Can the digital revolution change human nature?

The Net may bring some surprise changes – such as intelligent washing machines – but is unlikely to change the dynamics of consumer behaviour, says Torin Douglas.

Which is the world’s biggest manufacturer of tyres? Goodyear? Bridgestone? Michelin? The answer, according to US technology guru Professor Nicholas Negroponte, is none of these. “It’s Lego,” he revealed last week, in a scintillating opening presentation at the International Advertising Association World Congress in London. “They’re small tyres.”

Negroponte is the founder and director of the Media Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and he was illustrating the enormous power wielded by children in the global economy and the technological revolution.

“Before long, the highest level of semi-conductor material in the home will be in toys, not PCs or TVs,” he said. He was referring not just to conventional computer-game consoles but to the toys not seen as technological at all.

“In time, there’ll be more Barbie dolls on the Internet than Americans. Kids will learn French from their Barbies – and the French programme won’t be in the dolls, but downloaded from the Net.”

The MIT Media Lab devotes a third of its time and resources to the study of children and learning, and how they are affected by the new media. The key change, says Negroponte, is that the new technology allows children to interact with educational material, rather than merely being talked at by a teacher.

The power of the Internet was a central theme of the three-day IAA Congress, which brought more than a thousand delegates from all over the world to London. Many were from the developing world, which says Negroponte, will have the fastest Internet growth over the next few years. He rejects forecasts that say 90 per cent of e-commerce in the year 2003 will come from the US and Europe.

“The developing world will be way ahead and that is because culture is a stronger force than infrastructure. Latin America will be huge because it has a young population, cash-based underground economies, and a healthy disrespect for authority.”

In Costa Rica, he said, the use of computers in schools was more advanced than anywhere in Europe, because the president had made it a national priority. China would go digital quickly because of the dedication of families to the education of their children. And in Bangladesh, in a village with no power, he had seen an enterprising teacher rig up bicycles so the children could generate their own power to run a computer.

But it won’t just be children that are surfing the Net, according to Negroponte. He said machines would become heavy users of the Web – not just PCs or WAP phones but white goods and other more prosaic appliances.

The Italian washing machine manufacturer Merloni had developed a model with an in-built mobile phone, so it could download information from the Net. It scans clothes for their washing instructions and then contacts the Internet for the latest information about which soap to use and the right water temperature.

MIT was also developing paper that could be impregnated with electronic circuits rather than ink. A food packet could carry as much “functionality” as a mobile phone, so when its expiry date passed it could warn you not to eat the product.

Negroponte claimed consumers would increasingly use the Internet to check prices, gain discounts and choose from the widest possible range of colours, sizes and styles – putting them in absolute control.

But this view was challenged by BBDO Worldwide chairman and chief executive Allen Rosenshine. “The supposedly revolutionary idea that consumers are in control assumes that they have until now been a passive tool in the hands of producers,” he told the congress.

“Why is it then that, in fast-moving consumer goods, three out of every four new products fails? If consumers haven’t been in control, why haven’t they just done what they were told?”

Rosenshine insisted the new media would not cause a revolution in the dynamics between seller and buyer because human nature would not change. Despite new technology, humans remained complex, emotionally-driven organisms – and ad agencies would remain experts in how to communicate with them.

“Not even the most anti-advertising commissars of e-commerce have suggested that branding is obviated by the Internet,” he said. “On the contrary, they have discovered the need to understand how their dot-coms relate to people’s lives. What they haven’t realised yet is the difference between good and bad advertising.”

Rosenshine was scathing about the “fiasco” of the dot-com commercials shown during this year’s Super Bowl game in the US. “The dot-coms dominated the game’s commercials, not just in the number of them but in the pathos of their collective ineffectiveness.

“Of the seven lowest-rated spots – the least liked, least remembered, least meaningful – five were for dot-coms.”

Yet the exciting thing is that both Negroponte and Rosenshine are right. The new media will cause huge changes in the way lives are lived, but not in the fundamental way people behave and respond. The trick will be understanding the difference.

Torin Douglas is media correspondent for BBC News

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