Remarks at the opening of the ESOMAR Congress at The Berns Conference Center in Stockholm, 1989-09-04. Published in Marketing and Research Today, vol 18, no 1, pp 24-26


The Communication Society: Predictions and Realities

By Hans L Zetterberg

A hundred years ago, as the eighteen hundreds were drawing to a close, there were many speculations about the shape of the coming century. In fact our forefathers seemed to have speculated more about the coming twentieth century than we speculate about the new millennium or the coming twenty-first century.

There were three areas of prophecy: the technology, the culture, and the social and political structure of the coming century. Most of the predictions were adventurous and wild and, of course, wrong. Most of them were optimistic, for example, the English writers saw a glorious future for the British. If they had predicted a good future for the English language rather then the empire they would have been more correct. Broken English has become the worldwide language of business and science, and we will practice it also here at our congress in Stockholm.


At the turn of the century the technological predictions predominated, inspired by Jules Verne and H G Wells. A striking fact is that no one seems to have forecasted the coming of the information society. The technological predictions related instead to technologies known at the time.

Each phase of industrialism has had its dominant technology. The first started 200 years ago when steam engines began to operate trains on land, boats on the sea, and pumps in the mines. The second phase came 100 years ago with electricity, the combustion engine and the chemical industry.

The third phase has arrived unpredicted in our generation. It is marked by the "digitalization of everything" and the marriage of computers, satellites and telephone systems. The communication technology has given us worldwide television, automated banking and electronic retailing. It has introduced new production methods. We have obtained thousands of new items for the household and the office that are aided by built-in micro chips. It has also prepared the military for push-button wars.

There are to be sure other modern technologies apart from the communication technology: jet aircrafts, genetic engineering, medical diagnosis and treatment, automatic parcel handling, and many others. But if we scratch the surface of these we discover a good share of digitalized information. So it makes sense to call our times the information era and our society the communication society.

The moment of conception of this new social order is known. During World War II in England the observers at the radar screens talked to each other by phone or telex to coordinate their observations. During the Cold War the Americans wanted their chain of radars in the arctic region to use telephone lines without the assistance of human observers. They brought together three technologies in an entirely novel fashion: telephones known from the 1880s, the modulation of pulse codes, a technology from the 1930s and the computer, invented in the 1940s. The result was the first of the many great electronic networks that characterize the communication society.

Since then we have got such networks everywhere. They assist tax collectors. They keep track of car registrations and drivers licenses. They link jobs and jobseekers in the employment agencies. They shape the entertainment industry with satellites and cable tv. They are the center piece of the news industry. They provide for the world's money transfers. They have reshaped the securities industry into round-the-clock and worldwide trading. They have made possible many data banks and international scientific projects. And they abound in the military where it all started. In the span of thirty years, communication technology has changed the face of the earth, including, of course, the profession of market research.

Not a single one of the writers of future fiction one hundred years ago came even close to such a forecast.

Cultural Values

The best forecasts made 100 years ago of the development of cultures and values have fared better than the technological forecasts. Friedrich Nietzsche, for one, could accurately tell about the advent of modernism and individualism in the cultural climate of the twentieth century.

In the notes to the Preface of The Will to Power, a book manuscript that remained unpublished in the year 1900 when he died, he had some prophetic and often quoted words:

What I tell is the history of the coming centuries, I tell what happens and what cannot happen differently: the emergence of nihilism... This future is already revealed in hundreds of ways... For European culture has during a period already moved... restless and violently forward like a river seeking to reach the sea.

Nietzsche forecasted uninhibited individual self-realization as the new cultural value. This "will to power" would subordinate all other values. In its wake new creations would abound, and a new man who is free, sunny and strong would possess the world. This is a forecast of "modernism", the movement associated with names such as Freud, Picasso, Stravinsky, and Einstein. One of the hundreds of small signs that made a cultural forecast of this type possible was provided by August Strindberg. He wrote The Red Room, a novel about radicals and artists meeting here at the Berns in Stockholm expounding the new values. This book was an instant success with the public. The first edition sold out in a couple of days. Strindberg found himself famous overnight. He was vaguely puzzled by the fact that a nihilist could be popular with the public.

Nowadays we use psychological research and monitor surveys to track value change. To be sure, self-actualization comes on top of the Maslow hierarchy of needs, it falls in the mainstream of the SRI value scheme, and is at the focus of the RISC maps of European values. Nietzsche's forecast of the development of cultural values has stood up well.

Social and Political Structures

What about the forecasts of social and political structure?

Max Weber said at the turn of the century that bureaucracies and markets would shape the fate of the twentieth century. On these scores he turned out to be right. The family and other communal groupings of "the small world" are the big losers in our century and bureaucracies and markets of "the big world" are the winners.

Weber, however, was not elated by this prospect. He saw it as the end of humanistic man. As early as the first decade of the 1900s, in his study of the Protestant ethic and capitalist spirit, he characterized the typical individual of the twentieth century almost in Nietzsche's terms: "a heartless expert, a spineless pleasure seeker". He also predicted that bureaucracies would in the end win over the markets, and that the modern society thus would move toward petrification, "an icy cold polar night".

On the latter two scores he fortunately turned out to have missed the mark. How the market became humanistic and how the market won over bureaucracy are two of the big stories in our time.

The dominance of bureaucracy in the modern world which Weber predicted is much in evidence, particularly in the welfare states.

Nowadays, children meet bureaucracies at a very early age. In Sweden, one-year or two-year olds are normally placed in daycare centers run by the local authorities. Here they meet a system shaped by governmental decisions and union contracts. If their caretaker for some reason is absent one day, everything is expected to continue as usual with a substitute as if they were a case processed in an official agency. At the end of the working day the staff is released from responsibility for the children; love ceases at five o'clock. The staff is impartial and gives their good will to all children and tries to avoid to play favorites and get overly emotionally involved with any particular child.

In this way the child meets Weber's first major power shaping the modern world, the bureaucracy and its justice. It is all very different from home where children are used to continuous care by the same persons, the parents, who are partial and love their own children more than they love other children. The coming generation of adults in Sweden will be the first who have been raised by a bureaucracy, and researchers are already asking what kind of personality they have developed, what kind of responsibility, what degree of self-confidence, what lust for life?

Equally instructive can be the child's first meeting with the market. One day he or she buys a first chocolate bar at the candy counter. The cocoa comes from Africa and has traveled hundreds of miles, the sugar comes from Central America, the wrapping paper from Scandinavia. The freighters were built in the Far East, the trucks in Europe, but running on diesel from the North Sea on tires from France and with spark plugs from the United States.

There is no central planning agency that sees to it that the children get their candy bar without ordering it in advance. They have encountered Weber's second great power shaping modern times, the world markets, coordinated by the invisible hand of Adam Smith.

It is as difficult for the children to understand the morality of the market as it is to understand the morality of the bureaucracy. The market is also impartial and emotionally neutral. The cashier in the store does not share the candy freely as do the parents, brothers and sisters of the same family. She wants to be paid, and so do those who have produced the chocolate, the sugar, the wrapping paper and the transports. And hardest of all for the children to understand is that the big market works and delivers without any parent, boss or politician who decides everything.

The market might be symbolized as a multitude of handshakes, a huge number of decentralized deals about production, price, delivery, payments et cetera. No one needs to enter a market deal unless he or she gains something from it. In a normal market deal there is not one winner and one looser, there are two winners; it is not a win-loose but a win-win situation. The market has no predetermined vision of its future. It is a spontaneous order. You beat the market path as you walk it.

Today, in looking around the world it seems very clear that market economies do a great deal better than bureaucratically planned economies. This is the case both in the industrially advanced countries and in the developing world. They seem more efficient and more flexible.

It is not true that markets are always and everywhere better than bureaucracies in solving the problems of mankind. Governance, military defense and criminal justice are usually better organized along bureaucratic lines than on market principles.

However, the markets clearly offer more than the bureaucracies to those seeking self-realization. In the centuries forecasted by Nietzsche, markets are bound to do well. Thus the spread of the market economy has been aided by the cultural values of our time.

A second factor that has aided the market economy is the communications technology.

In the Great Depression of the 1930s the market economy became discredited in public opinion. This occurred prior to the emergence of communications society.

The communication society has revolutionized the markets. In the old days markets used to be a place where roads or rivers met. Nowadays, some markets are changing to become more or less full-fledged electronic networks. There is no longer an oil market in Rotterdam in spite of the many oil cisterns there. The oil market is instead found wherever there is a hooked-up terminal. Likewise, the legendary floors of the stock exchanges are becoming depopulated. Buyers and sellers stay at their own offices and meet instead in a hooked-up computer.

Other markets retain their location but are nevertheless greatly aided by the new communication technology. The bar codes of the retail trade are ugly, but highly efficient. They are ever-present symbols in the Western world of the rationalization of the consumer markets in the communication era.

The communication technology has, of course, also aided bureaucracies. Computers are great tools for central planning. Fate has had it, however, that the communication technologies evolved first and foremost in the Western world. It is a good exercise to imagine what the world would have been like if Breshnev's Russia had possessed all the superior computers and the great communications networks.

There is a third factor in the success of the market economy which is closer to us gathered here.

At the end of the day when an actor on the market looks at the deals he has made he discovers that the market is a system of information for its decision-makers based on votes among the customers about how best to use their money, about what is important and what is unimportant to the customers.

Normal business accounting reports from the market about the number of deals and the amounts and the products involved and the profitability. This is essential, but you must admit it is a narrow vision.

Market research greatly adds to the accounting. It informs, not about the handshakes that close the market deals, but about the whole person who shakes hand.

At first market research only gave simple demographics of the customers. At its first congress forty-two years ago, the ESOMAR researchers reported the market facts broken down by age, sex, income, education, social class. To this was later added their habits, for example their reading and viewing habits, traveling habits et cetera. Nowadays we also know customers by their attitudes, needs, hidden desires, aspirations and values.

Market research has added the whole man to the handshake. It has given a humanistic content to marketing. Markets are no longer narrow and materialistic. They see to the whole man.

This is an enormous contribution. In the long run, no social order can prevail without taking the full human element into account. By adding the humanistic aspect to the market economy, market research also deserves a place in the history books when they set out to explain the success of the market economy.