I’ve been asked by Martin Weller to comment from a technical perspective on the future of content as part of an experiment as explained by Martin here we are jointly creating a series of posts about the future of content.
Already there is Part 1, Part 2 and a reply, Part 3, and here is Part 4.
Martin has a very optimistic and Utopian view of content and I think he is arguing from a content providers view. I’d like to explore things from a users viewpoint, in particular I think that the integrity or authority associated with the content is an important part of deciding how it might be used. It’s worth looking here at how Wikipedia lives alongside The Encyclopaedia Britannica for example? Wikipedia has come in for a lot of flak about the inaccuracy of data or the credability of it’s authors, Patrick McAndrew points to the “faking it” approach to knowledge. Jim Giles contends that it is as accurate as Britannica according to an expert led study conducted by Nature magazine. This was of course contested by Britannica and depends very much on the data and techniques used. The issue for me here is not that Wikipedia isn’t a great resource and can’t be used alongside Britannica but that it cannot be relied upon without having some complex method of screening and giving authority to content and publishing. I’m not contending that it isn’t accurate, what I’m saying is that it’s can’t be guaranteed to be accurate.
Take the analogy of a car, you can buy from a dealer with a guaranteed warranty and peace of mind of knowing that if things go wrong then someone else will sort it out for you. You can buy second hand from a non dealer network and have a limited warranty and less comeback or you can be given a car for free, which seems excellent until it goes wrong or is found to be riddled with holes. Content provided free on the web can also be riddled with holes, however it has it’s place and I said earlier how Wikipedia sits alongside Brittanica because they both have their place.
Cory Doctorow gave a speech in which he said “New media don’t succeed because they’re like the old media, only better: they succeed because they’re worse than the old media at the stuff the old media is good at, and better at the stuff the old media are bad at. Books are good at being paperwhite, high-resolution, low-infrastructure, cheap and disposable. Ebooks are good at being everywhere in the world at the same time for free in a form that is so malleable that you can just pastebomb it into your IM session or turn it into a page-a-day mailing list.”
And here’s where I pull the content issue forward a step. In the “good old days” people with visual impariment had to make do with books and someone interpreting or reading to them or alternatively converting to braille and eventually audio tapes were produced. Now people with accessibility issues can interact with media in ways they never could previously and share with others their new found knowledge, we are using devices like screen readers, eBooks, talking books, MP3 players and PDA’s to bring old media to much larger group of people than ever before. Surely this can only be a good thing? - Martin Weller contends that the thought of having his book store digitally looks tempting to him “I like having books as objects on my shelves, but I used to like having vinyl albums and CD’s also, but now I only have MP3′s”. I think that books will always have a place in our society but maybe like vinyl they will be relegated to being object of wonder rather than regularly used items.
I want to talk about some ways print media is being reinterpreted for a web audience. In particular Print on Demand (Amazon et al) as a method of providing a traditional media (books) with reduced overheads that you can pass on to the consumer in a way that people can get what they want, when they want at a reduced cost, but not free! This works well and I think is a compromise between the corporate “publishing control” of the big publishing houses and the Utopian but potentially flawed free and open access materials. There is also of course a growing number of people using MySpace and YouTube for publishing material at the lower end of the spectrum. Sam Jordison writes a thought provoking piece on the subject, in particular he says “Most attempts have been doomed to failure because the website just doesn’t offer the same advantages to the printed word as it does to music (after all, it’s far easier to listen to a three-minute song than to read a novel, or even a short story, on the site’s notoriously badly designed blog interface). Nevertheless, these literary MySpace pages, complete with links to samples of their work, attract a large network of online “friends” who share similar tastes and interests.”
He then goes on to add “with the net the worst that can happen is that you’ll hurt your eyes. “There’s also every chance that you’ll be find something you like, you can put it in your favourites to watch how the writer develops and follow the links he or she provides to more like-minded authors. That’s the beauty of it.”
In my opinion there is something to this but also to Ray Corrigans contention that information wants to be expensive, because it’s so valuable. I worked on a project last year looking at creating a bartering room on the web to allow companies to ‘buy-in’ to academic knowledge delivered personally for them. This project was based on a model developed by a Dr Hans-Peter Barmeister in Germany who had companies such as Boeing and Hewlett Packard clamouring to work with them but who wanted to pay for the information because they wanted (a) Exclusivity , (b) A guarantee on the integrity of the study and information provided and (c) A tailored summary or extract from a wider research study. The counter argument that this was largely freely available anyway and they could ‘filter’ it themselves doesn’t hold water, they want to pay for expert knowledge, expertly extracted.
This leads me on to a subject of security and integrity. If a community is closed then control over that community can be managed easily. As the community grows so does the complexity of the information, therefore eventually and control mechanism will break. According to Schneier’s law anyone can come up with a security system so clever that he can’t see its flaws. The only way to find the flaws in security is to disclose the system’s workings and invite public feedback.
So where does that leave us? – You’ll note that I haven’t mentioned web 2.0 yet and I don’t intend to, why? – Because the internet and the web are evolutionary concepts and what interests me is not a collection of current technologies branded as 2.0 but rather the directions the web is taking (and content thereof). So in conclusion here is a potted list of predictions based on what I’ve been involved in researching..
(1) A cashless and cacheless society
As knowledge becomes increasingly ‘on demand’ the need for caching information disappears, there is no such thing as a TV schedule in the traditional sense, information is provided to individuals as they need it, just in time. transactions take place in the background (look at the ‘touchless payment’ cards being brought out now for a preview of the future).
(2) Personalised filtering
There will be better ‘background intelligence’ services developed to filter content, providing “authority” information, ensuring quality of resource and integrity of content, they will be user centred and adaptive to suit individuals. Look at where the semantic web is going for a preview of this and what Google in particular is doing to leverage the capabilities of it’s powerful search engines in more tailored ways. This will inevitably lead to the merging of the “Wikipedia” and “Britannica”.
(3) Ambient and Ubiquitous
Two words I hear a lot and really describe how the content providers and services will disappear from sight but at the same time be everywhere we need them providing us with tailored and contextually aware information. The intelligent fridge is an example of this but a more useful one perhaps is the use of geocaching for tourism, where you can provide an interesting and tailorable guide around a place (city, village etc.)
(4) A smaller divide between the “have” and “have nots”?
The web will grow tremendously and more content will be freely available I think that our society will be less divided than ever (at least western societies) because people from low income families will now begin to benefit from the advances through more public and free access to media. Access to technology may increase but the ability to use it correctly remains a problem that needs to be addressed.
(5) Those who think they control information will get a wake up call
As the amount of information increases and access is widened then governments that seek control of that information will find that the more they try to control the more things squeeze out at the edges.
(6) Systems will target viruses not everyone else
The current system for dealing with viruses (lets put up a firewall and close everything down!) is fundamentally against the original principles of the web and is deconstructive. I believe that the use of localised security measures will soon be abandoned in favour of ‘search and destroy’ targetting and isolating viruses, this may mean an intelligent “turn out the lights” approach virus control. I believe that in the future we’ll get so good at it that viruses cease to be an issue (I wish!).
(7) People will become the user interface.
There will be no such concept as a good user interface because we’ll be that interface. The way we want to see stuff will be completely our domain and controlled by the individual.
(8) Technology will diversify not integrate?
A controversial one here but I think that the integration of everything onto a single device is reaching it’s limit and in fact people are waking up to the fact that using a mobile phone for watching video is like listening to radio on the TV, a bit gimmicky and something people rarely use or only in cases where no alternatives exist. I think there will be much more in the way of alternatives and people will have more freedom of choice of devices and technologies.
(9) Combining in new ways for added advantage
I think that things like combining eInk (electronic Paper) and ePen technology will bring us around to providing added advantage over traditional technologies and we will see this coming of age when issues about power and wireless network access cease to be limitations to their use. I think we’ll find they improve on the traditional and allow us more freedom.
I think I’m waffling now so I’ll stop but I’ll add more useful references to this and possibly proof read it when I get more time, in the meantime back to you Martin!