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Keeping Current

By Dr. Allan Bonner

In the 1960s TV show Star Trek, Captain Kirk would flip open his hand held sensor/communicator and survey the planet he'd just landed on. Today, on this planet, I can open up my hand held device and take a picture or get the news. On vacation, I can dial a number and hear a walking tour of the neighbourhood I'm in. If I'm car shopping, I can download information on a new car in a showroom that's closed for the weekend.

We are finally seeing a fundamental change in the way people send and receive information. I say finally, because this has been predicted for 60 years.

Flying cars, mail delivered by rockets and robots cleaning our homes just didn't materialize.

But technological convergence is actually happening. In 1968 Canadian journalist Patrick Watson wrote a book predicting that one day we'd come home, sit in an egg shaped chair and push buttons to see movies, shop or get the news.

Fast forward thirty five years and phone companies are putting TV, piano lessons, nanny cameras and such on computer screens. The egg shaped chair isn't part of the deal though.

Whether campaigning or governing, a successful politician has to keep up with new technology. It is said that President Roosevelt and Winston Churchill wrote letters to each other during World War II. The information would have been four days out of date by the time the letter arrived. They also occasionally used the telephone, time zones and line quality permitting.

During John Kennedy's time, documentary maker Robert Drew invented a light weight camera with sound. If you haven't seen it, you can't imagine the difference between the coverage this afforded versus the static shot of stuffed shirts standing behind a microphone.

In the Vietnam war, reporters would talk a flight attendant into carrying a can of film to London or Hong Kong so it could get on the network news the next day. All those shocking reports from the war were at least 18 hours old.

But in those days sixty million Americans watched the network newscasts every night. Now it's dropped to twenty million, and their average age is sixty.

The young demographic is getting its news from late night comedy and talk shows, the Internet (chat rooms, radio, blogs), Much Music, satellite radio and cable.

Here are some facts and figures:

* Bloggers are young, wealthy and educated
* Blogging is publishing and subject to all relevant laws
* Some companies encourage employee blogging as a way to reach out to customers
* Some companies fire employees for blogging about company information
* Blogs helped propel Howard Dean into national prominence
* Blogs helped destroy Dan Rather's career
* Some days 10,000 new blogs are created

But about 50% of Americans have never even heard the word blog. Only about 5% of US companies use blogs and fewer are interactive. Even political blogs only attract about 5% of Internet users.

Some say blogging has crested.

The first step in really understanding this fundamental change is to recognize that it's a change in form, not meaning. In the Harvard Business Review, Business guru Michael E. Porter says "in our quest to see how the Internet is different, we have failed to see how the Internet is the same". Lawyers, businesses and politicians are having the same discussion about blogs as they had over a decade ago about E-mail.

No one is entirely sure how any new technology will shake down, but, look at it this way. The glass window in the car show room is a medium of communication. We look, become tantalized and buy. A TV set in an electronics store window broadcasting pictures of the car does the same thing through a different form of communication. Ditto the hand bill, barker on a soap box and even the WiFi (Wireless hook up to computers) or VoIP (Voice Over Internet Protocol). These are all different ways of downloading similar information about that car.

The consumer doesn't care whether the pictures of the car are being broadcast over the air, arriving on cable , broadband (copper wire or fibre optic), VCR, CD-ROM (small or large), 8mm (16 or 35), beta or WiFi. Consumers care about content - the car.

The important thing for a politician to address is fragmentation, not new technology. Constituents are still watching a screen - computer, TV, cell or Blackberry. The issue is control. If you wanted the news 30 years ago, you watched the networks. Today there are a dozen choices and the consumer controls which to use. Cumbersome technology like hot type empowers elites. Simple technology like transistor radios or interactive Blackberry blogs empower users. This is almost as important as content.

The issue is also immediacy. In the old days, if you were angry at a newspaper column, you had to drag out a typewriter, bang out a reasoned response and pop it in the mail. Then E-mail meant you could skip a few steps and get your message out quicker. Now blogs feature both instant access and the possibility of instant response.

Cyber-democrats can now say they "put it on their blog" or "told off a blogger." This may feel satisfying, but what if only one person reads it? How is it fundamentally different than sending a telegram forty years ago?

The trouble with technology is that there's no free lunch. You may gain immediacy and interactivity with the Web, but you may also lose permanency and power. You may get high status with a Globe and Mail piece, but you miss the Much Music crowd.

But with a blog, a piece in the Globe or an appearance on a cable show that only two percent of the population watches, you can get a bounce or multiplier effect. Mainstream networks and cable news shows are reading blogs on the air to viewers, thus giving them legs. The Globe piece can scanned and E-mailed to thousands who would never otherwise read that newspaper.

All media try to extend their brands into other media, gobble up existing media content, or want to be gobbled up. Historically, newspapers gobbled up handbills and signs by putting advertising on their front pages. They also ate up political pamphlets by providing commentary, coverage and advocacy. Early radio newscasts were written by newspaper journalists. TV gobbled up film, radio hosts and wire service reporters. Now, everybody's trying to put music, entertainment and news on a computer screen or a hand held device.

The trouble is the old media won't go away. Sure, we don't use hand-held megaphones much anymore. The Victorian Stereopticon with two pictures that simulated depth when the wooden device was held up to the eyes morphed into Viewmasters and then all but disappeared.

For the most part a new media of communication don't replace old ones. They are just added on to the mix and overlap a little with the others.

It is not clear how convergence is going to work out. One good guess is that we will all have an information appliance to carry around which acts like a phone, computer, TV, stereo, movie theatre and newspaper all at the same time. But we're still going to have all those older media as well.

Politicians who need to connect with constituents need to surf on the new media, while not ignoring the old.

Allan Bonner has coached approximately 30,000 people to deal with some of the most controversial and public issues of our time. He is the author of several books on business issues including: Doing and Saying the Right Thing and The Bonner Business Series: Media Relations. See Allan Bonner's
Sources Listing, phone 1-877-484-1667, or visit

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