Summer 2000

Because they’re big

As big businesses get bigger and broader and more ubiquitous, their vision often becomes remarkably small

Forty days into a new century, American pharmaceutical giant Pfizer acquired American pharmaceutical giant Warner Lambert for a reported $90.2 billion. The British pharmaceutical giants SmithKline Beecham and Glaxo Wellcome have merged into a single $80.7 billion pharmaceutical giant. And America Online [AOL] has acquired Time Warner for the not-too-shabby sum of $165 billion. In a parallel gesture of entrepreneurial bravado, celebrity designer Ralph Lauren signed a 30-year development deal last week with NBC Television to co-produce a series of media properties – including a website and television show – in the familiar model of the aesthetically maniacal Martha Stewart, whose own aptly named ‘omnimedia’ enterprise has redefined not only the economics of taste, but the notion, too, that one extremely driven person can become wildly successful across a veritable panoply of media. And then go public, and become even more successful.

Who wants to be a millionaire?
Never before in the popular press has the term ‘behemoth’ been used with such alarming frequency. And one thing the behemoths do – and they do it quite well – is represent themselves as eminently capable of extending their reach, broadly speaking, everywhere you look. It’s probably too early in the century to speculate about publishing trends, but it does seem that big is suddenly very big, and that being big means being everywhere, and that being everywhere means having a ‘presence’ that transcends independently defined media (such as print or TV) and blankets the world with – dare I say it? – a recognisable brand.

This somewhat invasive notion of the globally distributed media presence is the current multimedia publishing model of choice. It should be easily reachable and always accessible – on the street, on TV, online, on the brain. It consists of online / offline hybrids brimming with promotional gimmicks and backed by hefty stock inventory: search, surf, buy and bask in the afterglow of this feelgood consumer experience so you can repeat the entire process fifteen minutes later without ever leaving the comfort of your chair.

The globally distributed media presence is largely founded on the supposition that ubiquity is the key to achieving not only instant celebrity but, perhaps more importantly, instant wealth. It’s the newest aberration on the American Dream: fast and furious, Horatio Alger on steroids. How else to explain twenty-something CEOs and seven-figure corporate merger valuations? Or sudden IPOs emerging (and skyrocketing) from relative obscurity? Such epic turns of self-empowerment turn out to be almost spookily self-fulfilling. (Yale statistician and self-publishing magnate Edward Tufte is planning to host and produce his own television show. Need I say more?)

Who wants to be a TV producer?
In the ongoing race to secure widespread ‘presence’, perhaps the biggest gap lies between the computer screen and the tv screen. One is basically a repository of non-fiction, an environment framed by Cartesian co-ordinates and Boolean searches and deep-dish databases. The other is theatre in a box, a (typically) passive visual medium that is perhaps more concerned with ratings than with RAM. But as media converge and pipes get fatter, technology no longer makes such thematic distinctions necessary: a screen is just a screen. So media-presence seekers dream about developing ‘channels’ which they can not only use to distribute content, but with which they can reposition themselves as instant TV producers. Portal developer today, David E. Kelley tomorrow! To be fair, there are perhaps worse things to strive for: according to The Wall Street Journal, the prolific Kelley [the man behind Ally McBeal] signed a deal last month that could make him the highest-paid producer in television history, earning more than $300 million over the course of the next six years.

Ironically, such is the lure of overnight rags-to-riches success in the new economy that the once longed-for romantic status of the TV producer may itself be imperilled. With the rising popularity of game and what are now being called ‘reality’ shows, the episodic dramas and situation comedies that once lay claim to television’s principal appeal find themselves on shaky ground. This in itself represents a significant paradigm shift not because it signals the death of scripted entertainment (though many gainfully employed TV writers would tell you it does) but because it reveals the degree to which the empowerment of the individual has fundamentally galvanised our programming expectations, our viewing habits – and our basic level of taste.

Let us assume that interactivity is a good thing, because it is fundamentally democratic. It empowers the individual to make choices, and allows those choices, in turn, to liberate desirable and relevant information. This is the hoped-for experience of a good search on a good search engine: the results at once reveal breadth (of options) and specificity (of choice). But now, if we divorce the results from the experience – and focus uniquely on the experience itself – we are left with an isolated and empowered searchaholic whose warped perception of the world lies in the exaggerated notion that he is one click away from anything he wants. Successful corporations and technology visionaries have parlayed this perception into kick-ass marketing opportunities: collaborative filtering, one-click shopping and any number of logo-linked e-escutcheons amplify this illusion that life online is one big ‘world-is-my-oyster’ opportunity. Ditto the well executed ‘distributed presence’ of a site with multiple merchandising options:, at the top of its class with books, toys, auctions and now even provenance-approved artefacts from Sotheby’s, has perfected the art of the screen-based, shop-till-you-drop media mall.

The psychological profile of the Empowered User is a personality type that has achieved unprecedented momentum in this new world. This explains the emerging mystique of the game show, where average people have a chance to become contestants and contestants have a chance to become celebrities. The entire social order of digital life is, in a sense, reflected in this programming trend: hierarchy is diffused, the star system obliterated. In its place, the Empowered User becomes the centre of the universe. It is me-generation vanity programming: like the passworded protocol of life on the Web, tv anonymity turns out to be an unusually powerful programming conceit.

Such is the conceptual premise behind MTV’s The Real World and behind CBS Television’s Big Brother, a new series based on a successful Dutch television programme about a bunch of average people who share a house. (In a similar vein, McCann-Erickson’s current $150-million ‘mockumentary’ ad campaign for The Microsoft Network illuminates the virtues of ‘the everyday Web’ by featuring four strangers who share both a house and an MSN connection to the world.) In the non-stop spirit of ‘twentyfour / seven’ digital life, CBS is planning to run Big Brother five nights a week, a scheduling move that, in a sense, distributes the show’s presence throughout the week. Such blanket broadcasting represents the ever-growing ubiquity of the media presence model: it is a dramatically counterintuitive yet refreshingly daring move, and one that is virtually unprecedented in the programming of episodic television.

‘Reality’ programming has its roots in the fibres of the online vernacular: the chat rooms, the bulletin boards, the community interaction that can (and should) be traced back as far as the well. This sort of empowerment – the ability to globally connect like-minded individuals through simple, accessible means – remains one of the Internet’s most laudable assets. It is the magnification of that opportunity and the unfortunate self-aggrandisement that comes with it that mistakenly promotes the notion of screen presence as an infinitely scaleable commodity. And in the endless real estate of the Web, there appear to be no concerns about supply and demand: you don’t have to be Martha Stewart or Ralph Lauren or Glaxo Wellcome or Time Warner to have an online presence. But it probably doesn’t hurt.

Increasingly, ‘presence’ is being defined as broadly as possible, distributed across media platforms from television to magazines to PDAs to IMAX Films. Publishing models – which were once defined by circulation numbers and paperback rights – have now become equally, well, behemoth-like. America Online buying Time Warner? Enough said. But it is also the era of digital shrinkage: the popularity of handheld devices alone has raised the ante for the miniaturisation of published content. From e-mail to e-books, designers are being asked to consider how the integrity of what they do might extend to the microscopic screen: WAP (or Wireless Application Protocol) technology is the lingua franca of this new orbit. And conceptually, it is about as far from the spirit of the behemoth enterprise as it is possible to go.

Who wants to be a designer?
There is something deeply troubling in the discrepancy between the accelerated growth of the economy in general and the fundamental myopia required to perform this laborious task – evidence of an emerging cultural divide between The Big Real World and the tiny design world. If a broadly defined distributed presence across multiple media is the publishing model of the new century, then what can be said of editing a book, or a website, or the main titles for a feature film on to a palmtop,
or a mobile phone or a wristwatch? Is design only concerned with what happens between Ralph Lauren on a sweater … and Ralph Lauren on a screen?

Admittedly, publishing models are made, not born. And so, it must be remembered, are the current crop of media millionaires. I’m not advocating the importance of accruing wealth or achieving stardom so much as the danger of being shoved half a dozen notches down the evolutionary food chain, because instead of contributing the breadth of our experience to integrated forms of content management, we are busy rendering teeny, tiny, bitmapped screens of WAP data. Instead of questioning the political value or editorial meaning or basic validity of a distributed media presence, we are struggling to iron out the wrinkles between technologies that threaten the integrity of the way things look. At the dawn of the age of the behemoth, this strikes me as an extremely small view of the world.

Jessica Helfand, Designer and writer, Connecticut

First published in Eye no. 36 vol. 4 1994

Eye is the world’s most beautiful and collectable graphic design journal, published quarterly for professional designers, students and anyone interested in critical, informed writing about graphic design and visual culture. It is available from all good design bookshops and online at the Eye shop, where you can buy subscriptions, back issues and single copies of the latest issue.