Adaptation is continuous. It isn’t going to stop

EvolutionWe live in the future. The pace of change is astonishingly fast, and it’s accelerating. We’re living through not one but at least two huge technological advances – hardware in the form of computers and mobiles and tablets, and the network itself. We’re just starting to see the social changes that come as a result of those things: interlinked networks, technologically enabled, doing new stuff like Wikipedia and Wookiepedia and breaking the entire news industry by publishing stuff immediately and talking to each other directly.

Of course, children born today have no idea what a rotary telephone is, or a vinyl record. That’s not a hard thing to understand. What’s startling is realising that most 12-year-olds now have no idea what the save icon in Microsoft Word is meant to look like. Floppy disks are gone. We’ve gone through so much tech so fast.

But we’re not done with those changes. Not even the network changes are over, never mind the hardware and the social effects from those things. We have got so many more years of this to come – magical devices emerging from big conferences that change the way your whole life works; new ways of having conversations and sharing things and spreading information virally that come out of tiny startups with no cash. Things we can’t imagine yet, but that will seem inevitable as soon as they exist.

We don’t get to stop yet. In fact, we probably aren’t going to stop in my lifetime. I’ve made my peace with the idea that every solution I work on, every innovation I’m part of and every exciting development I eagerly enjoy is a step on the way somewhere else. Everything we are currently doing is temporary.

It’s pointless trying to adapt to survive the current conditions and then stopping. By the time you’ve adapted the current conditions will be old news. In three years’ time your nice, completed adaptation will be obsolete.

That doesn’t mean we get to stop doing it. It means that – in the news business especially – we need to get a move on doing it now. We need buckets of innovation now, in chunks that we can test and deploy and iterate on and learn from, so that in six months’ time we can be doing the next thing. And then the thing after that. And then the next thing. Because standing still would be monumentally, suicidally stupid.

This post was brought to you by @currybet on innovation, @adders on disruption, and @yelvington on Kodak.

3 ideas about the future of print news

McSweeney's San Francisco Panorama amid New York Times & other newspapers at West Portal Daily

Spot the odd one out.

A friend recently emailed me to ask about what print newspapers would look like in the future, for a sci-fi story he’s writing. His words:

“Obviously the It’s The Future! thing to do would be to say they only existed digitally, but I’m reluctant to go right down the route in case it’s a bit too holo-TV and flying cars, so knowing where you’d put your money on this particular bet would be very handy.”

It made me consider the question in a way I hadn’t before – and here’s the response: three sci-fi-ish narratively-useful ideas grounded in reality, about what print news could look like in the World Of Tomorrow.

1. Print-your-own

Berg has just announced a mini in-your-house printer magic box cloud news thing. This is actual wizardry. The evolution of devices like that is basically a personal printed news sheet that you grab on the way out of the door, read on the commute and recycle at the office. Or that greets you with the day’s news in print when you arrive home, or gives you a non-screen thing to read with breakfast so it doesn’t matter if you spray ketchup on it. And it weaves personal/social news stuff in with “proper” news sources. It’s unbundled in a very cool way.

2. Artefact

The newspaper that carries your birth date, or announces your marriage – the one you appear in – is a thing people still want to keep. There will be more cut-out-and-keep, more souvenir editions, and quality of production will go up along with prices, until each paper is a beautiful object in its own right. Something along the lines of some of the really innovative papers at the moment – the prettier ones here are starting to move in that direction – or McSweeney’s San Francisco Panorama.

At its most extreme, this could end up with weekly papers being more like glossy magazines – something to sit on your coffee table for days at a time, something you can dip in and out of during the week, carrying good long reads and beautiful pictures – the sorts of lean-back things you can really do well in print.

This might be the least likely of the three to come in, because even though the infrastructure is already there, the folks in charge of newspapers want to stay mass-market as long as possible so won’t make the design investments to switch to niche. And it’s questionable whether the business model would actually pan out, given distribution costs.

3. Free

People will still read something if it’s handed to them when they’ve nothing else to do. Metro and Evening Standard will still do well, in London at least, as long as there are captive commuters – though when wifi is installed on the Tube that’ll be very disruptive to their businesses and they’ll have to up their game to compete. Free sheets, supported by ads, won’t go away until/unless the last of the display ad business dies.

If free papers can come up with a better way of tracking who actually reads them and what they do, and sell that model to advertisers, then free sheets could end up being the most profitable of any medium. So depending on how near, innovative and prosperous the near-future is, it might be worth thinking about offline tracking in your newspapers – RFID trackers that would let companies see how far their papers travel and how many times they’re read, or giveaway cards that would unlock something extra (rewards online, possibly, or free coffee/pasty/Twix offers) in return for a name/date of birth/postcode.

What else?

What did I miss? I didn’t say local, because I don’t think many local papers will exist in 30 years’ time in forms other than those above. That’s not to say local news won’t – in fact, it’s likely to be much stronger than it is now, thanks to better local networks, horizontal vectors for information to spread, facilitated by but not limited to the internet. Will any news organisations run print papers as loss leaders, for prestige or for other purposes? Or will there be any profitable newspapers that aren’t also artefacts?

2012: not the end of the world

As 2011 draws to a close, we find it easier to imagine the world ending than to imagine a seismic change of the sort that seems likely in 2012. Apocalypse cults herald the Rapture and the Mayan prophecies of doom, but critics of capitalism stop short of imagining a revolution in America or a new political order in the UK.

The stories we tell about the future are no longer hopeful, excited tales of technology and human spirit revealing new vistas of experience and exploration. Toby Barnes talked about this in his excellent post wrapping up Playful 2011: “Our visions now seem to be so close to home.” Not just in science fiction, in the stories we write and the movies we see, but in other areas of culture too, we go around in circles exploring the past. The New Boring aesthetic is everywhere, in our television, our clothes, our music, our interior decoration. Even cupcakes and cake stands are back.

It’s a little like the UK has collectively mislaid the cultural ability to imagine beyond the horizon, and started looking backwards over its shoulder instead. Not lost, because that implies it won’t come back, when the world stops changing so fast and people have jobs and can afford to eat and pay bills comfortably again (assuming that happens). But we have shifted our focus away from the shiny bright realm of limitless possibility to the scary possibilities of the present. While in some parts of the world 2011 has been about imagining revolution and embracing hope, in others the realm of the future has become a place where ends are easier to envisage than evolutions.

The same is true of the news industry. In a year when a British newspaper was unceremoniously killed by its owners, the end of a national newspaper suddenly changed from something hard to picture into something easy to recall. It’s much easier to envisage the end of the newsprint business than to conceive of its evolution. It’s harder to imagine what the news business in general will look like in 2031 than it is to imagine that there simply won’t be one. The apocalypse is a much easier story than the sci-fi future, these days.

I hope, in 2012, that changes. I hope we get our hopeful visions back.

#playful11: you don’t need a flying car

Last Friday was Playful 2011, an awesome conference about games and toys and, well, being playful. It was at Conway Hall. It was lovely in that way that you don’t always agree with, but that makes you think and gives you a different slant on the world. I enjoyed it immensely.

Running through the day were several threads that I want to come back to at some point – most notably for me the blurrings of boundaries between art and technology, between physical and digital things, and between creation and consumption. But the dominating theme was nostalgia – nostalgia for a vision of the future that was born in the 1970s with big-budget sci-fi epics, and that simply doesn’t exist now.

To put it another way: where’s my fucking jetpack?

It’ll come as no surprise, if you saw me live tweeting, that this future-past nostalgia doesn’t resonate with me. I think there are a couple of reasons for this, one personal and one much more general and more interesting.

First up: the personal. The touchstones of the nostalgic middle-aged man don’t reflect me. This isn’t just an age thing – I watched Logan’s Run and Star Wars, albeit a few years late – it’s a gender and a sexuality thing too. My present, as a not-entirely-straight woman, is a hell of a lot more interesting and self-controlled and autonomous than any 1970s sci-fi vision of that life (Alien dutifully excepted). I could be an astronaut, or a prime minister. I can control my fertility (isn’t it weird how few people who talk about humans as cyborgs ever mention that?) and I don’t have to sleep with everyone I meet as a result. I am the star of my own movie, not a sidekick. It’s not perfect, and others have it worse – this future like all others is unevenly distributed – but it’s getting better.

So I like this future, where I don’t have a jetpack but also I don’t have to wear a silver breastplate or high-legged leotard or gold bikini. Nostalgia for those images makes no sense to me.

The other thing – and this is the less personal one – is that trends in technology aren’t actually about the tech. Trends in anything aren’t about what’s technically possible so much as they’re about what matters to people. Trends are about us, about humans and what we want and need from our world. This is true for toys and games and news and jetpacks and flying cars. So one big reason we don’t have flying cars is that the desire for flying cars was never actually a need for flying cars. It was a problem (get places fast, avoiding congestion) that could be solved by flying cars, but also in other ways. Like telecommuting.

It’s the internet’s fault that you don’t have a flying car.

We don’t always think of the web as bridging physical space problems, but it does – so smoothly that we don’t notice. I have my work colleagues in my pocket and a window to my work space in my bag. Now, why do I need a flying car?

(Yes, there are also technological and logistical reasons why flying cars are difficult. The internet isn’t a perfect solution to the problem. But it’s not bad, for an unevenly distributed future. And if it didn’t solve the problem pretty well, I reckon we’d find a way to make flying cars work. We’re clever little monkeys, and we’re good at solving problems.)

What else is in my pocket? I have the biggest encyclopaedia there has ever been, and a satellite view of the entire globe, and a personally curated collection of interesting writing by clever people that expands every day beyond my ability to read and absorb it. I have a direct, fast, simple line out to millions of people, and tools I can use to collaborate with them on any number of exciting projects or toys or games. Oh, and the news, too. All of it.

Something else that ran through many of the Playful talks was a focus on play as an event that happens between an individual and a machine. It struck a peculiar note for me, operating in a space with Zombie where all play is collaborative between humans, and a space at the Guardian where news gathering and consumption are going the same way.

The risk here is that by focusing on the toy at the expense of the needs of the player – the shiny tech, the jetpack, the iPad (it’s the future of news, you know) – we lose sight of what’s actually happening. New toys are solving old problems. We are collaborating more and more, in incredible ways. We are capable of incredible endeavours, playful and serious, because we are connected. The key vision of the next generation isn’t a baby playing with a magazine as though it’s an iPad. It’s social networking on Moshi Monsters and multi-player collaborative world-building in Minecraft.

Sci-fi has always been good at identifying problems and imagining solutions – but usually it’s much better at predicting the needs than the resolutions. Jetpacks, incidentally, have been around since about the 1940s. They didn’t really solve much.

Nostalgia for the promise of a different future doesn’t make sense to me in a world where I can already see the solutions to those problems in the flesh. Why get misty-eyed over the promise of a flying car or newspapers with moving pictures, when we can see the whole world from the sky on Google Earth and join in with news happening at the tips of our fingers on Twitter and live blogs and YouTube?

I would rather get on with playing.

Video vs print

Magazines to read Today the BBC reported that video adverts are going to appear in a print magazine.

Yes, seriously. This is the Daily Prophet made real, though with more Pepsi and less Azkaban. We are now officially living in the future. Though someone seems to have stolen my jetpack.

According to the BBC, they use similar technology to singing cards, can store 40 minutes of video and can be recharged.

As long as they don’t use them to wish me a happy new year in tinny voices every time I open a magazine, I’m behind this idea all the way.

Let’s make print more attractive, let’s innovate in meatspace as well as online, and let’s develop easily-accessible video news as a permanent medium and see what happens.