It isn’t often that a report produced by a Quango can stop you in your tracks and make you think. All too often they state the bleeding obvious and you can read the whole thing by flicking the exec summary or peruse the accompanying press release.
Sadly, journalists have done the latter with the wonderful and fascinating OfCom report into how people consume media. But then quite why a serious non-departmental public body thinks it is a good idea to publish a 266 page report in the dog days of August is also anyone’s guess as well.
So why is it so interesting? Well essentially it has catalogued how the human race since the meteoric rise of all things digital has changed. And by doing so it opens a whole series of value questions about society that remain unasked and unanswered.
Cast your mind back to just before the turn of the millennium and remember the world that surrounded us. The internet was a luxury and a slow one at that. As was Pay Per View TV. There were just five accessible terrestrial TV channels. Digital radio did not exist. Home deliveries of food and clothes was not even on the radar. Mobile phones cost the earth. Smart phones were the ones with predictive texting. VHS Video recorders were happy creatures. People wrote letters, used phone boxes and had an atlas to navigate somewhere. Newspapers controlled information. Facebook, Twitter and all other forms of social media were unheard of. Fax machines were still important. Video on demand, movie and music streaming just sounded weird. Trolls were in fantasy books. Say internet of things and blank expressions would be sent your way. Artificial Intelligence, the darknet, bitcoins, driverless cars, smartwatches, drones… The list of what hadn’t been digitally invented is endless.
1999 isn’t that long ago. Yet my dad died in 1998 and he would be scratching his head at all this technology as the world in which we live, and the way that we behave, has altered to become almost unrecognisable. Just look at some of the stats that litter their report:
- Almost three quarters of adults own a smartphone
- Everyone can get 4G
- Under 30 year olds only spend a quarter of their radio listening time listening to live radio. The rest is streamed or downloaded
- Two thirds of an under 30 year olds TV time is watching catchup services or downloaded content
- Broadband connections have 41% more downloaded from them than just a year ago
- More than half of households have a digital radio
- Four in five homes have broadband
- 15% of homes don’t have a landline anymore
- People post many many fewer letters but send themselves many many more parcels
- People don’t make phone calls and they are becoming less likely to text, relying on instant messenger services instead
- Newspapers are dead or dying
- Two thirds of people have a Facebook account
- Dongles (remember them) have been and gone in less than a decade
- DVD players are now going. As are MP3 players and games consoles
- Britain’s over four years old spend an average of ten hours on some form of digital thing.
I could go on. I should go on. For what the OfCom report fails to address is whether what is happening to us – and especially those in the younger spectrum of the world – is a good thing.
Is it positive that you don’t have to travel somewhere to experience something when you can see it on Tripadvisor or Google Earth? Or that you are exposed to porn at a much earlier age? Or internet trolling can come to your bedroom uninvited? Is it acceptable that a picture of you as a foetus or a baby is put online before you have a chance to decide what your privacy settings are? Or that you can watch a beheading live online or get advice on how best to become an anorexic? There are so many moral and social issues that the scale of the change is mindblowing.
And yet, no one but no one asks whether these seismic changes to society are good. No one examines them or questions them. It maybe that the benefits do outweigh the risks and the problems. But instead of sitting down and asking the questions, we, our governments and our society have simply sleepwalked into a radically different world without examining how future generations will use, and abuse, this ever increasing expansion of digital connectivity.
And then there is the alternative. What if we decide it is bad? Is it like Cyberdine Systems in Terminator? Is it now too late to pull the plug? Up until the 1980’s Iceland banned TV on a Sunday to encourage people to do more exercise. Could a government do such a thing now? Could any organisation? For if this world of digital cannot be stopped, even if most of a country or a society want it to be, isn’t that an exceptionally dangerous place to be?
The sad thing is that this report is just a fleeting one day wonder. In August. With second rate hacks regurgitating a badly written press release. It means that another year passes without any thought about where our world is heading. It’s not just sad – it is scary.