Last week I was chatting to a Grand Fromage in private equity and he asked me what I do. I explained that my professional role is helping companies with challenges, in all their guises, arising from the ongoing march of networked media. The GF in question said he found the area exciting and clearly had a sophisticated view so his next questions were very interesting. He asked, 'when will it end?', and will there be a, ‘Y2K moment’? By which I think he meant will all this techy stuff just stop and leave us sitting around wondering why on earth we’d spent half of our lives typing updates into Twitter. I know exactly what he means. I frequently find myself wondering if technology has, finally, hit some plateau and that everything will just calm down a bit; whether Silicon Valley will lay off the macchiatos for a while so we can all take a breath. These questions may be down to the basic human desire for a stable, predictable world. As they say, no one really likes change. But change, it would appear, is what we've got. Furthermore, the type of change that can seemingly arrive from nowhere. Strange new digital gubbins build up a head-of-steam under the radar and then evidently pop-up fully-formed, driving people into odd new Alice-In-Wonderland behaviours. For example, normal folk become determined to be ‘Mayor’ of their local coffee shop. But not really - only virtually! Others start having conversations with, rather than on, their phones. Or, more fundamentally, strange...
...new politically-driven movements emerge such as Anonymous, Wikileaks or The Pirate Party. Outfits that seem to operate beyond normal conventions, staying one step ahead of the world’s most heavily-resourced investigative powers.
So, when will it end?
In fact, we’ve lived with this apparently rapid change for a good few years now. I remember trying to describe Wikipedia to a corporate audience in 2005 - and watching arms cross and eyebrows collectively rise and fall. And as we stand today there’s no doubt these changes are continuing. Just look at the myriad of activity in the connected TV space as linear broadcast signals blend with broadband and devices and media stack, mesh and merge. The result is that the big daddy of media, TV, is being sucked into the networked media ocean, where it will have to fight for its position in commercial food chains as they are brutally realigned.
Or if connected TV doesn’t grab you, how about Bre Pettis' Makerbot and the 3D printing revolution? Or Linked Data, Dwolla, geo-caching, windows that are also computer screens, Shoemocracy, Kickstarter, SecondMarket, Hadoop, Streeviolence, DuckDuckGo, phone wallets, networked pepper plants, virtual currencies, web apps like Untapped, Twitch.TV or the vast open source coding platform GitHub that's now being used by the UK Government. Many weird names, many new things. It never ends.
But perhaps that the point. Maybe the goalposts have moved for good and our sensibilities about change haven’t quite acclimatised. In the face of a blizzard of new gizmos, gadgets and online wizadry, it’s very easy to forget that the greatest shift is that large parts of the world’s population have been joined together for the first time - without anyone in total control. And that process is a continuing, indeed, accelerating one that has created a new status quo.
So, is asking, 'when will it end?', the wrong question?
Maybe this never-ending stream of new digital oddities is simply the result of a generational shift. Now anyone in the world with access to a connected screen can code, curate, commune or collaborate around their own ideas, passions and beliefs - however peripheral. All because they want to change something - or just to tinker. Nothing is an outlier if someone, somewhere finds it interesting.
Governments, corporates and media may wish to put the blinkers back on - but it’s probably too late. It looks like the shackles are off for good. In which case, waiting for things to settle down could mean a long wait. Perhaps the new status quo is people doing stuff they’re into – which is a pretty low barrier to entry.
What if what we are seeing is a kind of cultural big bang where people, for the first time, are expressing their own version of the desires, concerns, cares and hopes that we all share? Why would we want that to end? Maybe that's the question we should really be asking.