening to albums in their entirety, a behaviour learnt through years of buying and listening to vinyl records.

In fact, even the earliest CD players contained the seed of a radical shift in listening behaviours that would change the economics of music forever. This was the idea of random access to tracks – the ability to shuffle and skip through albums in ways that weren’t defined by the track listing set by the artist. Although this was a minor feature of early CD players, the new behaviour was a significant shift in how we listened to music, and developed over the next 30 years to create a new industry based around individual tracks, streams and playlists, dominated by companies like Apple that were not even legally allowed to be in the music industry in 1982.

Just as the CD contained the seeds of a new behaviour that would eventually change the music industry 30 years later, new behaviours around books and TV on platforms like Kindle and Youtube are starting to sow the seeds of disruption for the publishing and broadcasting industries. We’re only just beginning to see what behaviours might emerge, like the shuffle, to change these industries beyond recognition. Rather than being at the end of a decade of digital change, we might only be at the end of the beginning – by 2030 we’ll be looking back at Youtube and Kindle like we do the early CDs, marvelling at how much they resembled the media platforms they were only just beginning to replace.





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