Even though the Chinese beat him to it by 400 years, Johannes Gutenberg got the credit for inventing moveable type, at least in this part of the world. There’s a reason for that besides familiar Western cultural arrogance. Gutenberg’s printing press touched off a revolution that remade Western society. Before it, Europe was a medieval, feudal society. Within 150 years of its invention, literacy soared, knowledge became democratized, and vernacular languages broke free from the death grip Latin had held on learning. The first glimmering of the media emerged.
The printing press lowered obstacles to spreading knowledge, taking it out the hands of a priesthood and placing it into those of a larger, but still elite, community. Digital technology demolished the remaining barriers. It is, as has been noted by many, the greatest revolution since the printing press. “Now that the obstacles are gone, anyone can publish whatever thought or idea is on his mind,” says Rob Davis of OgilvyOne. Anyone with a mobile device has the means to spread information or opinion or revolution through words, pictures, and video. Communities coalesce around affinity, not just geography. Nations are unmade and reborn with the support of a global citizenry.
Readers and viewers decide for themselves what is, and is not, worth looking at. Sure, we can influence them, but ultimately audiences assemble their own narratives, deciding for themselves what is credible or authoritative. “News brands are being disintermediated increasingly by big American technology companies like Amazon and Apple and Google,” says Nic Newman of the Reuters Institute. That organization’s research found that in many countries, search and social are the primary way that people uncover news. And when you link through to a story from your Twitter feed, you choose it because of the authority you confer on the person recommending it, not the prestige of the editorial brand—assuming you even know which one it was—that produced it.
Nearly all of our media habits have changed, but we are, for the first time in history, seeing the audience lead the institutional content creators around by the nose. They’re way ahead of us. My 13-year-old son hasn’t turned on a television in months, except to play PS3 with his friends. They’ll team up in the game (or blast each other to hell, if the mood strikes) while simultaneously and seamlessly talking on Skype, holding sidebar chats, and carrying on one-to-one text conversations. When it’s all over, he’ll kick back with a laptop, tablet, or phone—he doesn’t care, or even seem to notice which device it is—to giggle through a YouTube video of a 20-something guy with 9 million subscribers playing a video game, Mystery Science Theater 3000 style.
My son’s growing up with a smartphone in his hand—a member of the first generation to do so—but he’s also looking at far different horizons than I did at his age. Fortunately, the companies that are shaping his world have also come to see that they must lead the effort to sustain or invent it. Brands are growing more and more sophisticated in the way they react to changing behaviors, but all of us—brands, agencies, and consumers—are figuring this out together. What happens when the ”Internet of things” comes fully online? How will the world change when all of human knowledge can fit comfortably in the back pocket of your jeans?
We don’t know. That’s why we asked Fast Company to let us rent this space. We don’t yet know how we as a society feel about our changing opportunities and habits, about our altered media landscape and the role brands should play. It’s a conversation that concerns us, our clients, and you. As we said at the outset of this channel, brands are among the most powerful forces shaping our world. How they talk to us and with us impacts nearly every part of our daily lives.
We made the assertion that we are now living in the post-digital age. Here’s why: Digital has happened, and it has vaporized around our world. It is an epochal change, and we’re fools if we think can predict how society will change, how this first global generation will alter our world, how the emerging middle class will change our lives and theirs. How sustainability will force our hand. How the interconnection and intelligence of our systems will remake our world. We’re hanging on by the edge of our keyboards. And this conversation will continue—here and elsewhere, spurred on by us, by the brands we work with, and by many, many others. Follow along with us. If, “May you live in interesting times,” is supposed to be a curse, why do I feel blessed?
Jeremy Katz, Worldwide Editorial Director of Ogilvy & Mather, is the editor of “Content and Pervasive Creativity: Advertising in the Post-Digital Age.”
Flickr image by BMcIvr