Speaking notes on the digital future

This afternoon I was doing a prerecord for Drivetime, a popular show on RTE (Ireland’s national radio station). I took a few minutes and wrote down some points I wanted to cover. We were due to discuss my new book A history of the Internet and the digital future so they cover the big picture behind Wikileaks, the future of digital media, and politics. Here they are…

The Big Picture

This is bigger than Wikileaks – it is one symptom of a big trend — We are at a hinge in history, between the old patterns of the industrial age in which we all grew up, and the new pattern of life of the digital era, to which we must all adapt. In the old pattern power was held by centralised heirarchies, and in the new power is increasingly in the hands of individuals.

Wikipedia is one example of how the balance of power between state and individual is shifting. Individual whistle blowers – and their online supporters – are challenging the State. We are also seeing this power shift play out in business and media.

But whether or not Julian Assange, or Wikileaks, survives, I think that in the longer term, the State will inevitably become more transparent and responsive.


My intention in writing this book was to understand the Internet and its implications by starting at the beginning, and using the trends of its development thus far to anticipate where we are going — This approach means that non techies can come on this journey with me and finish with an intimate understanding of the emerging digital era.

I said that we are at a hinge in history. I believe that we are witnessing the impact of a new pattern of organisation that dates back to the dark days of the cold war in the early 1960s, when elements of the US military research community were mulling over how to build a communications network that could survive a nuclear strike. What they did was remove control from the centre of the network, and instead distribute power to each participating node in the network. This meant that the network would have no single control point that would be vulnerable to attack — but also that control would be democratised in a sense across the entire system.

This decentralised, centrifugal pattern is the shape of things to come. The smallest unit of effective participation in politics, business, and culture, is increasingly becoming the single individual – a node in the network. This empowerment of the individual is happening to the detriment of the centralized hierarchies ( as we are seeing with Wikipedia leakers, and supporters online, who are successfully battling the State).

We’ve seen that Wikileaks is introducing transparency. Another factor is starting to change politics – or at least how electoral campaigns are funded.

If you looks at US politics, candidates are increasingly finding that they can fight elections by taking small donations from many supporters, rather than large donations from elite supporters to who they would be beholden. You see this starting with Jesse Ventura in 1998, Howard Dean in 2004, and culminating with Barak Obama in 2008.

Again, this is the same pattern of empowerment of the individual to the detriment of established centralised hierarchies.

But where I think we are going in the longer term, beyond transparency and more representative candidates, is toward a system of network governance that gives the public much more responsibility in decision making. For the first time in history we have an infrastructure for consensus decision making among large numbers of people (think Wikipedia) that may allow us to radically reform how we govern ourselves.

Truly major changes are afoot here. The Internet is introducing choice and availability, and audiences are no longer limited to local broadcast offerings. Niche content can now reach audiences scattered around the globe. This is going to eat into the mainstream media.

So on the one hand content creators will be able to find audiences for increasingly sophisticated, niche content. On the other hand, these niche audiences will be increasingly sophisticated and knowledgeable about their niche. – Yet the farther from the mainstream that content creators venture, the more reliant on their audience they will become – because they will have no mainstream revenue source.

This means that the audience will be able to influence the content creator in a way that has not been possible since the 1600s, in the days of Shakespeare and the Globe Theatre when attendees of the crowd screamed out suggested plot changes to actors in the middle of plays. In the book I call this “extruded media”.

This is something we work on at the Institute of International  & European Affairs, here in Dublin. There are important decisions to be made now, in these first decades of the digital era, which will carry implications for our children and grand children. The European Commission recently introduced a battery of items that it intends to work on, and companies such as Google and Facebook are struggling to adapt to it. We often hear that banking regulation could have averted the troubles of the past year. Sensitive regulation of this area will be pivotal to the future of this new medium, and several of the most important employers in Ireland today. We have a tough but smart privacy commissioner in Ireland, and his office is to be commended.

There are two big changes happening here

The requirements of a digital economy are different to those of an industrial one. In fact, we are starting to see a reversion to the forms of management that applied in the pre industrial era. Rather than mass factory labour, this implies a workforce of digital artisans, which is a reversion to the early 1900s in business management terms.

Second, entrepreneurs of any size can now reach global niche markets. The barriers for entry have never been lower. So on both fronts we are looking at increased opportunities for individual creativity. I spoke at Google’s EU HQ some weeks ago, and I set out the conditions in which I think we can have a creative renaissance for the entire population. But before you can do this you have to inculcate digital instincts in your school children at a very early age.

I think the Irish Government should be applauded for the announcement yesterday that it is supporting the introduction of fair use into EU copyright law.

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