Revolution? What revolution?

Digital's greatest impact will be on the people who invent cheesy names for the 300-plus channels
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The Independent Culture
DIGITAL, SCHMIGITAL. Up went a few fireworks outside Battersea power station, one branch of Dixons opened at midnight, and that's supposed to be a revolution? It makes one nostalgic for the olden days when revolutions involved storming palaces, hanging monarchs and printing secret newspapers.

Even the industrial revolution (which was a terribly slow business) was marked by the appearance of huge bits of clanking ironware that weren't there before. The World is supposed to have Turned Upside Down. So you may well be sceptical about the launch last night of SkyDigital, and you may sneer at the Culture Secretary, Chris Smith, when he wrote recently - in the strangled argot of broadcasting executives - that, "the digital revolution is the explosion in enter- tainment and information".

Many of us feel that we'd rather not have our entertainment and information exploded, if it's all the same to Mr Smith.

Certainly, early on the greatest impact of digital will be on those marketing people, whose job it is to invent cheesy names for the 300-plus channels that we will eventually be able to receive. BBC Choice, Film on Four and BBC Learning are the easy ones. There is also to be UK Play (a channel for teenagers, apparently). After that it begins to become a bit more problematic, especially for the more niche channels, though we can anticipate UK Skincare and Meridian Safarivision.

L!ve TV's topless darts and cheapo soap mix should expect competition from Sky Wow! BBC Yeah! and Carlton Oops!

Naturally, those who have invested so heavily in new digital services are convinced that they will have a substantial and beneficial effect on all our lives, from the Orkney crofter to the Haslemere dog trainer. For a start, all the exploding entertainment and information will necessitate someone or something to help us navigate a way through the zillions of channels. Enter the personal selector - the polar opposite of the personal fitness trainer - a digitised voice (you'll probably be able to choose the age, sex and timbre of your electronic interlocutor), which will map out an individual profile of your viewing preferences, and use this to construct a wonderful personal TV plan just for you. Then, when you watch something outside your normal range, it will interrupt and ask, "Are you sure you want to watch something quite so intelligent?"

According to another vision of the digital future, we will bundle together the TV, video, the PC, the phone (with video capacity), the CD player and the fax into one great, omnipotent interactive blob in the front room. Here we will order up our movies, summon our takeaways, play shoot 'em ups, do the Safeways run, and write letters, all from the increasingly fetid comfort of our favourite armchairs. Legs will atrophy over generations, and eyes get gradually bigger and bigger.

Some claims are more improbable. The Sun's TV critic, and member of Mensa, Gary Bushell, recently suggested that the new technology is so remarkable that, "You'll be able to watch the soaps on wide-screen angles." This strange sentence appears to argue that the viewer will be in a position to alter the perspective from which any particular scene is viewed.

This really would make for expensive TV, requiring several crews to shoot every scene, and for many versions to be edited. Or did Bushell merely mean that viewers will soon be able to see everything in wide-screen format? Well, you don't need digital for that.

Now, here's my prediction. It is simply that the new technologies will be used in ways that none of us have predicted. In ways, in fact, that none of us can predict.

We simply do not know how people will deploy things that they do not already have; inventions - even the most basic - are rarely used in exactly the way that their inventors expect. None of us, including all those strategy departments at the BBC and elsewhere, know what is going to happen.

VHS technology was supposed to lead to massive "timeshifting" of programmes, as viewers recorded shows and watched them at more convenient times. In fact, such recording became a kind of displacement activity, in which recordings were made, and never watched. The "timeshift" audience has stayed obstinately small. Instead, VHS has been used primarily to play films or factual videos that have been rented or bought.

Likewise, the original pioneers of the Internet thought they were constructing a tool for the fast passage of information between businesses and academic institutions. But something radically different happened. Millions of individuals with PCs commandeered the Net for personal use. They set up their own homepages and exchanged information, gossip, pictures, and news in such bewildering and impossible profusion that the Net has become an international good-Lord-what-on-earth's-that: something that had no precedent, and for which there was no preparation.

The reasons for doubting the specific visions that are evoked by the broadcasters include the fact that TV is still, very often, a shared experience (like the cinema), suggesting that there may be resistance to the integration of the working (the PC) with the entertaining (the TV). There are also severe limitations on the real expansion of meaningful choice, unless - suddenly - someone starts making a lot more programmes.

For example, there are only 140 episodes of Seinfeld. If you watch just one every night, you'll have seen them all inside five months. But, of course, if a whole lot more shows do get made, most of the new ones will be cheap garbage - badly shot, badly directed and badly researched. The dross will soon be discarded by the customers.

And the personal selectors idea is not just creepy, but doomed. Once gain, the experience of the Internet (whose users manage choice with exceptional dexterity) is that people enjoy browsing and discovering. They may well "bookmark" channels, or use "search engines", but I don't think they are going to tolerate some Yank with a metallic voice telling them what to do.

No, my only firm recommendation is that it is worth waiting until cable has got its act together, and going digital then.

The jeremiahs will be proved wrong too. Yes, there will be some fragmentation of the national experience, but that is only the equivalent of taking us back to the days before telly, when we all gathered round our fragmented joannas and sang from different songsheets.

Nor do I accept the idea that the additional cost is "socially divisive", with the poor left out and the rich paying a king's ransom. The technology itself will get cheaper over time, but that will only encourage the middle classes to purchase facilities that those on council estates will already have rented. It was there, after all, that the first satellite dishes went up.

But there is a job for us professional middle-class types to do, if we are going to get the service that we want. Digital TV must be subject to stringent regulation on the grounds of decency, objectivity and the protection of children. The fact that there is so much of it is no real excuse for allowing waves of porn or political manipulation to be pumped willy-nilly into the home.

No TV is an island. It is simply untrue to argue that neither the Internet nor digital services can be policed. They can.

The second is that we must, somehow, use our economic and political power to encourage the provision of high-quality, subsidised services that equate to the current output of the BBC, Channel 4 and - to be fair - part of that of ITV.

We know that there's a quality problem in America.

Finally, I would like to interest viewers in my own invention. To be marketed as The Reith Zapper, it is a service that will bundle together good entertainment with improving factual programming, and will operate every time your children switch their Digital Service Centre on. A snip at pounds 399.99.

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