Follow the crowd

Shared experiences, like conferences and exhibitions, have a remarkable pull on us. Hugh Pearman wonders at our curious appetite for inconvenient gatherings

Many, many years ago a man called Brian Wenham wrote a book called the Third Age of Broadcasting. Wenham was controller of BBC2 and a man who I like the sound of for two reasons/ first, he refused point blank ever to write a memo – quite a feat in the bureaucratic Beeb; and secondly, he would let everyone know when he was depressed. He did this by keeping his raincoat on and lying on his desk all day. Wenham died young in 1997. He gave us programmes including Boys from the Blackstuff, the Young Ones, and Not the Nine O’Clock News. They don’t make broadcasters like him any more.

It was during one of his raincoat-wearing, desk-lying phases that he wrote his now almost totally forgotten book. Indeed, the book went out of print almost as soon as it was published in 1982. Wenham had intelligent things to say about the forthcoming multi-channel era, true. But his attempt at crystal ball-gazing made one almighty mistake. It’s why I’ve remembered it.

He believed that the availability of cheap video recorders would kill the cinema. Why go out to the movies when you can load a film into your machine at home? The logic was flawed. The rise of the VCR turned out to parallel an extraordinary rise in the fortunes of the cinema industry. Helped along by a string of Hollywood blockbusters, we saw new cinemas being built for the first time in decades. They were multiplexes. People still wanted to go out. It was a both/and situation, not an either/or. And in the DVD, film-on-demand era, it’s just the same.

Whenever I am tempted to predict the demise of some big popular public event, I recall Wenham, and desist. For instance: why on earth do people travel huge distances to stay in expensive hotels to attend conferences and exhibitions? The Wenham in me wants to say that they are all about to be rendered obsolete by technology. Sure – but, remember the paperless office?

I am baffled by exhibitions. There really is no need to go to them. They are horrid. There are cheaper and quicker ways of getting the info you need. They are massively expensive to exhibit at, and generate obscene amounts of waste and avoidable air journeys. Surely their time is up. But, no. Take a look at today’s big media companies and you find that while print and commercial broadcasting are having a tough time, there is big money being made in expanding into exhibitions and conferences. Never mind the waste, the expense, the inconvenience – it’s a booming business.

It can’t all be just so oversexed salespeople can get off with each other in dingy hotel rooms. The accountants would eventually notice. So another primal human instinct must be involved/ marketplace commerce. There is something about these frenzied gatherings that makes people sign deals. Free from the shackles of head office, they give themselves permission to trade.

Why am I even posing the question? It’s Glastonbury time of year. Thousands of middle-aged people are paying ludicrous amounts to be uncomfortable in fields, to the strains of badly performed music. There is no explaining these things. We just have to be glad that there is still such a phenomenon as shared human experience. The design challenge now is to concoct the zero-waste trade exhibition or festival. Have you ever witnessed the horror story of the site, the day after everyone has gone home?

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