What Could Happen

October 18th, 2010

In my last entry, grandly titled What Will Happen, I allowed that my prediction was only the tiniest of inferential leaps. What will happen is basically what has happened and what is happening: technological change gathers momentum as well as speed. So we’ll be using more technology, and there’ll be more of it to use. But what will that get us, and where? That’s harder to say since we seem to be at a fork in the road, and neither path seems promising. In fact, I called them the twin dystopias.

On the one hand — this is the direction pointed out in the “Web Is Dead” argument made by Chris Anderson and Michael Wolf — what we get online is what we pay for, or at least that’s increasingly the case. Entrepreneurs have managed to make the Internet pay by delivering stuff directly to us (and not just stuff but services, especially “apps”). Formerly, we would search for and often stumble upon things on the still largely open Web; now they come right to us, often on new devices, and with a bill.  This might be preferable to those who know just what they need, but it also conjures up a cyberfuture that is increasingly monetized, corporatized, and locked down, with everyone marching in tune.

The opposite face or evil twin of this online Monopoly game is what pay-as-you-go software-as-service is in response to: the way things used to be (and to some extent still are): “Open, free, and out of control.” (That is the wonderfully succinct way the “Web Is Dead” article described the World Wide Web before the advent of services and apps, when it was just you, your browser(s) the Web.) If that centrifuge of possibilities wasn’t totally out of control, it was fragmented, complicated, redundant, and damned near impossible to keep up with. So the opposite of everyone marching in tune is everyone dancing as fast as they can, trying to keep up with the changing kaleidoscope of things they might like, use, and need (including the likelihood that these things would disappear or transmogrify almost without warning — since a world so changeful is populated with ephemera).

These, then, are the twin dystopias:

Courting Chaos. It’s not hard to see how the proliferation of devices and services can threaten to overwhelm us, fragment our attention and suck up all our time. If you’re an administrator or faculty developer, there’s the added concern of what, in this flood of technological change, you should put your money on. What’s going to have legs?  What’s going to be washed away in the next wave?  These are not easy questions to answer, and not knowing where to focus one’s energy or resources can be a big obstacle to getting invested in the first place.

Chained to a Big Change. The anxiety may not be over what to choose, but over being stuck with what gets chosen. Our activities may be modified and even commodified by forces beyond our control. A world so interconnected gets shaped by the means of connection, defining the forms and formats we use to interact. Those that gather currency become our standards of exchange. (Is there really any other good reason most documents are generated in Microsoft Word?) We may even wish that, say, scholarly or textbook publishing settles on a stable business model so we don’t have worry about what device or standard or format to use. If that means seeing a particular corporate logo or clicking on a corporate icon (the way many of us see/use Adobe now), so be it.

If you feel you are already living in not one but both of these dystopian visions (and you are), you will also see what’s really scary about them: they are not mutually exclusive. You can be overrun by both the monopolists as well as the myriad possibilities. That prospect gives special urgency to and places special demands on what should happen (the next installment).

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