Recently I was asked to take part in a Webcast designed to promote the products of a well-known computer company. Not many people will sit still for a straight-out commercial, the promoter explained, so my job would be to add some real, unbiased content to get, as they say in showbiz, bums in seats.
I declined, explaining my anachronistic view that reporters shouldn’t earn income from companies they write about, and wouldn’t have thought much more about it except that a few days later I attended a press briefing billed as being about personal computing trends.
What I heard there was a rehash of conventional wisdom about technology and the workplace. Job security and loyalty to the corporation are disappearing, bureaucracies are flattening, workers are increasingly mobile, people worry about the security of their computers. This for an audience of technology writers — cripes, most of us have written this stuff more times than we like to think, never mind heard it.
As my mind wandered, I got thinking about why this “”expert”” was there in the first place. Obviously, to dress up a routine product announcement as something with deeper significance.
In fact it was the second such event I’d attended in a little more than a month. The first featured a survey of office printing habits, which lured a group of technology writers out to hear about some new printers. In that case at least the survey was interesting, even if the sample was too small to be statistically meaningful.
But what the vendors in question were doing, and what the company that wanted to enlist me to dispense wisdom on the Web was doing, was packaging marketing messages to look important.
This goes on all around us, of course, but nowhere more than in the computer industry. Hardly a day goes by that somebody doesn’t announce a survey or a study that, when you look more closely, has clearly been produced to draw attention to some commercial announcement that somebody figured — correctly, in most cases — nobody would pay attention to if it weren’t dressed up somehow.
Today’s e-mail, for instance, contains word of a study on Canadians’ attitudes to spam and a study of the danger of neglecting identity management. They came, of course, from companies that sell anti-spam software and identity management technology respectively.
Now I’m as much against spam as the next person — in fact, I consider boiling in oil too mild a punishment for spammers. But what does this kind of survey really tell us? Only what we already know.
Not long ago there was a even a survey on Canadians’ attitudes to paying taxes — sponsored by a maker of tax-preparation software, naturally. For crying out loud, if there’s anything more obvious than attitudes to spam it’s attitudes to paying taxes. If they had discovered that most people liked both, now that would be really interesting news.
Of course, we ink-stained wretches fall for it to a certain extent — sometimes these things get our attention. It also works on the general public, as with presentations dressed up as general information but really designed to promote a product (a good many trade-show keynote speeches, for instance). We all need to smarten up. The pundits can say what they like. This is not the information age at all. It’s the sales-bumf-dressed-up-as-information age.
Grant Buckler is a high-tech journalist based in Kingston, Ont.