Glancing through the myriad predictions which are spat out every January (“The 37.5 Biggest Things in Digital in 2011!”), an interesting trend emerges – namely, counter-trends. 2011, say some commentators, will be the year that people turn off. The arduous quest – for information, for connectivity and for communication – has reached a kind of saturation point. People have had enough.
That is not to say that there isn’t a wealth of new, exciting tech waiting to invade our collective consciousness in 2011. Near Field Communication (NFC) looks set to make a big impression this year. The wireless data exchange technology inside Oyster cards is rumoured to be a feature of the iPhone 5, with Google Android and RIM also announcing that they will be releasing NFC-enabled phones in 2011. By this time next year, tapping your phone will probably be the standard way of negotiating such troublesome physical obstacles as train barriers, hotel doors and venue bouncers. Likewise 3D printing is deemed so important by one tech blog that it is afforded its very own 2011 preview list.
But despite (and partly because of) all these exciting advances, along with the falling price and rising availability of 2010’s technologies, another pattern is appearing. Influential agency JWT identify ‘digital downtime’ as one of their 100 Things to Watch in 2011. Their prediction that such breaks from the technology will be commonplace in an attempt to ‘foster creativity’ seems to unfairly pre-suppose that ‘digital uptime’ (a real feature of 2010) somehow stifles creativity. But you can see the point – there are already signs of a growing nostalgia for traditional practices (personal service, knitting) and things (vinyl, physical books).
Likewise, there has been a decline in the fervour for transparency which characterised the politics of those most unlikely political bedfellows, Barack Obama and Boris Johnson. Remove from your mind the image of those two fellows sharing a bed for a moment, and you will realise that developments in 2010 have changed people’s attitudes to the distribution of information. As the WikiLeaks saga developed at the end of 2010, perceptions of Julian Assange’s role became more ambiguous. Leaving aside security concerns around the disclosure of some pieces of communication, international diplomacy operates on the basis that some things should remain private. Similarly, Vince Cable received criticism when his comments about Rupert Murdoch were revealed, but there was also a feeling that private conversations between politicians and their constituents should remain just that: private.
And this, of course, leads us to Facebook. The controversy over its privacy settings has raised serious concerns about the ways in which personal data is collected, stored and shared on the internet. David Fincher’s excellent The Social Network interestingly highlighted Mark Zuckerberg’s ideological belief in the sharing of information – this belief is not, it turns out, shared by everyone. Facebook’s complicated web of privacy settings is seen by many as pernicious and exploitative. It has led some users to look to alternatives. Elsewhere, as previously discussed in this blog, concerns have been raised about location services.
All of this presents a challenge to all those involved in shaping the way that people use the internet. For me the answer can be found not in switching off completely, but in two other new developments. Firstly, the establishment of clearer and firmer rules on how users are ‘used’ by the big players – and secondly the acquisition of more power and independence by those users.
Social media has already destroyed the traditional one-way relationship between brands and consumers, between broadcasters and audiences. Now, with the coalition government championing a big society (whatever your views on that), 2011 will see the growth of businesses, outlets and schemes set up by the people, for the people. WhipCar, the p2p car sharing network, is a good example. Freecycle, which allows users to donate unwanted items rather than discard them, is another. Meanwhile Made.com and Naked Wines have enjoyed great initial success by taking consumers direct to manufacturers – cutting out the middlemen and bringing down prices. With developments like these, 2011 promises to be an exciting year for digital.