Not Just Media
Our vision of the future is dominated by technology, but Michael Nutley is concerned we're not considering technological glitches. Here he suggest why we need a different model of the future, and why the new media revolution is far from over...
I've just finished reading William Gibson's new novel, Pattern Recognition, and it made me think about how pervasive his version of the future is. Quite apart from coining the term cyberspace in Neuromancer back in 1984, Gibson's vision of a future where information is the ultimate currency, brands are all-important and the media landscape is dominated by celebrity feels like the "real" future. It's hard to imagine the next 20 years any other way. Overlay Gibson's world with Ridley Scott's Bladerunner, created at the same time as Neuromancer but totally independently, and you've got the blueprint for every sci-fi movie since.
Then something else struck me. Gibson's view of the future is dominated by technology, but it's one where the technology always works. No-one's computer crashes at a crucial moment; there's no compatibility problems between different operating systems; there are no software glitches. This is no doubt for the same reasons that explain those lists of "Ten Things We'd Never Know Without the Movies" that did the rounds a few years ago. They include the fact that, for example, it's always possible to park opposite the building you're visiting. And as William Goldman's great book Which Lie Did I Tell explains, it's all about speed. Just as no-one wants to watch Mel Gibson trying to park outside the building where the film's real action is happening, no-one wants to watch Harrison Ford endlessly rebooting his android detector.
Why does this matter? Because we all know the present isn't like this and, more importantly, it's likely that the future won't be either. I've been thinking for a while about the term new media and what it means. Obviously this is a subject that will be close to the heart of someone who edits a magazine called New Media Age, but I think there are wider ramifications. The argument against the term new media is that it's eleven years since the commercial Internet came into being and this stuff is no longer new. It's been accepted. It's now just media. I disagree with this. While it's true that new media has been accepted, it's still not "just media". In fact, new media is new because it's still changing and developing. The technology isn't stable the way posters or print are stable. The rules aren't set the way they are for radio or TV. The revolution is far from over.
So for the foreseeable future we're going to be working with emerging technologies which, by definition, are glitchy. The problem comes when these technologies reach end-users who have been led by the media to expect a glitch-free future. Recent examples of this kind of problem include the about-face performed by Microsoft in starting to concentrate on making its software bug-free and secure, and Sky's insistence on intensive testing of any interactive applications running on its channels to avoid them crashing the service. Or as Sam Sethi, founder of home networking company Abrocour recently told NMA, the convergence of PC and TV is all very well, but if that happens the resulting device has got to be as reliable as the TV.
So perhaps what we really need is a different model of the future, one where the computers don't work properly, where vital files are corrupted in transit and where crucial communications links are lost when workmen outside sever the cable. Mr. Gibson - over to you.
About the author: Michael Nutley is the editor of New Media Age