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Issue 466, 8 May 2001

Mobiles, internet, digital TV – how much technology do we really need?

What do your views on GM foods, Kosovo or friendship have to do with your attitudes to new technology? A lot, according to Leeds University researchers Michael Svennevig, David Morrison and Julie Firmstone. They are running a long-term study which aims to paint a portrait of Britain in the new millennium, looking at how technological advances affect our lives. is a unique study in that it focuses not on the cleverness of technology, but on the context into which it appears. Set up in 1995 by the Centre for Future Communications, based in the Institute of Communications Studies, it works on the premise that no technology enters into a vacuum, but has to be incorporated into our daily lives. People’s reaction to new technology can differ widely, and the research has identified the social factors which determine these differing responses.

The survey aims to analyse attitudes to, as well as use and ownership of, both new and established technologies. The research team works with focus groups and holds media clinics in Leeds and London, where members of the public can offer informed responses after trying out new technology for themselves. The bulk of the information is collected by survey from an initial panel of 7000 households, a certain number of which already use satellite, cable or digital TV and the internet. These households are sent questionnaires biannually, covering issues as varied as BSE and flying saucers.

"We try to include some very general questions – such as levels of trust in politicians, or whether violence is on the increase – and then also pick certain current events which have received a lot of media attention," explained research director, Michael Svennevig. "For example, we chose the death of Princess Diana because it really touched the nation, and future questionnaires will undoubtedly include subjects such as the current foot and mouth epidemic.

Painting an all-round picture – Michael Svennevig

It’s about trying to paint an all-round picture. Age, gender and social class simply doesn’t provide enough detail to explain or categorise different reactions to new technology. If you find out what people think, the groupings you can plot are much more clearly defined."

The survey has identified seven ‘social segments’, which range from the style and fashion-conscious ‘ambitious’, who like leading-edge products and are early adopters of new technology, to the ‘marooned’, who feel left behind by events, have little interest in anything technological and are generally pessimistic about the direction of society.

Each of the segments – which also include the ‘progressives’, the ‘jugglers’, the ‘underclass’, the ‘stoics’ and the ‘conservatives’ – represent between 10% and 17% of British adults, and show the full range of attitudes to new technology. has shown that a large proportion of the British public is not interested in the new technology on offer, or only wants a few of the benefits it can offer. Companies ignore this at their peril, explains research project officer, Julie Firmstone.

Quality not quantity – Julie Firmstone

"It’s important to consider how people use the technology they’ve currently got, to see if new developments will fit their needs. For example, television is still the major mass medium, but a third of the population doesn’t want the digital form. Those that do, want the better quality picture, rather than the other ‘benefits’ such as interactivity, internet access and extra channels. Television is popular as a passive medium that we can just switch on and watch. Digital TV’s other applications demand active input, and so most viewers don’t want it. People would also prefer an increase in the quality of programmes, rather than the quantity of channels."

In some cases, new technology becomes incredibly popular, but for reasons unforeseen by the companies marketing the product. No one expected parents to buy mobile phones in such huge numbers for their children in order to keep track of them outside the home. has found that parents are large consumers of technology on behalf of their children: video recorders, computer games, internet access to encourage children to spend time in the safety of the home; and computers in general to help children ‘keep up’ in the modern world.

"This shows clearly how take-up of technology is due more to social factors than the intrinsic technological qualities of the products involved," says Julie Firmstone. "Parents’ fear of crime is driven by the way the media choose to report on society, as is the idea that a computer can be an insurance policy for children’s material future." has been funded by the Independent Television Commission and the Department of Trade and Industry as well as companies such as Royal Mail, the BBC, IBM, Carlton TV, Guinness and Unilever.

Research with integrity – David Morrison

" is a classic example of successful collaboration between the University and business," says Centre for Future Communications director, Dr. David Morrison. "The research has great intellectual integrity, which benefits both its sponsors and the institute. It has given us access to a richness of data otherwise unavailable, due to the financial costs of running such a survey."

The first stage of the study is now complete, and the Centre is launching a new, more intensive phase focusing on the future of interactive digital media in the home, looking at entertainment, e-Commerce, marketing communications and person-to-person communication.

For further details, visit the website of the research centre for future communications.

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