We tend to have two contradictory assumptions about new channels – particularly online channels.

On one hand, they are the self-evident future, more straightforward in every respect than the cumbersome, time-consuming and bureaucratic processes they will replace – and so wholly unsurprisingly, our customers will seize on the new opportunities just as soon as we can make them available.

On the other, they are mysterious, unfamiliar, and a profound challenge to the channel conservatism which runs deep in everyone, and in our customers more than most. At best, online channels will be largely ignored; at worst they will generate so much confusion that they will increase the load on conventional channels, as we have to field vast numbers of phone calls triggered by the incomprehensibility of the online experience.

It is, of course, easy to forget how unfamiliar new things can be – which is the power behind my favourite definition of technology.  Even the book was new once, with user interface requirements very different from those comfortably familiar scrolls.  Some enterprising Danes (?) Norwegians have imagined the help desk call…

Scott Rosenberg makes the link between the video and some of the wider uncertainties which come from the introduction of a new format or channel.  He cites a conversation in which Geoffrey Bilder makes the point that the first instinct is to make the new look familiar to users of the old:

People were clearly uncomfortable moving from manuscripts to printed books. They’d print these books, and then they’d decorate them by hand. They’d add red capitals to the beginnings of paragraphs, and illuminate the margins, because they didn’t entirely trust this printed thing. It somehow felt of less quality, less formal, less official, less authoritative. And here we are, trying to make our online stuff more like printed stuff. This is the incunabula of the digital age that we’re creating at the moment. And it’s going to change.

So much of the apparatus that we take for granted when we look at a book – the table of contents, page numbers, running heads, footnotes – that wasn’t common currency. It got developed. Page numbers didn’t make much sense if there was only one edition of something. This kind of stuff got developed and adopted over a fairly long period of time.

If you treat Vannevar Bush as Gutenberg, we haven’t even gotten to Martin Luther yet, we haven’t even gotten to 1525. In fact, whereas people stopped trying to decorate manuscripts by 1501, we’re still trying to replicate print online. So in some ways they were way ahead of us in building new mechanisms for communicating, and new apparatus for the stuff they were dealing with.

As Rosenberg concludes:

It helps to think that what we’ve been doing here on the Web for several years is slowly, by trial error, inventing the online equivalents to “the apparatus that we take for granted when we look at a book.” And we’ve only just begun.