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.

Facing the future

I spent a very interesting evening at the Frontline Club for the launch of Face The Future on Tuesday. Judith Townend, Kevin Marsh, Laura Oliver (who’s moved to the Guardian recently) and chair Raymond Snoddy discussed a pretty wide-ranging selection of subjects related to the future of journalism and the tools we’re using to create it.

The evening was an interesting reminder, for me, that those of us who tweet constantly and feel on top of new tech are still, overwhelmingly, the minority. It’s easy to forget, if you spend time learning about social media and talking about new tools for the future of journalism and generally being digitally disruptive, that that’s not the reality for most journalists.The fact that I was the only person tweeting for most of the evening was one small reminder; the demographics of the audience was another; Raymond Snoddy admitting he just about felt like he was on top of the technology until someone mentioned Quora was another.

And there was a timely reminder from Kevin Marsh that in the middle East, where so much information is coming via Twitter at the moment, the same holds true. It’s a specialised tool, and journalists in particular do specialised things with it – it’s relevant and timely and a great way to source stories, but it doesn’t open up access the same way that being there in person does.

But that was another major theme of the evening – that despite major news teams being capable of sending journalists around the world, the pressures of filing to half a dozen places can make it impossible for journalists to do their jobs well. Kevin gave examples from his knowledge of the BBC – journalists doing live broadcasts for the rolling news channels, recorded spots for lunchtime and evening news and possibly breakfast too, tweeting, perhaps doing radio, and blogging too. Where’s the time for journalists to leave their hotels and investigate, go out on the streets and find sources?

Closer to home, too, the debate touched on the problems for domestic reporters – Raymond Snoddy spoke of newsrooms where no-one leaves, not even for lunch, and characterised the reporters as working on “computerised treadmills”, churning out copy to feed the ravenous information machine.

The conclusion was – this type of reporting is not lazy journalism. The journalists involved are working harder than they ever have before, producing more copy, more broadcasts, more information. But the trade-off is in time spent in the field, investigating, asking questions, finding sources, doing the hard work behind the scenes that makes for good journalism. And that’s something I can identify with, too – even in my short career I’ve experienced a newsroom merge and a round of redundancies, and I can vouch for the fact that fewer staff, cutting costs and increasing numbers of platforms for your reporting mean more time at the desk or the phone and less time on your patch or with your sources, no matter how good your intentions.

The panel also agreed that what’s important is support, from editors and from news executives, for the core skills and values of journalism. What’s important isn’t just that reporters want to get out and report – what’s needed is a newsroom structure that supports and encourages that, and a business model that puts this core area of journalism at its heart and gives it everything it needs to thrive.

The discussion wove together issues of verifying information when breaking news is breaking faster than ever before, with the tricky problems of regaining readers’ trust in a world where the phone hacking inquiry is ongoing, with questions of how journalism itself is defined. And in the end, though both Laura and Judith made the point that new forms of information management and presentation have value – that aggregation is important and curation and filtering are vital, in a world where the same sources we use are also open to the audience – it was Kevin’s argument that stuck with me. He said that we have forgotten what journalism is, and in so doing we have allowed it to become devalued.

Kevin’s list of what journalism is and how it works was not exhaustive or scientific. He talked of journalistic values – accuracy, balance, ethics – and of reporters’ traits – curiosity, ability to speak truth to power, perseverance. He talked about a sort of journalism stamp – something that would signal strongly to readers that they were reading something professional, something that adhered to the central values of journalism – a hard task, in a world where no one trusts the PCC and we have no better accreditation. His definition of journalism would cheerfully include a huge raft of bloggers, freelancers and, yes, curators, while excluding half the Daily Mail and all of the Daily Star.

But what wasn’t clear was how we pay for that. One audience member asked, in so many words: where’s the money? And though the response was robust – if the BBC and Sky can’t pay for good journalism out of their enormous budgets, the problem is with the management not the journalism – it was not enough to leave me with any real ideas about how we reach this world where Kevin’s “j-stamp” both exists widely and can be trusted.

Newsroom support, rebuilding readers’ trust, and a journalistic practice that prioritises those core ethics before eyeballs or speed of filing is a lofty aim. There are hundreds of bloggers who are beating “professional” journalists at these things, day in, day out, because they believe it matters. Whether it’s a future that mainstream journalism can hope to achieve  is an open question.