The Future of Content (Part 4) – Version 0.9

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!

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About willwoods
I'm Head of Learning and Teaching Technologies in the Institute of Educational Technology at the Open University.

8 Responses to The Future of Content (Part 4) – Version 0.9

  1. AJ Cann says:

    Most of the Wikipedia “controversies” are spurious because they fail to differentiate between fact and opinion, e.g. the speed of light in a vacum vs. the natural state of mankind. There’s a strong argument to be made that Wikipedia is superior, possibly on both counts, as David Weinberger argues in his recent book.
    The arguements surrounding VLEs and PLEs are also revealing about how people like to interact with content – I don’t see any students knocking on my door to praise or complain about their PLEs, but they all have opinions about the local VLE. that suggests that the vast majority of internet users want to consume content in a much more passive way than some of the utopian arguments in this series have implied.

  2. willwoods says:

    I have some issues around the whole VLE concept actually because I think it’s very much a content providers view of the world rather than a learners view of how to engage with content well. Most VLE’s are about providing a service that can be easily managed and maintained. PLE’s are by their nature more individually focused and therefore better suited to different learning styles.

    My wife hates learning on web or CD and took her distance course using traditional distance learning materials (paper!) – This is not going to be an option in the VLE only environments of the future and there is still an argument that people learn through reflection, repetition, etc and other techniques the books allow you to do, for example simply writing out passages from books helps them stick in the brain but where is the equivalent within a VLE?

    I should point out here that I’m not an academic and therefore not talking with authority on the provision of learning content other than I have expererience of what works and what doesn’t from building systems to support learning.

  3. AJ Cann says:

    I agree wholeheartedly that VLEs are about institutions not about learners, but then, so were lectures!
    The present generation of students feels comfortable with VLEs and the vast majority are uncomfortable with PLEs. I don’t believe that’s going to change soon any more than I believe that passive consumption of content via broadcast media is going to go away.

  4. willwoods says:

    That’s true (about lectures) however you’ve got the learner engaging face to face (or face to back if the lecturer is one of the mumbling, put stuff up on whiteboard type). In any case they’re forced to engage to some extent, they can’t “turn it off” unless they don’t turn up!

    In VLE’s there isn’t the same sort of interaction with the material so I think that more effort needs to be put into that engagement process and that means doing more than just sticking lecture notes up on the web with a few comments. I really think the gain will be in making the environments much more learner centric spaces and about increasing the level of interaction and engagement, but I agree that the passive consumption of content will remain and I for one work best on my own or with a buddy but not generally in larger groups, when I usually get either swamped or intimidated.

  5. ajcann says:

    I think you’re wrong there Will. Well designed online materials are better then poor lectures. I’ve frequently heard students say that it’s easier to download the PowerPoint from the VLE than to turn up to the lecture and listen to the lecturer read it out. There’s no more interaction in a large lecture theatre than on a VLE, probably less. Students have IM clients open while they are on the VLE, although they may also spend most of the lecture texting their friends!

  6. willwoods says:

    Hmmm. I take your point here and old style lecturing (listen whilst I speak at you) is very much like poorest of VLE’s in that the information provider is simply pushing stuff out filling the students head with their wonderous knowledge , expecting the students to all be vessels waiting to be filled. People assimilate the things they learn in different ways.

    Google Jockeying is an interesting spin on what you’re saying about students texting in lectures. This keeps the students engaged in the topic and gives them more freedom to explroe a topic

    http://connect.educause.edu/library/abstract/7ThingsYouShouldKnow/39391

  7. .9, c’mon buddy, lets git ‘er up to speed with a lil’ 1.0 at least.

  8. Pingback: Policing the internet.. « Weblog of Will Woods

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