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Media Forum article - Media Futures, June 2006p>Thinking about the future, and in particular the shape of our media future, is always enhanced by going back to the past. Just imagine where we all were ten years ago, at the beginning of 1996, and what our media life was like. The Internet was in its early days, with static home pages if you were lucky. I had just joined the BBC as a news manager and remember the BBC site was basic with little text content let alone anything else. Today it's the number one news media site in the world. Just check out www.archives.org where you can travel back through websites for a reminder of how recent our web experience is and how far we have travelled. Then think about what was on air in Ireland - no TG4 or TV3, they've both come in the past ten years, and no Today FM or Lyric FM. RTE had no competition at national level and Lyric didn't come around until 1999 during my own stint as Head of RTE Radio.
So lots more choices and lots more media. We now have widespread digital satellite TV - largely through BskyB - and a host of new indigenous services like Channel 6 on TV and Newstalk, which is soon to go national, on radio. We've come a long way that's clear but what is clearer about the Irish media picture in 2006 is just how far we still have to go - and how far behind the digital media world we are largely due to lack of broadband penetration and the lack of a digital terrestrial landscape. Ireland, as recent surveys have once again confirmed, lags far behind our European colleagues in broadband and we still have no digital terrestrial TV or radio network although pilots are now underway in both areas. Our approach to digital has been marked by a lack of vision about where it can bring it and just how vital it is for our future, not just in communications but in all aspects of our economy and society. Our lack of vision has been married with a lack of leadership both within the public and private spheres and the end loser is the future citizens and consumers of Ireland.
Take education in primary and secondary schools for example. While our school-going children are racing ahead as digital users, eagerly engaged in games and collaborative community websites like bebo.com and myspace.com, when they go to school and into the classroom its still white chalk and blackboard for most of them. In the US digital media is now part and parcel of the classroom reflecting that learning has to be just as engaging and immersive for young people as their digital media outside. Yet while Irish school boast of having school broadband we have yet to see widespread creative uses of technology and learning in the classroom. In the States we see podcasting being used as part of the class experience, a way in which children can tell stories and create their own narrative, it allows them to be creators, an essential part of today's digital media, yet it still seems an ideal in Irish classrooms where children generally are seen as receptors rather than creators.
So its not just about technology infrastructure it is also about the creative and imaginative use of that technology in transforming how we communicate, work, learn and do business.
One of the biggest problems in Ireland is that we still tend to look inwards and be quite satisfied rather than look out and learn from what is happening in other environments. Our booming economy blunts all the trends so much that it's easy to keep our heads in the sand and say we're doing great. In reality our lack of digital vision and creativity is what will turn off the economic tap. Increasingly we are seen in Europe not as information society leaders but as the once bright student who is still living off last year's grade without doing this year's work. Our competitiveness in the future will depend on our research and development not just in the sciences but in the connections which are driving the digital media revolution. And it is a revolution - much like the industrial revolution - where we need to change our assumptions. Indeed we need to start by assuming we don't know and don't understand and start seriously studying the trends particularly in the under 30s as that is the digital generation.
In Ireland the opposite has been true in that the underbelly of media change is being continually judged by the assumption of the old media. Podcasting is dismissed because 'there's no business model' or 'it will always be a niche appeal' which refuses to acknowledge that while convergence is finally taking place in media content its future is closely aligned to personalisation. It's an age of 'my media' as I call it - where the key is about content you want, when you want, where you want it. To see it as niche is to miss the point - to ignore all the trends.
Media is increasingly moving into a melt phase; multimedia content on demand where users are also becoming creators (as in blogs/podcasts and YouTube.com) and where the assumptions of both consumption and media economics needs to be sharply revised. Spot advertisement may still be booming in Ireland, largely due to our economic buoyancy, but across broadcast market with higher digital and broadband penetration (e.g. Ireland within the next 2-5 years) both real-time broadcast audiences and spot advertisement has declined. Its not that advertisement doesn't work - it is that it has to be much more sophisticated if you want to communicate in a mass market in the future. The current examples are adverts like the Honda Power of Dreams animated campaign which has developed a powerful life as an online download simply because its seen as cool and clever by consumers - or the Sony ping-pong balls in San Francisco advert which also marries music and digital effects to create a music video which is one of the most powerful (and yet it is an advert) in myspace.com.
So what are the flickers of the future? Stop assuming it's simply a phased development of where we are today. In the UK our neighbour online advertisement has already outpaced not just radio but newspapers. Yet the reality of that seems not to have dawned in Ireland. We are behind but that is where we are going. Increasingly public media advertisement in outdoor and broadcasting will support online spends rather than the other way around. Look at bebo.com in Ireland and reflect why it works rather than why we should be scared of it. The collaborative nature of dynamic web projects like wikipedia and community sites shows the way in which the web is being shaped by our human needs and allowing real interactive communications and creativity. That's why it is a revolution. It's the same bottom up revolution which made SMS the breakthrough in mobiles and email in the Internet. We want to communicate in a multi-dimensional way - and that's what the future of media holds - the full realisation of the Internet as an economic, social and political medium.
Abridged from a lunch address to the Franco-Irish Chamber of Commerce, Dublin 30 June 2006.