Worried the world is changing too fast? Here’s a thought. You’ve seen nothing.
In 1973, former BBC tech writer James Burke had imagined what 1993 would look like. He came up with what looked like wildly futuristic. Databanks, personal data storage and computers in schools. Older people would be confused, he said.
In 2013, he spoke on BBC Radio 4’s PM. It’s an interview that fried my brain at the time and it’s rattled around in my head off and on for a while.
Fear change? Brother, sister you’ve seen nothing, as Burke says:
“Something is going to happen in 40 years time, if my guess is right that will change things more than since we left the caves. The next 20 years are going to move so fast and in so many directions at once that we’re going to have a job just keeping up.
“The problem is, as we try and solve problems like privacy, feedimng the poor ovf the world and solving the ozone layer we spend months and years of committee time trying to solve these short term problems while in the background in 14,000 laboratories around the world nanotechnology is creeping along very quietly.
“A nano metre is about 1/70,000th of a human hair so one nano metre is the size of about three atoms. There are systems that allow you to manipulate atoms to use them to build molecules to build stuff.
“In about 40 years, and this is not me speaking this is a Nobel prize winner called Richard Feynman who said this all 50 years ago who said there are no physical laws that mean we can’t produce a physical nano-factory.”
Your personal nano-factory, Burke explained, could work as a desktop 3D printer using air, water and dirt and ascetelene gas and you can make anything you like. Anything.
“We will in about 40-years time become entirely autonomous. In other words, be able to produce everything they need for virtually nothing. That will destroy the present social economic and political system because they will come pointless.
There will be no need for nations or governments, he argues. They are there to regulate shortage, protect you and re-distribute wealth and if there is no shortage there is no need for them.
“We have spent the last 150,000 talkative years dealing with the problem of scarcity. Every institution, every value system everfy aspevct of our life has been determined by the need to share out. After the nano factory does its thing we will then be faced with the problem of abundance and in a society where there is no need what’s the point of government.”
There will be no need for social institutions or even cities, Burke says.
So, really, dear reader, you not getting Snapchat may be looked at, if it is looked at all, with mirth far greater than the Smash TV ad robots. Of course, this is all prediction.
You can listen to the audio clip here:
Back in 1979, the amazing invention called the mobile phone was road tested. We would, they said, no longer have to have to rely on landlines. In 1969, they called school computers and in 1994 it was the internet.
The mood music of it all was that one day, things would be so much different. It would be better but we were in control. For a while now there’s been a few emerging trends that I’ve been trying to make sense of. They’re now just starting to drift into view and they’ll change things for everyone. Not just comms people.
Bear with me. It’ll get weird, but let’s walk through it together.
A man in glasses has told me my fridge will talk to my scales
A couple of years ago a futurologist in sharp glasses told me that the internet of things was coming. This would be objects connected-up to the internet to allow them to talk to each other. Your scales would work out your ideal weight and, if you wanted, tell your fridge when milk stocks were running low to re-order semi-skimmed milk rather than full fat. And not chocolate. Or your smart whiskey bottle will let you know if someone is nipping at your Johnie Walker Blue Label.
Of course, the possibilities of all this are endless. Predictions of the scale of the internet of things – or IOT – range from the seriously mindblowing to the you’ll need to sit down because you’ll be rocking back and forth unable to comprehend. Deloitte says that a billion devices will be shipped in 2015. By 2020, Gartner says this will reach 25 billion devices or the equivalent of six devices for every person on the planet. Cisco says it’s 50 billion. Intel have it at 200 billion. Either way, it’s going to be a lot and my new printer that I can email and has its own URL blinks back at me as proof.
There’s always a trade-off with tech and one that equates to the Native Americans getting a handful of shiny jewels in return for the island of Manhattan. They dangle something cool in front of us and we handover loads of stuff they want. In this case its stacks and stacks of personal data. Think of Facebook. They give us a place to post baby pics and view cat videos. We give them our date of birth, school, University, where we live, where we work, spending habits, political beliefs and who we want to win Strictly. It’s a marketer’s dream. But the University library of information you’ll give to the internet of things will make Facebook look like a Janet and John easy read book.
Your communications will be automated
So, as the internet of things grows the more devices will communicate to each other. We just won’t see it. But what we will maybe see is sharp tailored personalised communication based on our sleeping, spending and drinking habits. It’s happening already to some extent. I think of the Troop canvas shoulder bag that keeps cropping up in my Facebook timeline after I google searched it last week. However, with lots more data the possibilities open up.
“More of our communication will be artificial and less of it will be human,” says Tracey Follows in The Guardian. “It is now common to say that the world is uncertain and therefore can’t be planned for. One thing is certain though. We are entering into a world that’s post human.”
The link did the rounds on Twitter. The tag ‘post human’ certainly jarred with some people in my timeline but it’s an eye-catching line. To some extent it is factually accurate. All that data. All those fridges. All those supermarkets. But to some extent it’s also wrong. The communications that will really stand out will be that which makes best use of the data to personalise it. As a married father of two children who likes cricket, technology and doing things with my family at the weekend anything that takes that data and helps me spend my time and money better is welcome.
Your crisis comms needs to be really, really good
We have the expansion of tech through the internet of thing and others the surrender of all that data. Here’s a really bright and cheery prediction. There’s going to be a massive cyber attack along the lines of a web 3.0 9/11. Not if. When.
Thomas Lee upon sees an internet of things showroom in San Franscisco by US firm Target where a car alarm wakes a baby whose cries are spotted by sensors which play soothing music. It dawns on him:
“We are so screwed… it was all very impressive, but I couldn’t help notice an irony: the retailer that ion 2013 was subject to a hack that compromised the credit card data of 100 million consumers now wanted people to entrust their entire homes to the internet.”
So, I’d maybe look at how you respond when there’s a data breach and things fall over.
Your internet is being automated
Data, data everywhere. That’s for the geeks, right? Actually, no. Not really. In a really challenging piece in Vox Todd Van Der Werff wrote a piece under the headline ‘2015 is the year the old internet finally died.’
He drew a simple conclusions from a number of recent stories which he maps out in the piece here before concluding:
“The internet as we know it, the internet of five, 10 or 20 years ago is going away as surely as print media replaced by the new internet that reimagines personal identity as something easily commodified that plays less on the desire for information or thoughtfulness than it does the desire for a quick jolt of emotion.
“It’s an internet driven not by human beings but by content, at all costs, And none of us – neither media professionals, nor readers can stop it. Every single one of us is building it every single day.”
People prefer the snackable and the fun, he argues. And it’s true. Yet most comms people haven’t got that. They – we’re – born in a world of newspapers and press releases. They – we’re – institutionalised to think that the organisation we work for is the centre of everyone’s waking moment and if it isn’t that’s their fault not ours.
At this point I think back, not for the first time, to the former Her Majesty’s Ambassador to Lebanon Tom Fletcher who said that we need to communicate like insurgents. In other words, fast, agile, snackable, fleet-of-foot content that thought more about the person than the organisation.
Getting good at data… and saying ‘no’
Of course, we’ve said it for years that data will be important to communications. We’ve said it but I’m not sure we really acted upon it. I’ve got a bit testy with the open data community in the past for not being very good at talking to people. But I wouldn’t deny the potential that data has to make the world a better place and to help you communicate better. I think of open data helping to expose massive fraud in Canada. I think on a very micro level the Coast Guard comms person who when I showed her followerwonk realised there was a spike in how active her Twitter followers were at 6am and then decided to schedule some content every day at that time.
The reality is that communications and PR people are very, very bad at using and interpreting data and need to be better. We also need to be much, much better at kicking back and asking for the data to be produced by the people who are asking us to write the press release, set-up the Twitter account or plan the campaign.
There is an art to saying ‘no’ and I don’t think comms people say it often enough. Sometimes, this can be done politely. Sometimes, this needs to be done by banging the table. Or in other words, to be able to command the skills of ‘Yes Minister’ alongside almost but not quite ‘The Thick of It.’ But maybe just be really careful who you are Malcolm Tucker direct with, okay?
So what does all this mean?
It means more things changing faster. It means the Robert Phillips phrase of ’embrace chaos’ being ever more relevant. Why? Because that’s all we can do. There’s a long tail with all of this. This will take shape in some sectors way before they reach others. But this is the direction we’re headed.
As beautiful illicit guilty pleasures go watching BBC2’s The Thick Of It is not exactly an out-of-control gambling habit.
A satirical fly-on-the-wall Yes Minister for the 21st Century Civil Servants and politicians scheme, plot and manipulate obsessed by the whims of public opinion.
Chief amongst them is the figure of Malcolm Tucker. Like ‘Iago with a blackberry’ as The Spectator calls him in the programme itself, he is the government’s director of communications whose Machiavellian command of the dark arts of spin is direct drawn from the underworld. Nothing is too low.
“Congratulations on your first confirmed kill,” he chillingly writes on a card to a junior who ill in hospital goes along with his plot to unseat the Leader of the Opposition. Out of the box the card comes from drifts a helium baloon with a picture of the deposed Leader sellotaped to it. A perfect blend of malice and slapstick.
Watching the programme is also a secret vice of comms people to talk of the programme illicitly in hushed tones.
A few years ago the subject of The Thick Of It came up in a conversation I had with someone who had worked at the heart of government in the Civil Service. “On a good day it was nothing like it,” the individual said. “On a bad day it was actually a toned down documentary.”
Yet, part of me thinks people will look back in years to come and find that Malcolm Tucker is a bygone relic. Obsessed with newspaper headlines and able to cajole the Priesthood of journalists with bribes and threats.
Or maybe the government comms people of the future will be just as frenetic and just as twitchy about public opinion. It’s just that it’ll be the bloggers and the digital journalists they’ll be obsessed about.
The fourth series ended with Tucker disgraced, chased by a press pack from a police station after handing himself in to be arrested after he perjured himself at a public enquiry.
And Malcolm Tucker to use a very Malcom Tucker word is ‘is damaging’.
Because he forms people’s warped idea of what a public sector comms person looks like. Which is why he needs to be brought down from grace. It’s why he needs to die. Under a bus. Outside Parliament. With a single bunch of flowers from his ma in Scotland. Leaving a stack of cracking YouTube clips as his legacy.
Comms, like journalism, is a broad church and across it finds all sorts of characters and practices. Yet there is nothing I find in what he does remotely similar to what I do working in an environment that encourages open access to social media and open data. Central government people may disagree.
But as Alastair Campbell, the man who did most to create the late 20th century idea of a spin doctor, said recently the landscape has changed: “You can’t dominate the news agenda now. The agenda is more chaotic but that’s a good thing.”