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Five Decades, Five Trends – How Technology Changed Behaviour

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Fifty years of the IIC have been marked by a dramatic increase in consumer control

A single fixed telephone line and a small black and white television was the most sophisticated communications technology that most families could expect to have in 1969 (in 1970, fewer than 40% of homes in the UK had telephones). But the world was about to change dramatically as new technologies created new trends in usage and consumption.

1. ‘In your own time’; the growth of asynchronicity

Whether listening to the radio or watching television, consumers had become used to the idea of ‘appointment’-based media consumption. Television programmes were put into ‘slots’ such as light entertainment in the early evening, and news and drama in mid-evening. Viewers tuned in in time for the start, mostly using a published television guide. It was the mass availability of the video recorder in the late 70s that first enabled consumers to watch at a time that suited them. Subsequently the TIVO box offered much more intelligent selectivity. Its option of automatically skipping any advertising was understandably resented by many commercial broadcasters, but they could do little to prevent it.
In telephony, the arrival of the answerphone meant that indirect conversations were possible, a trend that gathered pace when liberalisation removed restrictions on equipment supply. As digitisation spread, the ‘new classics’ of asynchronous exchange – email and voicemail – became standard tools of business and remain heavily used, if not popular, despite the arrival of newer technologies designed to replace them.
While ‘stadium’ viewing still has its place for events like sports and major drama, on-demand viewing represents the latest evolution in asynchronicity. The water-cooler discussion on a Monday is now more likely to start with ‘where are you up to with…’, than ‘what did you think of…’, while the phrase ‘spoiler-alert’ is now in common parlance.

2. ‘Wherever you want’; going mobile

In the 1970s there were few things you could do on the move other than talking and smoking. The Sony Walkman changed all that, in spite of scepticism thrown up by research. Respondents complained about an expensive device, usable only with headphones and with no ability to record. Akio Morita, Sony’s chairman, famously waved the doubts away, and the Walkman went on to define personal music entertainment for a generation. Mobile telecommunications entered the mass market during the 1990s, enabling what people really wanted – the ability to call a person rather than a number. The smartphone subsequently brought together communications, information and entertainment into a single, all powerful device. With the full deployment of 5G in sight, could it be that the line between fixed and mobile will finally be erased completely?

3. ‘Call it content’; device neutrality

A young protester in Syria, in 2011, described how his house was raided by the security services. ‘Where’s your Facebook, where’s your Facebook?’ the officers demanded. The revolt was being co-ordinated using social media and the police, as the young man contemptuously reported, thought Facebook was a device.
Syrian secret policemen wouldn’t be the only ones to think of media in linear terms. For decades medium and content were connected intrinsically and instinctively. TV programmes were watched on a television and news was read in a newspaper. Music came from a device designed for listening, such as a radio or a record-player, and telephone calls were made using a telephone. Shops were physical buildings.
In the early 1990s the prevailing wisdom was that few homes would be likely to have a dedicated computer screen. The new internet would be accommodated within a television set – the dominant device in every home. Futurists and media experts envisaged that consumers would alternate between surfing the net and watching programmes in a so-called ‘lean-in, lean-back’ style of usage. In the end, it wasn’t the internet that came to the TV screen, but television that found itself on the internet, part of a new world of ‘content’. Few people would have imagined that it would be possible to watch this content on a phone, sitting in a café, let alone that the content itself might have been filmed, and edited, on a phone. Film directors may still shoot for the ‘big screen’, but in a non-linear world, consumers make their own choices.

4. ‘Thanks, I’ll be in my bedroom’; broadband and Wi-Fi

For a few years, internet usage was analogous to making a phone call. A connection was dialled-up, information downloaded and sent, websites viewed, the connection severed. After all, each minute on-the-line cost money. The slow speeds involved meant that much of the early promise of the internet – such as online shopping and gaming – stalled, contributing to the bursting of the ‘dotcom bubble’ of the time. But with the reduction in the cost of microchips in the early 2000s came mass broadband, fixed pricing and ‘always on’ internet. Most homes, however, still only had a single wired connection.
In 1997 the 802.11 standard had been adopted for wireless networks, and a couple of years later the Wi-Fi brand was established. Cable and telecoms companies began routinely including wireless routers in their packages, and Wi-Fi achieved rapid penetration. Now it was possible to be online throughout the home, and multi-room entertainment became the norm. A report by the research company Childwise in 2018 found that, amongst 5-16 year olds, more viewing time was spent on a personal device than in front of a television. Whether or not the decline in family viewing was the result of Wi-Fi, it seems certain that it caused its acceleration.

5. ‘Gratification delayed no longer’; signal compression and streaming

Television drama was broadcast in a long-accepted pattern designed to maximise ratings. It generally involved a launch of the series (or ‘season’) in a prime spot, with episodes released weekly at the same time, each with a ‘cliff-hanger’ to ensure viewing was ‘hooked’ into the next episode. Several months after the finale, when the video ratings had been included in the measures, the series was released in a box-set of videos or DVDs. But by 2007, the combination of high speed broadband with data compression had made video streaming possible, initially as a low quality alternative to DVD rental. The BBC iPlayer had also been launched, as means of watching shows already broadcast. By 2013, as speeds increased and compression technology improved to remove the irritation of buffering, Netflix, free from having to release ratings figures, had begun to make episodes available simultaneously. The public response was such that by 2015 ‘binge-watch’ had become the Collins Dictionary’s word of the year. Now it’s not uncommon for a ‘box-set’ of all episodes to be made available online even before the first broadcast.

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During the 50 years of the IIC the world has changed as new technologies have created new trends in usage and consumption. In this article, Russell Seekins charts five ways in which technology has changed behaviour.

Content: innovation, regulation and markets
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