I’ve known Mark Curtis, on and off, since pre-Internet days. Yes, that long and yes, there was such a time. We probably didn’t even have mobile phones in “them days.”
So it was interesting to do this interview, catch up with his latest thoughts and find out about his new book. Since his company does a lot of work for Nokia, he’s at the very heart of all things mobile, and I think I’d describe him in a couple of words as a “thoughtful evangelist”.
While passionate about digital and mobile generally, this is not the blind enthusiasm of a shallow gadgetman, constantly in search of the new, the faster and the smaller. Mark takes time to think, to argue and to wonder just what the implications for all of us are for the future we’re rushing into at break neck speed.
Here’s the interview:
Please can you give us a sense of who Mark Curtis is? A brief bio in a few sentences?
I’ve often wondered myself!
I started in marketing agencies—below the line specialising in the (at the time) rapidly growing radio industry—and then became fascinated by the potential of what we then called interactive media in 1994, and set up CHBi as an offshoot to a sales promotion company I was then a partner in.
After a shaky start (no-one we talked to believed in our vision that media would change totally), the cuckoo outgrew the nest and it became an independent company, which we sold to Razorfish in 1998 and became Razorfish London.
Thereafter followed dramatic growth, for a while wonderful work (at our best when 90 strong), head-turning new business wins (100 enquiries a week at one stage), a plague of management consultants who thought digital was cool (and that they could get rich quick and then screwed up client relationships by being so arrogant) and then the internet winter set in.
I left in March 2001, set up Fjord a few months later and where we have focused on mobile. Basically the consistent theme in my career has been media innovation.
I have a number of passions which include my four daughters, cycling, running, wine, books, mountains, food, wildlife.
Tell us a little about what Fjord does.
Fjord develops new mobile products and services for clients seeking to differentiate themselves in handheld media. However, a lot of our work is cross-platform.
And a campaign that you’re most proud of, that encapsulates what you’re trying to achieve these days.
I feel the need to take issue with the word “campaign”. Right now I fear that much of the interest in mobile is marketing focused and that the default setting for marketing thinking is “campaign”—suggesting ads, ephemeral items that come and go, and above all a pointer to products but not the product or service itself.
We’ve been down this road before at the start of the web. Marketing money tends to gravitate towards new media because it can create stand out appeal, new stuff is fun, and often a very appealing audience can be found there.
But with the web the real value was created by building the products and services that suited the medium—in my case Yell.com, RAC’s traffic news and route planning, many community plays. More famously Amazon, eBay, etc. These are not campaigns.
But to answer your question more directly: As so much of our work is innovation, it is hard to talk about it (clients, understandably, don’t want us to.) However, we played an important role in the development of Lifeblog from Nokia, and it gave us a big lift to see a product we had worked on for so long a) see the light of day and b) be so well reviewed. We think it is a harbinger of things to come (but we’re very biased).
Secondly, next month a new service comes to market called Flirtomatic which Fjord has played a key role in developing. I’m spending all my time on this, and it is very, very exciting.
That sounds interesting—let us know when you can tell us more.
If you had to summarise the key messages in your new book, Distraction: Being Human in a Digital Age, what would they be?
In 2000/2001, as the dot-com boom went pop, the doom-sayers emerged gleefully from the forests of doubt where they had been lurking impatiently. They had of course seen this coming all along, and now we could all gratefully forget about this digital nonsense and return to wearing suits. I remember reading an article about the new managing director of the London office of a web services company, where he actually said this. Hurray, the madness was over.
The perception that took hold, and to some extent is still at large, was that this “digital” thing was going away, had never had any real meaning, and that its impact was superficial at best.
This is a very dangerous fallacy.
Digital technology—essentially the bit that deals with communications—is changing our world more than most people remotely imagine. This book is about that change.
Some of it could have been written three or even five years ago. However, the outlines of the impact of mobile technology are beginning to slope out from the mist, affecting the story for better or worse. It is time to give it some narrative form and see if it makes sense.
Our world is changing shape. This should not be a surprise as it has happened before. I do not of course mean something as dramatic as a shift from being a sphere to a cube. In this book, I am more interested in the way we think about our universe. If you define reality as that which we think we experience, then history is well furnished with examples of man’s perceptions of the world around him changing fundamentally.
These are very important moments though at the time they happen, it is hard to see what the effect will be.
You’d have to go back to the sixties for another decade when our world has changed (the pill, pop music, drugs, the moon landing) so much as in the last ten years. The changes we are living through now are perhaps less raucous and demanding of our attention as sexual freedom or the rise of the teenager. That does not mean they are less important. In the long term, they may be more so.
This re-shaping of our landscape is happening at the same time as a tremendous shift in the way we structure our social networks, caused and enabled largely by new technology. The world of our friends and acquaintances is mediated increasingly by electronic address books—in sim cards, mail browsers and buddy lists (the address books used by instant messenger services such as MSN Messenger). Are these going to support or disrupt the traditional social networks—or is this an artificial distinction suggesting that there is nothing to worry about?
We do know that social capital—the store of goodwill that helps us have easier relationships with people—is in decline. Will digital halt this or change its course?
We cannot take for granted that all progress is good, as the Victorians did. In Why Things Bite Back, Edward Tenner developed a compelling theory that every technological advance carries with it what he called a “revenge” effect, a kind of unintended consequence. Frequently this is chronic and long term, by which he meant low level and hard to detect, but often much harder to deal with than the problem that was being addressed in the first place.
For example, pesticides eliminate pests, but damage other parts of the food chain too, which in time makes the growing of crops harder because natural predators of other pests are affected for the worse. Indeed, the original target pests themselves often out-evolve the poison, and the new superbugs are much harder to get rid of.
The digital revolution, now roughly ten years old, will not be without its revenge effects, most of which will be social. This book begins to examine what some of these might be and suggests how we can ameliorate their influence and build on some of the very positive aspects of new technology.
Erik Davis in Techgnosis relates the following story, taken in turn from Plato, and narrated by Socrates. It concerns Thoth, the Egyptian god of magic and invention.
One day Thoth approached King Thamus with an offer of a brand new techne (art): writing. By giving the gift of writing to the king, Thoth hoped to pass on its wonders to all of the Egyptian people, and he promised Thamus that the new invention would not only augment memory, but amplify wisdom as well. Thamus carefully considered the matter, weighing the pros and cons of this major communications upgrade. Finally the king rejected the gift, saying that his people would be better off with out the new device. And reading between the lines of the story, it’s clear that Socrates and Plato agree.
Thamus feared that the gift of writing would take away his people’s memory. He reasoned that once you could write ideas and stories down, the facility to remember them would fade. As Davis points out, it is hard to disagree when you consider the loss of oral tradition in societies that have put pen to paper and ink to press.
Well, Thoth has been laying on the gifts thickly recently, and we have no all-powerful Thamus to say “no, thank you.” As media guru Marshall McLuhan observed (some time ago now), when you gain from technology, you always lose something too. The aim of this book is to contribute to the debate about losses and gains in the field of human communication.
Who should read it?
Anyone who wants to think about our world and how we live in it in the early 21st century.
And argue about it.
What’s the big picture for mobile technology? One of the things we’re written about a lot for instance, is the mobile taking over from the computer as the most important digital device to access the net? Is this a theory you subscribe to?
No—not yet at least. I’ve seen nothing to suggest that the screen size and input limitations of the mobile are about to be overcome. Of course, I’ve read about digital paper, scrolling displays. etc.—but I tend to rely on personal experience and I’ve not played with anything to change this view.
I prefer to think of the mobile as a remote control device for demanding things in the context of mobility, i.e. when a PC is just not convenient. It’s also great at recording stuff—where you are, what you’ve seen and experienced. That too is an important point of differentiation. Which device is the key access point to the net will, in time, largely be seen as irrelevant.
How has the mobile changed society and how will it change it, in the future?
It’s made us “always on” and always connected. It encourages partial attention, because we run the risk of emotionally preferencing the siren call of distance, with all its potential, over the here and now. Why else do perfectly thoughtful business people answer calls in meetings, and teenagers text not talk during family meal times? Because they know, viscerally, they are linked to others and it’s just too seductive.
People love incoming.
Give us 3 big predictions for mobile in the next 5 years.
- The development of new products and services from outside the existing industry infrastructure which go on to define what mobile data and voice are all about.
- Massive industry and consumer confusion about VOIP/mobile/WiFi convergence.
- Rapidly dropping data prices.
Your background is in marketing. Can you point to any recent campaign involving mobile that excites you?
No. We are not at that stage yet.
Yes, I tend to agree with that, although I also think we’re seeing some green shoots of innovation in this area. Mark, thank you very much.
If you’d like to buy a copy of Mark’s book, head on over to the publisher, Future Text. And no, we don’t get a cut, in case you wondered.