GOOGLE AND DIGITAL FREEDOM

October 16th, 2012

I read the recent coverage of Google founder Sergey Brin’s plea for internet freedom with great interest – there must be seismic shifts happening to persuade the enigmatic Googlista to take such a public stand.  It covers everything from anti-piracy measures to creating an open (yet simultaneously private) channel through which democracy may flourish. Oh, and don’t forget the need for everything to be searchable. Overall, it confirmed a long-held view of mine, that there are digital and analogue businesses, and Google’s is fundamentally digital.

I explore this whole analogue-digital divide in my new book (shameless plug[1]), from the perspective of television’s resilience to a deluge of ‘disruptive’ digital technologies that have become mainstream within the past 5 years, focussing on the analogue strengths of TV such as storytelling, engagement, sharing and trust, but I think the paradigm applies to media in general. There are digital companies – Google, Microsoft, Facebook – and there are analogue ones, which rely on digital technology but are analogue in nature, within which I’d include Apple, BSkyB and Amazon.

I’m interested in this analogue-digital paradigm, not from a technological perspective but from a communications one. The celebrated communications theorist, Paul Watzlawick, as far back as the 1960s identified digital communication as the words themselves, syntax and semantics. Analogue communication was based on what he termed meta-communication, the complex and multi-layered meanings we take from the briefest nod of the head or change in vocal pitch. (Incidentally, this is why audio-visual is such a powerful communications tool).

Analogue – based on the principle of the whole being much greater than the sum of the parts – provides the richness, depth, emotion, complexity and narrative of communications. It creates a much more holistic perspective, and I believe it extends to the mindset of media and technology companies. The divide between the two mindsets was perfectly illustrated in Eric Schmidt’s recent admission during his McTaggart lecture that Google could never be a content creator because it is too focussed on engineering. It is digital to its very core.

It’s interesting how all of this applies to the equivalent technologies. Digital is binary, efficient, data-driven, and technology-led, whereas analogue is holistic, creative, insight-driven and consumer-led. It’s true that digital provides a fantastic distribution and promotional vehicle for analogue-driven experiences, but the analogue mindset creates the value in the content. Storytelling, for example, a fundamental building block in human learning and behaviour, is analogue by its very nature. In my book, I talk about digital leading to replacement theory mindset, where new and more efficient technologies simply replace what has gone before. Analogue thinking, in my view, is based more on eco-system theory; with new technologies enhancing the existing landscape and the whole becoming greater than the sum of the parts (e.g. more viewing, greater engagement or deeper interactivity). That is why I dislike the term ‘disruption’ so much – after all, consumers are fundamentally opposed to disruption on principle.

But digital is more efficient, seen as a superior technology and therefore analogue is perceived as fundamentally inferior. I want to stand up for analogue because I think it’s had a bad rep. Until digital companies recognise its importance, they will struggle to realise the web’s true value (a couple of examples could be the failures of semantic search and Google TV). I’ll illustrate this with two rhetorical questions;

  1. How many insight people are employed by the digital brand leaders compared to the big media companies? Or other major ‘analogue’ companies, for that matter? Because, take my word for it, data in itself does not create insight and can often lead down some very rocky paths.
  2. How has the value of what the digital-based companies provide improved in the past 5 years? Is search significantly better? Social networking more fun? Hotmail less frustrating? The customer experience more engaging?

Now consider the analogue-mindset companies. Has the value of the Apple experience improved? Does Amazon manage your customer servicing better? Is the Sky pay TV offering improved on that of 5 years ago?

It could be argued that, to the average consumer, the former are faceless providers of utility services while the latter provide a human element across the brand experience, from design to marketing to customer servicing. That’s why I’d always back analogue businesses to win out in the long term; because the world may be turning digital but people are fundamentally analogue in nature.

Think about this from the perspective of your ‘digital footprint’! How much of the whole person, the real you, does your digital trail really represent? It provides lots of data, which can be mined in increasingly efficient ways, but I don’t think it even scratches the surface of what makes people so complex, so unpredictable, so…analogue.

But I digress. The Google entreaty for digital freedom contained three component parts. It lamented the increasing state censorship and surveillance, rights management from content owners restricting open access and the explosion of apps limiting what is available via open search (apparently Google’s web crawlers cannot pick up in-app activity).

Taking them one by one, I have always been cynical about the digerati’s ambitions for a completely free, democratic and open (yet somehow private) worldwide web. I don’t disagree with the sentiment, but I have always doubted that governments like China’s would simply hold their hands up and accept the new democratic transparency.  Google’s tortuous relationship with the Chinese government has demonstrated the scale of the problem. I also think there are splits within the digital industry itself in terms of where the line between openness and privacy should be drawn (as demonstrated by Facebook’s recent statement that online users should adhere to a single, accessible, identifiable online identity). Another example; Google’s pronouncements this week that parents should take more responsibility for filtering online porn show an alarmingly out-of-touch relationship with its user base (but, then again, 57% of online video viewing is to pornography, so there is a lot to lose).

The opposition to rights management has been expressed for many years, but I still remain to be convinced by the arguments. I remember a late night debate with a very good friend of mine, where he argued that unemployed people should have the right to shoplift without any criminal sanction, on the basis they needed the support and retailers were profitable enough as it is. I didn’t agree with that, and I don’t agree that content owners should simply give up on the commercial rights to their content, just because the internet makes it readily available.

And then we come to the explosion in apps and the difficulties that poses for open search. Again, I am not convinced by Google’s argument that apps are a fundamentally bad thing; not to their users, they’re not! Although it may reduce the efficiency of open search, why would those who have already downloaded an app care? They have got what they want out of the deal, and the explosion in app-based access to the internet indicates it fulfils some basic human needs, meaning this is likely to become a bigger problem to Google in future. In fact, the success of apps suggests to me that Google’s “what do you want?” approach to online access is becoming increasingly anachronistic in a choice-saturated world. As Barry Schwarz – author of ‘The Paradox of Choice’ – stated, “choice is cherished, but choosing is a chore”.

I think we need to keep this analogue-digital paradigm in mind when we explore  issues such as Google’s ode to digital freedom, and we should understand how analogue characteristics create layers of depth, engagement and involvement which cannot be replicated via a purely digital mindset. Whether it is within the context of technology, communication or the business mindset, analogue is important and until companies such as Google, Microsoft and Facebook understand that fact, we will hear many more such complaints from Mr. Brin and his peers!



‘CONNECTED TV – How TV’s Analogue Strengths Have Created a Digital Supermedium’ – email me at david@medianative for more information

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