Tuesday, 20 February 2001

Technology? It's a people thing.

In New Zealand I was interviewed on the excellent Kim Hill Show, then a radio programme. Kim wanted a few "think pieces" to read before the interview and, true to her word, had read everything I posted for her. She was witty and incisive. One of the bits i mailed over to her was a short article I was asked to write for CGI magazine and I've posted it below. Re-reading, it is always interesting to find words like: "Looking ahead it is starkly clear just what the future holds." when they were written in 2001 (!) but I'm pleased with what i wrote then and, of course, it has all come true... hasn't it? Here is what I wrote:

As the cool tools of the creative industries get paradoxically hotter and hotter a key question is whether public sector organisations can keep up. Such a question presumes some direction to the headlong rush of technology and further assumes that the direction is forwards(!). This may not necessarily be the case. It's a curious thing that as technology moves faster and faster the failed ideas and misapprehensions of previous technology eras seem to come round quicker and quicker, whilst great ideas from previous eras don't seem to re-emerge with anything like the same tenacity. Why should this be? History may have some lessons for us, to explain why.

One enduring misapprehension throughout technological evolution is that what people want from their equipment will only ever be the delivery of "professional" content, quality assured from the centre, to consume passively at leisure; content, we are led to believe, is king. Of course any fool can see that what people actually do with technology is find new ways to communicate, collaborate, commune, annotate, participate and narrate with others. Good content matters but is only an increasingly small part of the jigsaw. Content will always be deposed by communication and community.

When telephones first appeared, London owners were able to "enjoy" broadcasts down their phone lines. The early pioneers saw no prospect that individuals would have much useful to say into their own phones which were not seen as symmetrical devices; you listened, but you didn't contribute. Of course to a telephone owner a 'phone was quickly perceived to be an opportunity to participate, something that you spoke into because you had plenty to say and thus a world of telecommunications was born. It's good to talk. The same misapprehension, that everyday people had no useful contribution to make, underpins "Let nation speak unto nation". The reality of course is less grand; it is that Kirsten in Canvey shall speak unto the rest of her county as she warns about trouble on the A12. People participate. In the 60's radio waves were "subverted" as pirate radio stations, anchored in the North Sea, broadcast content that was neither quality controlled nor centrally originated. A less likely subversive than Tony Blackburn would be hard to find, yet at the time he and his colleagues were seen, implausibly, as a threat to national stability; in practice the pirate radio stations had simply confirmed that the newly accessible technology of radio was less about broadcasting and more about contribution or annotation as zany "DJs" risked all by airing their views across the ether.

Still later the videodisc sought to bring another kind of revolution, this time to the screens in our learning environments. These huge silver platters offered yet more high quality content, but this time with the added feature of better navigation through their linear contents. As universities and schools struggled to afford these revolutionary players it was already clear that they would bomb. People wanted to have some control over what was on the discs, to be able to add value and to be able to author this new media. The cost of doing so was prohibitively high and the technology failed. People wanted more than to be passive viewers with a bit of interaction. The National Archive of Educational Computing at Ultralab houses hundreds of these discs, many in their original unopened cellophane; these unbroken wrappers tell all there is to know about videodisc technology. Thinking they should "keep up" public institutions tried to buy the players but by the time they had saved enough (with a few exceptions, Florida State for example) the technology was dead. The few successful Videodisc projects, like the BBC's Domesday discs or Apple's Visual Almanac gave users a role and an opportunity to contribute, but these markers for a better future were rare. At Ultralab (then the Learning Technology Research Centre) we were connecting computers to videodisc players to allow people to author their own work and being told that we misunderstood the technology. We didn't.

After Videodiscs came an explosion of media storage. Of half a dozen CD "standards" CDi claimed to lead the pack and was touted as the next "next great thing". Again the personal authoring costs were prohibitive, again it bombed. This time public institutions were a little more circumspect and waited before saving up, let alone buying, but conferences around the world worried that schools and universities were missing the important new direction. In truth the really important new direction lay elsewhere; it lay in people becoming increasingly hungry to participate and it was delivery technology that had, quite literally, lost the plot. At Ultralab our first CD-ROM in 1989 was "Tools for Multimedia" to help people make their own CD's cheaply. Publishers phoned us to say that such democracy and cheapness would kill the market. It didn't.

In the early '90s all this changed with the World Wide Web as a new collaborative, symmetrical, technology, designed for exchanging papers and research, exploded into our lives. The initial seduction of the web lay in the ease with which many could make, create and do on-line. As many "experts" including, famously, Bill Gates undervalued the democracy of this new "web" technology real people were having fun and building websites. At last a technology gave them an active role and the sites grew at exponential rates as many exercised that opportunity. Public sector organisations woke up to a real revolution and this time spent money as the National Grid for Learning became a sound bite to represent a huge real investment into schools. Some though were less easily persuaded. At Ultralab in these early web days we were running big database driven sites like our DTI Schools OnLine project with personalised pages for participants and later our biggest contributory projects, like Tesco SchoolNet 2000, were entering the Guinness Book of Records, but we were still criticised because "that isn't how the Internet should be" as one agency put it. But of course it was.

As the web revolution gathered pace telecommunications companies, after a century of allowing people to make their own personal contributions one-to-one missed the whole one-to-many opportunity that the web had confirmed to be seductive. Instead they sought to use their empowering phone lines for video-on-demand. But, new technology or not, there had been no ripple in the gene pool and as before people still wanted simply to participate; it was never likely that broadcasting would replace conversation. After some spirited trials video-on-demand technology predictably bombed, but those enthusiastic for it scampered away to suggest instead that the future of broadcasting might be a choice of viewing angles via an interactive box. It won't be. As Video on Demand was bombing the real phone revolution, mobiles, was giving people more and more opportunities to make their contribution together with some interesting new ways (like the asynchronous SMS messaging) to do it. The worst technology ostriches by this time were wondering why Big Brother was so successful whilst drama seemed to be slipping away and dreaming about a Big Brother CD perhaps?. Someone should tell them, it's only kind to do so. In the lab we are currently working with annotated digital video that offers media redundancy and a non linear route to narrative. Siren voices (and they sound curiously familiar) are telling us we should be more into ADSL. "Is ADSL symmetrical?" we ask, impishly. "No" they say, "but people will be able to choose what they receive...". Oh dear.

Looking ahead it is starkly clear just what the future holds. A string of new content delivery technologies ("wouldn't movies on a mobile phone be a great idea?". No!) will bomb as the same people keep returning, convinced that past failures were only due to lack of bandwidth, poor IPR legislation, immature standards (hah!), or a lack of "proper channel". In the 1980s when the desktop publishing revolution took off pundits dismissed it ("there is no substitute for a good literary editor"), the MP3 revolution took off as pundits dismissed it too ("there is nothing to match the skill of a good agent") but each resulted in more writing or more live music. Television will succumb. People will use the revolutionary tools like iMovie or Final Cut Pro and beyond to become video contributors and just as no child ever watches a DVD disc right though (they prefer to navigate to the best bits) so the ownership of narrative will pass to the viewer from the broadcaster. As this all happens pundits will be explaining that there is no substitute for the commissioning process and looking puzzled.

At Ultralab we are using an eclectic and evolving mix of technologies to run vast media rich communities of practice for the UK's headteachers, for children excluded from school, for health professionals and for countless other groups. These successful projects use cool technology, but the shared constant is a simple understanding that people like to participate, enjoy a sense of audience, want to make a difference, need some facilitation, value being social. It's not about "keeping up", it's a people thing.

© Stephen Heppell 2001