Euan Semple, who first introduced social media tools into the BBC ten years ago, offers his views of the changes that may be afoot in this most dynamic of industries
Predicting the future has always struck me as a dodgy thing to be doing; remember those predictions of us all flying around in personal flying saucers? But I now find myself being asked to mark the new decade by writing about what might happen over the next ten years on the web. I suppose the advantage nowadays is that change happens so much more quickly that we find out that our predictions are wrong much sooner!
As William Gibson once said The future is already here - it is just unevenly distributed. On the basis that my own experiences, which are almost certainly not mainstream yet, may indicate some of the ways others will be working over the next few years, they have suggested a couple of broad themes.
I have been blogging almost ten years and the experience has had a fundamental effect on how I see the world and my approach to information and knowledge. Rather than being a static, editorialised, final version of the truth, information and knowledge becomes much more of an ongoing work in progress. When I write a blog post, I don't see it as a talk to the hand statement of fact but more as a provocation, as an invitation to a conversation. If I have written a good blog post I will attract smart people to engage with me on the subject, build on my ideas, possibly disagree, but certainly refine and develop my thinking. Rather than being protective of my views and opinions I want them to be up for grabs and to become part of the collective flow. Flow is going to become an increasingly important word. Once you become part of the networked, connected world, you begin to see information in terms of flows. Information flows in, gets modified, and flows out. What matters as much as the modification in the middle is the quality of the incoming and outgoing networks. Whose stuff are you reading, and who is reading your stuff matters. More important than the perfect final statement of the truth is the ongoing consensual process of working out what makes most sense and works best for most people at any particular time.
Increased impact of the web on society
We are only at the very beginning of our understanding of the impact of the web on our organisations, institutions and society. There is little doubt that its impact will ultimately be seen as equivalent to that of the printing press, with its consequent effects ultimately leading to the Enlightenment. When asked recently in an interview how long I thought it would take for the full impact of the web to become apparent I suggested 50 years. This may seem like an unrealistically long time but for the full societal consequences to be apparent, and integrated into normal life, I don't think this is extreme. The Internet has been around for about 30 years, yet many people's grasp of the technologies is still pretty basic, let alone their understanding of their impact on our lives.
This is not to say that the web's impact on society is by definition positive. It enables the bad guys to make better decisions faster just as much as it does the good guys. Clearly I believe that it has the potential to do good and improve our lives, otherwise I wouldn't be as involved as I am promoting its use, but we won't end up at 'a better place' unless we make an effort. I got involved in blogging when I realised my children would inhabit this virtual space, and that if it was going to be habitable I would have to get in there and make it habitable.
This inevitable and intrinsic impact of the web on our lives will become apparent to more people over the next ten years. It will be less easy to dismiss it as marginal or 'just technology'. It will be taken more seriously by more people, and increasingly seen as just how we do things rather than labelled 'digital' and pigeonholed.
Okay, having managed to put it off so far, here are a few things that I believe we can be pretty confident about happening in the next few years.
Embedded technologies. We have become used to having to learn computer interfaces in order to access their power. Already computers are built into all sorts of devices from cars to cookers and this trend of building intelligence into devices or appliances will continue. Technologies like RFID will mean that intelligence can be built into pretty much any object at very low cost, including the ability to connect this information into a network. This will mean access to information, and patterns of that information, that we haven't even begun to imagine. In the near future, it will be possible to strap sensors to bodies that relay 'biofeedback' information that can then be presented on iPhones, giving us all sorts of information about our lifestyles and the ability to adjust our behaviours accordingly.
Augmented reality. This refers to the ability to overlay information over live images of a particular setting. For instance, there are already iPhone applications that allow you to point the video camera in a particular direction then view the image on the phone with data relating to the object in the image superimposed live. Whatever form it eventually takes this ability to present information contextually in the location in which it is needed will become more important.
Finding the good stuff. As we get more information, and more ways of expressing that information, there will be a perception of increased noise in the system. Contrary to previous assumptions noise is actually a good thing, it allows signals to emerge which would otherwise not be heard, but in order to do this we will need the help of tools and behaviours which help identify the signal amongst the noise. This need is already leading to smarter technologies, increased use of the semantic web, and better designed interfaces to personal social networks.
The shifting digital divide. At the moment the assumption tends to be that the digital divide exists either between rich and poor, first world and third world, or digital natives and digital immigrants. My own belief is that the real divide is between open and closed. Those who have an open attitude to new ideas, new opportunities and connections with other people will thrive in the new network world that is emerging, those with a more closed disposition, who want to hold on to their information and are sceptical about distributed intelligence and concerned about 'standards' will struggle. Over the next ten years this divide will probably widen and become the basis of many struggles as the instruments of power in our organisations and institutions change.
So there - I did it - I made some predictions. I probably played pretty safe and these things will happen much faster than ten years but I'm not so sure. Many people are only now discovering social tools on the web and blogging has been around ten years, LinkedIn six and Twitter three. Sometimes the pace of change just isn't as fast as people like to think it is.