The return of authority: media in the next decade
Our increasingly networked world is set to surprise in profound new ways, argues the futurist Tracey Follows
The last twenty years has seen some turbulent times, with fast-paced change not only in technology, but socially too. It has led to many feeling uncertain about the future and unsure about the moment we are in.
But if one steps back far enough, it is evidently part of a pattern of change.
As one era decays and falls, another emerges to take its place. As one system is dismantled, another one is built anew. And for at least the last 10-12 years, this is what has been taking place.
Change doesn’t happen overnight of course and the to-ing and fro-ing of new trends, the emergence of counter-trends and the re-emergence of ideas we thought were defunct, is all part of this process.
Looking forward, it means that the decade ahead is one of construction rather than destruction. The banking crisis brought about the dissembling of the first bricks in a system that wasn’t working as it should. During the following ten years we have seen challenges to many once-worshipped institutions that were also part of that system.
Some institutions have survived by answering the challenge and evolving. Others have been buried alive by new values and new constituencies who have found their voices.
At the heart of all this creative destruction is the reality that power is no longer the preservation of disconnected, aloof institutions"
At the heart of all this creative destruction is the reality that power is no longer the preservation of the disconnected, aloof institutions who hand down their judgements from on high and expect people to alter their behaviour in line with their edicts.
Power is now networked, it seeps into every corner, connecting those living low with those working high. The very language, ‘high-handed’ will die out, with nothing in reality that it can any longer describe.
Technology has distributed power through connectivity. And yet the biggest systems shift is yet to come. We are just at the start.
Politically we have seen the power of the people in demanding more devolution, more local say in what affects their lives. And this will come.
Economically, we are seeing blockchain reinventing the way in which we ‘control’ the ledger with influence and trust embedded in the actors of the system, not sitting outside and in some sense removed from the actions of the system itself.
Socially, gender fluidity has come to the fore, to expose and adjust some of our old assumptions, and perhaps to reinforce some we didn’t realise we had.
And culturally, it is almost impossible to cleanly categorise content or point to a specific genre that is easily understood.
This last point is a good media-related example of the distributed world at large. As was recently pointed out in Complex magazine, genre distinction in music has become less important:
“For the first time in history, we’re being introduced to a new generation of artists who don’t know life without the internet. Everyone is exposed to everything, and influence bleeds freely across borders. Even artists embedded in a local scene or internet niche soak up drops of inspiration from artists in other worlds, and nobody operates in a bubble."
‘Hard-to-classify’ content will be a feature of the next decade. In TV, channel-based choice curation really no longer exists. Guest editors of radio programmes are as much to do with signalling relevance as channel/genre. And this being the case, the question becomes, ‘how will content find me?’, rather than ‘how will I find it?’.
Algorithms will have to become a lot smarter to keep up with an individual’s music tastes and the way they change over time. But how? By tracking and monitoring who one comes into contact with, the communities one is a part of, the who you are doing things with, more than what you are doing.
Gender fluidity has given way to genre-fluidity. Content makers will need to respond.
This is important because the next decade will see us become totally and utterly mediated. If we look at the main technological advancements on the horizon, the most urgent and impactful are communications technologies.
Facial recognition technology, natural language processing and virtual digital twins will dominate the next decade. It means cameras and sensors and monitoring of every move in every moment analysed in any way possible. It means detection using biological data, or biometrics.
It means the sharing of personal data collected in public spaces. It means the emergence of deep-fakes that are so realistic we will need to use technology to tell us what content is real and what is fake, thus outsourcing verification to non-human services on which we come to rely.
Still something in our psyche believes the ‘objective’ machine over the flawed human being"
I’ve spoken before about my belief that ‘media forensics’ will become a profession, perhaps even an industry, in which attention is paid to content that not only is consumed but is used to advise and decide, and ultimately on which we come to trust.
If you are in doubt, just look at the recent news about the Post Office in the UK. A case in which sub-postmasters were dismissed and some sent to prison accused of embezzling money from their Posts Office employers (another institution, let’s remind ourselves). They protested their innocence for years but the post office said there was no way the system could have been wrong.
It now transpires that the Fujitsu system was to blame for the shortfall that was showing up in various post office accounts. Innocent people were incarcerated, having not only lost their jobs and their homes but much of their entire lives protesting their innocence and attempting to reclaim their reputations. All because humans believed the ‘system’ and blamed the ‘humans’.
This is connected to the prevailing view and expectation that AI should and will be able to make perfect decisions, and the purest judgements. At a tech conference I attended recently, the question about how much better than humans machines will be at decision-making was again raised. Correctly rebuffed, the questioner was reminded that given that these AI systems are based on human data, why would they be infallible?
Still something in our psyche believes the ‘objective’ machine over the flawed human being. What resource will humans have when the machine identifies us as having done something we say we have not, or said something we never did, look here is the video to prove it! What recourse do we have? Only the 21st century equivalent of a private investigator to collect the media data and interrogate the findings forensically will give us hope.
The point is that the next decade will see authority regained. Not in the re-establishment of institutions, bodies and offices that are part of a higher level system, but in the idea that authority can become an ingredient that is embedded in the human itself. Technology can enable this. Look at it this way, instead of embedding governance into data-driven technologies, we will see data science embedded into government.
In a way it is the emergence of a self-regulatory system at the level of the individual. Technology will monitor and analyse, but also advise. And this can be carried out at scale.
Instead of embedding governance into data-driven technologies, we will see data science embedded into government"
Take a public service like prisons. Some will argue, why bother spending millions on building prisons to ensure that people who behave in a certain way are kept away from other people. Why not let them move around and live amongst other people safe in the knowledge that they are continuously monitored and one wrong move will end up in harming themselves not others.
In futures work we often refer to ‘systems thinking’ and analyse the influences and the actors within systems to better understand them. It’s a notion that is built on a post-war 20th Century understanding of the world - that things are planned, scaled and rational. The system in the 21st Century is not something that is big and planned, that you are a small rational part of, the system is not external to you in that way.
The system is inside you, you have installed the software and internalised it. A networked world, in which you rely on constant connectivity and have ambient technologies sensing and predicting things for you, is a system that cannot be analysed objectively, because it is an ingredient inside you, affecting and directing you; not an external element to be perceived.
You rely on it to tell you what to think, and what to do and in return it judges you and regulates you. It is everywhere and yet nowhere and whilst it might have started with a Fitbit, that’s nowhere near where it will end.
So yes, authority will return but it will reside internally in the place where your intuition used to be.
Tracey Follows is the founder of futures consultancy Futuremade