What does the future hold for social technology?

Part of my research for Carnegie UK Trust is about trying to work out what driving forces are going to affect the way that social technology and the internet is going to evolve over the next 15 years, and what that might mean for civil society organisations that want to be a part of that landscape. We’re not trying to predict the future – I think we all know how embarrassing that can be when it doesn’t come true. Just think jetpacks and flying cars. But what we can do is try to identify the driving forces behind potential change and then put those together into possible scenarios. We can ask the question “What if…?” and get some useful information out of that exercise.

On their website, Carnegie UK Trust put it like this:

The future is uncertain. There is no single, certain forecast for ourselves, our organisations, communities, nations or for the planet as a whole. While we would like to eliminate this uncertainty, we must work to live with it effectively and creatively. Understanding trends and scenarios gives a sense of the patterns of opportunities and threats, and enhances our potential effectiveness and creativity.

While the future is uncertain and much of it beyond our control, we can control many aspects of it. We choose our future: we create it by what we do or fail to do. Visions and strategies linked to a clear sense of trends and scenarios make us better able to shape the future we would prefer.

We’re using a methodology called ‘scenarios thinking’, which focuses much more on asking questions than on trying to make forecasts, and will hopefully result in a set of scenarios that organisations can use to help them understand where we might find ourselves and, therefore, what they need to focus on in order to be able to cope with these changes. If you want to know more about scenarios thinking, Carnegie UK Trust have put together a list of useful resources.

Whilst I was in San Francisco last month, I spent some time with a number of people talking about the future, trying to find out what they thought was important to consider in this phase of the research. I went into the interviews with a list of questions that I’d like to try to answer, but with an open mind about what the answers might be. I didn’t always ask the questions directly, as you’ll hear, but I did keep them in the front of my mind at al times. Here they are for your consideration. I’d be more than happy to have feedback on them, to hear what you think about my underlying assumptions.

1. Predetermined driving forces
What forces appear to be predetermined?
What changes in the broader environment appear unavoidable?
What assumptions are these changes based upon?

2. Uncertain driving forces
What might happen over the next 15 years that would affect social technology?
If you could have any question answered about what will happen by 2025, what would it be?
How uncertain are they?
Which are becoming more certain?

3. Wildcard events
What type of unexpected developments could totally change the game?
What could undermine existing assumptions?

4. Connections and criticality
Are any of these driving forces connected?
Which are the most important?
Which small changes could have big consequences?
Which of these driving forces are critical?

It’s important to remember that the driving forces that most influence the way that social technology develops may not be technological. We’re not just talking about Moore’s Law here, but trends and developments in all sorts of areas, including:

  • Demographic
  • Economic
  • Environmental
  • Resources
  • Technological
  • Social
  • Political
  • Legal

Obviously we’re focused on the UK, but some of these forces are international or global in nature, so influences may come from anywhere.

The videos (so far)
Some of the interviewees were kind enough to let me publish our discussion, so here they are. If you want to respond to any of them, or answer my questions yourself, please do so however and wherever you wish. If you post something elsewhere, please leave a comment to let me know.

Last thing to say before the videos: apologies for the quality of some of them. James and JP were filmed whilst we were at dinner, and it was a bit dark and noise, so the video isn’t great, but they’re both quite short so hopefully you can forgive the lo-fi production standards!

James Cox

JP Rangaswami

Chris Messina

Ross Mayfield

Update: If you work in the third sector or know people who do, please also take a look at this post about a survey I’m running to find out how third sector associations are using social tools at the moment.

14 thoughts on “What does the future hold for social technology?

  1. It’s important to consider how many more people will be working from home too in the near future – at the moment roughly 2.5 million businesses are currently run from home (whether that’s spare room, garden office, etc) and it’s likely that around 8 million people will earn some form of income from their home in 2009. It means that the whole way we use social networks will necessarily undergo some kind of change.

    If you type in “garden office” on twitter for example, you’ll see that there’s a lot of people using this kind of homeworking style and also networking between themselves.

  2. I have long held a concern at the fragmentation of society, an issue that has not been compensated for by any “other” solution. Although this fragmentation has produced some benefits, there are also many risks that we just don’t appreciate yet.

  3. Ed, can you tell me a little bit more about what you mean by ‘fragmentation of society’. I have my ideas but I don’t want to make assumptions. What benefits and risks do you see resulting?

  4. Hi Suw. I haven’t watched the vids yet, but I will as soon as my next conf call finishes. Nice of you to share your thinking and I look forward to hearing what some of your interviewees have to say.

    For people who don’t know them and their affiliations, would it be possible to add a word or three after each name and a link to their own sites?

    On the questions: I love the one that says, “What type of unexpected developments could totally change the game?” Umm. If it were unexpected…

    I guess an asteroid hitting earth or a thermonuclear explosion might qualify.

  5. I think the long and the short of it is that “social technology”, at least in terms of desktop and mobile software, will just come to be referred to as “technology”: all software will be social in some way.

    The paradigms and models we’re currently using – from operating system file systems up – all stem from personal computing’s origins, when network and communication technologies were expensive and everything was stand-alone. The rise of the consumer Internet means that this model makes less and less sense, and as network technology improves, this will continue. You can bet that all the big name players are looking at how social tech affects not just the end-user apps we use, but the back-end stacks as well.

    I think Ed is flat-out 100% wrong: social technologies will lead to a defragmentation of society. The upshot of this transition will be a world where information can be shared and discovered more easily. The danger is that user control must be kept at the centre: we need to decide exactly who gets to see our information, and when and how this happens.

  6. replying via Finding Ada….

    I think that one factor — and possibly *the* most significant — should be added to this inquiry: Creativity.

    Projecting ourselves into the future can be useful, but in a way what’s really going to affect things is already happening right now: creative people are sitting down at their workdesks/studios/etc. and are following through on new, crazy and often seemingly random and quite unpredictable ideas. To me this is the major “X-factor” that cannot really be accounted for.

    Someone makes somethings, somehow we need it or discover a need for it and then suddenly we have: the internet, email, ‘social media’, X future thing etc.

    I think too that focusing on the need (or created need) behind the technology offers important clues. Why do we sue or need social media? Why is it currently so novel to some people? The phone was novel at one point.

  7. Thanks everyone for your responses! Here are some more, copied over from my question on Linked In:

    Steve Goldner
    By far, the best definition I have seen anywhere … http://bit.ly/aAREL

    Kimberly McCabe
    As people become more social media savvy we will begin to see more “channels” set up or interfaces that allow consumers to drill down into their topic of interest by allowing us to be more selective about what content reaches our social networks. We’ll have Tivo for Social Media navigation.
    Links:

    * http://www.oshyn.com

    Rui de Almeida
    Hello Suw.
    In my opinion, social networking will go to something more social and total network.
    I mean, we will have more sophisticated tools such as 3D virtual worlds, multi-user audio/video live streamings. Wikis and other colaborative organized online contents will become more popular. We will not need to build our networks, because they are built from the moment we connect into them.

    Roland Van Ipenburg
    In the last 15 years I’ve seen the internet change from an academic platform to a mainstream western marketing tool. The medium didn’t change it’s invading new users, but the new users changed the medium. If in 15 years Chinese, Indian and African internet users by far outnumber the demographics we now have using social technology, social technology will be much more based on non-western culture which might be even further away from the liberté, égalité, fraternité based origins of the old internet. Our current western social technology will then have a status comparable to what usenet is today for the average social technology user. Then the “Era of Social Commerce” might not be exactly what a mainly capitalist society would expect it to be, it could also be the “Era of Transparent Communism”.

    Alonzo (Lon) Hosford
    Portability and transparency.

    Betsy Gamrat
    I think the key driving force will be profit.

    These systems are expensive to build, unless there is a clear opportunity to recoup the initial investment and fund future maintenance and extension, there is no business model to make it viable.

    Opportunities:
    + Subscription fees
    + Advertising
    + Partnerships
    + Rewards programs

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