1981: Tories cutting public spending, companies fighting recession, the music industry undergoing a format revolution* and people grappling with a new form of communications technology. Sounds familiar, right? Especially the technology part.
The first form of audio-conferencing
In the 1970s, American truckers used a publically available amateur radio spectrum, ‘citizens' band’, to talk to one another. By 1980, the CB craze had spread across the Atlantic.
British drivers and bedroom-bound students were particularly hooked. They spoke to friends, family and neighbours via a portable radio, a microphone and a ridiculously large aerial.
OK, so transmission was limited to a three mile radius and anyone could listen in to your conversation. But look at the positives: you could talk to more than one person at a time, and for no cost - two very appealing USPs. Remember, mobiles didn’t exist and the cost of a landline call (from the single nationalised telecoms provider) was considerably higher in real terms than it is today.
The death of CB
So why did this quirky, pre-computer form of audio conferencing die out by 1983, years before the mass availability of PC and mobile-based alternatives?**
No doubt it was partly the cost of a licence (CB was technically illegal until November 1981), and I suspect that those transmission limitations won’t have helped. I can’t help thinking, though, that the biggest problem was the CB conversation itself.
First you’d exchange your respective locations, then your ‘handles’ (flamboyant nicknames like Daydreamer, Tommy Gun or Blue Serpent — never just Rob, Keith or Mick). But after these niceties, you’d likely as not be drawn into a discussion about the make of radio you had, the strength of signal, whether reception had varied that day, and so on.
Up to 90% of a conversation would be about the means through which you were communicating, or what kit you’d be buying to improve your communication. Fantastically tedious.
Some clients hate tech
In today’s business world, crammed with ubiquitous communications technologies and social media, it’s worth keeping in mind that the medium should never be the message. Sure, you need to be able to talk about the IT your business uses. What’s more, you need to understand why you’ve made the IT choices you have.
Just be careful who you’re talking to: things could go horribly wrong if you talk tech in a marketing meeting with a client who really hates the stuff.
With plenty of this extraordinary IT revolution for us still to live through, there’s no way that we can avoid talking to clients and suppliers about its impact. But where necessary, it’s worth asking yourself a simple question: is the man in front of me glazing over because my product’s not for him, or because I’ve just spent the last five minutes mentioning our recent move to web sales software / cloud computing / AMD processors?
* Something called a ‘compact disc’. Remember them? ** People still use CB today, but popular use dwindled within two years of legalisation.