Themes for 2011

2010 has been an interesting year for the internet. Where will 2011 take us? Here’s a slightly apocalyptic set of thoughts.

Wikileaks, privacy and security

Anybody who has thought for even a moment about the implications of the internet and the web will have known that something like Wikileaks was always going to happen. It was a case of when, not if.

What Wikileaks tells us is that the internet makes information free – as in speech, not necessarily as in beer. When the tools for publishing content to a worldwide audience are free, and the channels for promoting it as fast and efficient as the likes of Twitter and Facebook, it becomes pretty clear that something significant has changed.

As John Naughton wrote recently,

The only rational attitude to online systems is cautious scepticism about their security.

It forces us to question how we define security and privacy online. My take is to assume you have none, and proceed on that basis.

Culture

A further theme, in addition to questions about security, privacy and identity will be culture and the sociological effects of the information revolution.

There are a couple of elements to this. One is the idea of cloud culture, which Charles Leadbeater explored in his pamphlet. The other is along the lines of Nick Carr’s book The Shallows, based on his idea that Google is making us stupid.

I already outsource an awful lot of my memory to the internet. My dad asked me the other day if I was ok with some plans we’d arranged. I didn’t know what he was talking about. “But I emailed you about it the other day!” he exclaimed. Because I had an email, I’d forgotten all the detail within it.

Is this any different to outsourcing arithmetic to pocket calculators? I’m not sure. But when the cloud could disappear at any time, it’s good to have a backup of your online memory somewhere.

Cloud culture will continue to have an increasing role in our lives, whether we notice or not. Books are moving to the cloud, whether we read them on Kindles, phones or tablets. Services like Spotify mean we don’t even bother downloading music tracks any more.

Where next? Particular set in focus next to the cuts, where do libraries and museums fit into all of this? Can they be moved into the cloud? Sure, seeing a painting or a sculpture in real life is a better experience than seeing it on a screen, but is it so much better that people will pay for it? How do we feel about our cultural heritage being managed and curated by Amazon, Google and Apple rather than governments or charities?

It ties in neatly with one of my favourite, if very short, bits of writing about the internet and culture by the late Gordon Burn, in his book Born Yesterday:

…an aggregation of fragments is the only kind of whole we have now.

(This post gives a little more context.) Are we really only collections of shards of personality and culture? Does it matter? Even if it doesn’t, it’s good to be aware of what is happening to us.

Relevance

The cuts brings me onto my third and final theme. What do the cuts and the internet have in common? They question relevance. In a world of instant publishing, limitless availability of content and always-on connectivity, and where budgets will be cut wherever not cutting them cannot be justified, how do you stay relevant?

The circle closes here, because the Wikileaks story is a great example of how the internet reduces the cost of the distribution of information to zero, which has a significant impact on those organisations which depend on information distribution as their raison d’être.

Think of newspapers, television, and record labels. They thought they made news, programmes and music. Actually, they were in the logistics business.

The same is true of a number of roles and functions within public services, who will see a twinned and overlapping attack as a result of both the internet and the cuts. If the internet can do what you do cheaper, why are you needed?

To stay relevant, in 2011 public servants will need to reassess what they do and why they do it. Learning and Development people, for example, might currently spend a proportion of their time training people – but why, when all the information anyone needs is online? Why do we need communications professionals, when, with the tools at our fingertips, we are all communicators now?

The same could be said for an awful lot of roles within councils and other organisations. It’s going to be up to individuals to start defining their relevance over the next few months, to become facilitators and enablers, not merely doers.

Those that successfully figure this one out will come out on top, I think.

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Dave Briggs

I'm an experienced senior manager in digital and ICT, looking for interim engagements to modernise technology teams to help organisations transform.