Transcript of the John Evans Interview

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A warm welcome to Silicon Valley Radio. Today we're talking with John Evans. As head of Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation, John was responsible for guiding the company into the Information Age. Prior to that, John was head of Murdoch Magazines and former publisher of the Village Voice. He now has his own company, REM Productions, which, according to John, specializes in making emotionally capable software.


Silicon
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Now, are you Welsh?
John Evans: Yes.
SVR: How easy is it for a Welshman to work with an Australian?
Evans: [Laughter] Well, I worked for Rupert Murdoch for 20 years, and quite a bit of that time in News Corp during those years was like being let loose in a candy store because if you had energy and you had proven yourself to be useful you were given the resources to be more useful. So I just rode around the world putting together magazines and digital deals as well. And I was able to do development of products in the travel side that were one of the early electronic versions of an agent.

And I just had the best time imaginable. And then it got to the point where I became a Web devotee. But a Web devotee is an individual person, and so I quit 20 years of News Corp to become a 58-year-old new father and entrepreneur, which I think is the other way around. I think you're supposed to do that when you're 28, not when you're 58.

SVR: What are some of your fondest memories of those times?
Evans: Running the Voice, was probably it. Mark Twain said that the best period of his life was actually as a riverboat pilot, and the reason he gave would be the same reason I would give about the Voice -- it was the only time in my life when I could actually take action and see the results. The more successful you are in a corporate structure, the further up the ladder you get, the more you become an advisor as opposed to a hands-on manager. And going around trying to persuade people who think they do a hell of a good job that you've got a better way of doing it is a very difficult thing to do.

So, if you wish to be visible, you have to enforce your ideas. And I just found that to be very tedious. After a while, I just decided that being corporate was not the right way to go. So luckily, I ended up running five newspapers in England for News Corp for a year. And that was not as good as running the Voice, but it was getting back there.

SVR: You brought up some interesting points about Web content needing a feminine touch, a feminine sensibility. Could you elaborate on that?
Evans: The Web and the Internet is an environment that was created by men with tanks. I don't think there were many women involved in the creation. And the environment is entirely male, and you can always tell male environments because they have erect handles and right handles in every possible place, and everything's flush left because nobody would ever want to do anything other than flush left. And when you see something that's utterly boring and rigid, you can pretty well bet it's done by a guy.

Now, women find this a very hostile environment. From a design point of view, it's hostile. From a user point of view, it's unfriendly. It's still at the age where it asks you to be in love with the technology and forgive it for its sins. And the world that I live in and try to design for is a world of people who don't have those passions for the technology. Therefore, they have no patience with its shortcomings.

SVR: Another point you brought up was the importance of text. And I thought maybe you could elaborate on that -- the importance of language. How powerful is language, and how does it take on a greater significance on the Web?
Evans: Well, language, meaning spoken language, is what theoretically separates us from the other animals. It was the development of language that created man as a different and theoretically higher-level creature. Written language, text, is the crucible that holds Western civilization. All of our history and all of our culture is on paper and ink and text and some graphics, but it's mainly text. The thing that is powerful as a motivator in the current media world is the written word.

People who decide to have an abortion or not to have an abortion, to switch political parties, to go back to work and to find help raising their children from a paid service make those decisions often as a result of reading articles in magazines that they trust.

The chain starts by women finding magazines, and women are the greater buyers of magazines by a large part. Women find magazines that they trust, and then they subscribe a year in advance, which is a very strange thing to do in any case. But that's a commitment. Women make commitments, and men don't that easily. Men are much more strategic, and women are much more deeply planned. And so a woman who's made a commitment to a magazine is changed and motivated more by the words than anything else.

And what we've got in the Internet world is a group of people who do not like the English language. They have no reverence for language. They have no joy in playing word games. America itself has not a great love affair with English. And the technically able have even less. So we've got this world of minimal text, and the work done on the look of text is so little that it's ugly.

Now, what happens is, why people like magazines is for a multitude of reasons. Part of it is because of the type design and selection. People actually specialize their whole lives in picking typefaces to convey certain emotions. If we start to bring these qualities toward electronic communications, the amount of emotion that goes down that bandwidth will increase.

If we can develop text so that it can take advantage of that electronic environment, we will find that text doesn't have typefaces but has unlimited typefaces by being elastic, so that words can take on the shape of their meaning, and the words can behave in ways of their meaning. And that's what I mean by elastic type. The way that I could input the emotion to that elastic type is by, for example, the pressure I put on keyboards. If I press harder, there's a different reaction to the typeface.

If I have a pedal, as on a piano, a swell pedal for volume, I could then change the size of the type as well as its outline. And so, with these two different inputs, as well as the alphabet, I could start to make sentences in which you would know the difference between me saying, 'I love you,' or 'I love your car.' And the word love would be different. If I were able to make sentences rise and fall in cadence, you'd begin to understand I have an accent by looking at this text. So I would know you were from Scotland or from Mississippi by the look and construction of your sentences. And this, I think, would start to become enormously powerful if we could do this.

SVR: Would the typist need to be someone like Vladimir Horowitz to have that control to exaggerate those dynamics to convey specifically what they're thinking?
Evans: It would be like everything else in life: some people would care and some people wouldn't; some people write letters and really anguish over the choice of words and rewrite things. Beethoven wrote a theme for his fourth piano concerto and then rewrote it 13 times, and the 14th time was the first one repeated. So he decided to use the first one. So some people just do things impulsively. All I'm suggesting is that what we need to do is give the range of opportunities to people, and out of it will come people who really do magic again with the textual word.

I think that seeing one another on some form of computer screen is going to be about as popular as the video phone. The video phone has been available for like 20 years, and nobody's ever really bothered to buy it. The answer to that is that if you look at the Jetsons, they always hold a little mask in front of their face when they speak on their video phone, because we need a veil between ourselves and the person to whom we're communicating so that we can filter our emotions, so that we can compose ourselves, to compose our sentence and to deliver something. We need some form of filter, some veil. The Jetsons had a mask.

We need to have no visual representation of the person to whom we're speaking. If you want proof of this, if I tell you I'm going to tell you something really complex and start to describe something, you will most likely close your eyes and shut out other sensory input.

SVR: What is it about the Web that frustrates you?
Evans: The emotion that destroys most businesses and the emotion which is the great salvation of our society is arrogance. And that's why we don't fly on Pan Am anymore and IBM doesn't own the world is because the corporate arrogance of those vast institutions lost contact with common people and with the marketplaces they served, and so other people replaced them. And what bothers me on the Internet, just for example, is I am absolutely outraged having to waste my time waiting for you to download your logo to me, which I didn't ask for.

I do not want to waste my time for things that you think are important. I want to be able to understand what my choices are and then decide whether I will wait or not. I will wait a long time for something really powerful and important. I don't want to waste any time. I'd rather it be all text before we get to that point. But to set off saying, 'We're very smart and wonderfully creative here, now if you'll just give us two minutes, we'll download this thing which does nothing for you but it's really beautiful' -- that is arrogance. So that bothers me.

The sheer speed of the Net, obviously, is going to be, I think, very difficult to live with. And what I fear it's going to do is it's going to give rise to private superhighways, if you like, or toll roads, I suppose they'll be. And clever people with lots of money will build very high-speed connections that I'll be tempted to use. The problem with this is that we just keep repeating this kind of elitist model where there'll be a few people who have wonderful communications at very high speeds. And we'll have other people who will have fairly slow networks, and we'll have a vast number of people with no ability to communicate at all.

SVR: Will there be corporate media groups on the Web, and how will that affect consumers?
Evans: The people who have been really clever -- and I mean one must admire the energy and brilliance of those who have built these huge corporations like News Corporation or Time Warner or TCI in the cable business or Bill Gates in all of those businesses he's in -- that's what everybody aspires to do, is to have this success in life. But the problem is that the Web offers us this very low barrier to entry for people who have business and other noncommercial ideas. If the pattern very rapidly repeats today's pattern, we'll have very few places to go for information.

And to some degree, people who own large corporations would like to bit-radiate back to you rather than hear what you've got to say. It's just the nature of them. And that, I think, that is going to be a great loss for us. Because the Web's great facility is to be two-way interactive. And most of the very successful media companies are one-to-many models and bit radiators, which is, of course, the opposite. And if they dominate, that will become the world.

SVR: When you say the Web, you should not forget the importance of text. Doesn't it somewhat fly in the face of the success USA Today has had with putting an emphasis on graphic design?
Evans: I'm not saying that having greater facility for text on the Internet will make the illiterate wish to read. It's not going to be that way. All I'm trying to say is that if we're going to preserve language and written language as a way that we store and distribute our cultural values, then we have to improve text to the point where it can be competitive to the surrounding marketplace. I think that we might gain something in literacy if the impact and the emotional experience of text were raised. I think some people would come back to it. But there are millions of us who like words. And right now, we're faced with the most miserable typefaces and dreadful-looking pages to deal with.

And that's driving kids away. If they're parked in front of a TV from the age of two or whatever with a babysitter, then the sad thing is, that imagery destroys the ability of people to imagine on their own. You see, children who grew up with radio have all these images in their older lives of the characters they listened to on radio. They're burned into their heads. But they are their images, they're not somebody else's images. They were images they imagined and conceived of themselves. And instead of watching television, children of the radio acted out their fantasies with other friends of those radio shows. And that was really stimulating. Television takes away the need to imagine anything. And I think that this is really a sad commentary on where we are.

SVR: That's interesting. It's almost like the Web could be a throwback to the early days of comic books and '40s radio.
Evans: The work I design is in fact designed to emulate paper and radio. And if you keep them separate, they both have enormous impacts on their own. And so one of the tricks in the future is to provide; the great thing about digital information is it's like primordial soup. You can send it down this pipeline and, hopefully, the choices of how it's received and how it's displayed and presented is up to the recipient, not demanded by the sender. And so if I receive this digital stream of information, I should be able to decide if I would like to read it or whether I'd like to hear it or whether I'd like to see it.

And I think you'll find that the amount of printed material will go up dramatically over the next few years because people, given a choice under this basis, would print a lot of the stuff that they currently can't read on the screen. And if we design pages on $400 printers to look as good as magazine pages, which we can, then we'll find people love to have things downloaded and in print. For example, in the typical family, an older person might choose to read a sports columnist, and their kid might choose to watch the video. But the choice should be made by the recipients, not by the sender.

SVR: How's your one-year-old daughter? Has that changed your life at all?
Evans: [Laughter] Only completely. This is my first child, and I have become everything that I disliked about parents. The reason I wouldn't go willingly to dinner with new parents is because their conversation was tedious and boring and focused upon this child. And I find myself obsessed. It's the only affair that my wife would tolerate. I have a friend who became a father at about the same time as I did, and we were talking on the phone just after the birth, and he said, 'It's like falling in love again.' That sounds so trite, but it is absolutely that.

I am impassioned by this child. I am hypnotized by this child. I want to do everything in this world for this child and would like to have one child and completely ruin her, which of course I would but for the fact that I am married to a very sane woman who would not have this happen.

SVR: You're also a sailing enthusiast.
Evans: Oh, I've not sailed as much. I have a small wooden boat, and I love to get away. It has no moving parts other than five blocks and a tiller. It has no technology, no engine, no water, no lights, no nothing. And I still occasionally race vintage cars, which was, well, it used to be a job in the '60s. They weren't vintage then. And that's still a hobby. So between racing cars, raising a child, designing software and sailing a boat and being interested in everything else in between, life's pretty exciting.


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