What are going to be the big debates for 2012?

05/01/2012

Prediction season is now well underway but I thought I'd try to contribute something a little different this year. Instead of looking at the big trends in technology or social marketing or user behaviour, I thought I'd try to highlight some general themes that are going to be running through many debates in 2012. This is not a comprehensive list, of course, and nor are these themes new - but I think they are particularly pregnant and perhaps ready to burst out of the specialist press and get wider attention.

1. We can all have super-brains

A year ago last month, Amber Case stood up at the TEDxWomen conference and gave a talk entitled "We Are All Cyborgs Now". In it, she explained her work as a 'cyborg anthropologist' - watching how people use new digital tools to enhance themselves and their lives. She noted that "...what we're looking at is not an extension of the physical self, but an extension of the mental self" - the augmentation of the human brain: it's ability to remember, its ability to learn, and its ability to process information and communicate with other brains over large distances.

She spoke of the teething pains that are accompanying this development: the problem of recovering things we've seen, of the anxiety of message overload and of the lack of space for self reflection. But she also acknowledged that these tools are being adopted in such vast numbers because they satisfy deep human yearnings in us to be better, do more and reach further.

And our augmented abilities are increasing all the time. In obvious ways, like providing us with access to all our notes and files and media no matter where we are (Evernote, iCloud, Dropbox, SkyDrive and a thousand other storage and syncing services), but also in increasingly sophisticated ways of doing basic things like expressing ideas (Jux.com, or ShowMe),  recording information for later use (360Panorama, MeetingPad or Coach's Eye, say), or organising people and resources (do.com, Trello or Meetup). The difficulty now is realising and discovering what capabilities are available, how they can be best employed and then incorporating them into regular use.

But as the awareness and sophistication of these capabilities improves, and solutions begin to emerge that address the teething pains, the portion of our society that is augmented will even further outpace those unable or unwilling to adapt - 'digital inclusion' won't be a simple issue of Internet access anymore, but of capability across many dimension. Ross Dawson in his predictions for 2012 raises the issue of the '10 Speed Economy', by which he means that companies will be at very varied stages of technology adoption, capability and practice. It's not just the 'Ten Speed Economy' that will be a major talking point for next year, but the 'Ten Speed Society'.

2. Just let me focus on what I’m doing

Much of the talk in the worlds of e-commerce and Internet marketing is currently about ‘context’ – by which is meant determining what a consumer is currently doing, and where, and why, and tailoring messages and experiences based on that knowledge. Whether a person is using their mobile on the move, or in a shop; whether they are sitting in front of their TV or in an office all has a bearing on the kind of interaction that is best suited to that individual at that moment.

And so many companies are investing big sums of money into figuring out how to make use of all the data they have about a person, and all the information they can glean from the device that person is currently using, to determine the context.

This is all good – context-aware interactions that make it easier to do things benefit everyone. However the question will be whether brands use that information to interrupt what people are doing.

We think the chances are good that it will; the web has traditionally been a very distracting medium. Ever since the advent of banner advertising and the animated .gif back in the 1990s, advertisers have been trying to take users’ attention away from what they are currently doing, and now with extra friend messaging and push notifications the experience is even more ‘noisy’. Added to which these distractions are now colonising all the screens we use, including our televisions.

This is a very far cry from the desire for ‘calm computing’ envisioned by Mark Weiser and John Seely Brown at Xerox Parc back in the early days of the web.

And, if writers such as Nicholas Carr are to be believed, there is mounting evidence from neuroscience that this constant distraction may not be at all good for us: that we are training our brains to be distracted. That we may in fact be so used to it, that even the expectation of being interrupted causes our minds to disengage from whatever it is we were doing, leaving us increasingly unable to focus on a task for any significant length of time.

2012 will certainly bring more studies and more insights from neuroscience on the effects of distraction on the brain, and it's going to shine a very strong light on advertising and messaging practices. The truth of the matter, though, is that the problem of online advertising has still not been satisfactorily cracked – perhaps the competition for context will improve matters. Let’s hope so, but as organisations and brands create ‘integrated experiences’ that take customers’ context into account, a major question will be: who will engage customers most successfully and will distraction be included in the measurement of success, or will it be treated as a marginal cost and ignored?

3. Where do you draw the line?

There is likely to be a lot of debate this year around what could be termed, for want of a better word, 'delineation' - drawing the line between what is included in something and what is excluded, and how you distinguish between one thing and another.

Some examples will hopefully help define what I mean:

Should you, say, offer a mobile application that includes all the features that you provide to your users, as your website likely does, or should you provide a range of individual apps for different users, contexts and interactions, and allow them to determine which one they need and install it?

Or: will people tend to use a single social network and use it's internal grouping features to distinguish between different communities, or will they tend to use entirely different services for different groups of people?

Or: is it a good idea for public services to be combined under a single domain, as demonstrated by the UK Government's 'alpha.gov.uk' project, or does it make more sense for individual departments to have their own presences under their own domains?

There are likely to be many more similar situations, and the underlying issue with all of these questions of delineation is: how will the majority of people conceive of these things they're interacting with and how effectively will they be able to either integrate them into their daily routines, or recall and access them at the appropriate times?

The generally preferred architecture on the Internet is for things to be fragmented but made interoperable through open standards, so that they can be combined in lots of different ways for different purposes. This argument will repeat itself over and over again as issues of delineation become relevant to new areas, and it will be good fun to spot them this year...

4. Trust and Anti-Trust

As Wired magazine noted in September 2010, "..one of the most important shifts in the digital world has been the move from the wide-open Web to semiclosed platforms that use the Internet for transport but not the browser for display." In other words we're increasingly using apps to access the network rather than web browsers, and those apps run on proprietary platforms that force application developers to abide by certain policies, and in some cases a vetting process, before being offered for download.

This trend has been going on for a long time, and Harvard Professor Jonathan Zittrain very eloquently warned of the implications of it in his book "The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It" back in 2008.

However, a few things are happening that may possibly make next year a little different: Firstly, the app store model has arrived on desktop operating systems, as the success of Apple’s Mac store has forced Microsoft to follow suit. PC desktops have always been open in the past (at least open in the sense that you could run any software you wanted on them without it needing to be pre-approved by the operating system maker).

Secondly, app stores are proliferating on many more devices from TVs to e-readers and even printers. The model will also be increasingly extended to cover content not just applications.

Aside from the much discussed risks of limiting innovation - especially the 'permission-less' kind that has driven the development of the web and Internet for the last few decades - the wholesale transition to proprietary platforms will have some big consequences next year.

As long as it is difficult to distinguish between 'legitimate' and politically motivated or self-interested bans when applications and content fall foul of the policies, the issue of trust and how it is induced will be central to a great deal of discussion. We may well see some vendors attempting to grab a commercial advantage by adopting a 'radically transparent' strategy and publishing all decision-making, both automated and manual, in full.

In addition, it is easier for the US Government to exert influence over private companies than it is over semi-public institutions like ICANN which have more transparent governance structures. As the geopolitical balance shifts towards a multi-polar world and the US finds itself needing to engage in more complex negotiations to exert its influence, its ability to apply leverage on the global consumption of information will be an increasingly important bargaining chip.

Furthermore, as the landscape becomes dominated by a small number of players each of which having almost total control over their individual app and content ecosystems allowing them to extract a significant tariff from app developers, it is surely only a matter of time before national governments, and the EU, decide to act to preserve competition. Before the year is out there may well be anti-trust cases brought that dwarf the ones leveled at Microsoft a decade ago over their privileging of Internet Explorer.

All of this may finally spark the massive globally-coordinated effort needed to attack the malware and virus problem, which currently provides the platform owners with the best rationale for continued policing of their app environments. You never know...

5. Why can’t this be like that?

This may seem like a completely 'duh' prediction, but I think there's going to be a lot of talk about business models next year. Yes. Duh. However, I think what will be different is that certain successful patterns will emerge that become familiar to the mainstream public, which in turn will give many more people an understanding of what is now possible and allow them to apply it in areas outside the innovation hotbeds of digital retail and commerce.

The kind of model I'm taking about will consist, in the words of Marc Andreessen, of "slicing and dicing different aspects of the economy into vertical slices... and making them available via smart-phones hooked to these really powerful networks with cloud computing on the back-end."

In other words, identifying something that people do or want, and turning it into a service that allows them to do it much better, by connecting it to huge amounts of data and other people, and delivering it through the most appropriate device in the most appropriate way at the point it is needed.

Many of these will be commercial processes like comparing prices or exchanging goods. Some will be data driven, while others will be peer-to-peer. Some will provide a service to the individual, while others will be about co-producing something. And some will be about taking some existing value from one place and deploying it in a completely different one.

My hope is that the boom in such models during 2012 will make people realise just how many areas are ripe for this kind of treatment - there are processes and interactions all around us that are currently neglected, but could be made significant and valuable by adding intelligence and visibility through engaging interfaces. And the big opportunity is for this pattern to be applied in all other walks of life: in local government, in social care, in education, the manufacturing industries, etc., etc...

Once these patterns become clear and obvious to the general public, the radical transformation of all these areas of society can finally get properly underway...

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As I said at the top, these are just some of the underlying things I will be looking out for this year. There will be many other debates - about regulation, the difference between publishing and conversation, about skills, entrepreneurship, privacy, data, storytelling, objects that tweet, truth, authority, institutions and a whole enormous raft of other topics I haven’t mentioned here, or have even thought about yet.

How exciting! :-)

(image cred: The Purpose of Argument by ImNotQuiteJack)

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