3 Key Trends Shaping the Web and Society
Can we better equip ourselves to deal with constant change by seeing things through a new lens?
I started exploring this question with the Metathinking Manifesto, and I’m going to try and flesh out those ideas a bit further.
A fundamental societal and cultural shift is underway as we transition deeper into an information society, characterized by globalization, a knowledge-based economy, human capital and social networks.
Central to this theme are 3 key trends:
- Growth of social technologies
- Increasing complexity of information
- Accelerating change
Understanding what these mean and why it should matter may require a reorientation in how we think about information, how we acquire and store it, and the context we create for fitting it into the big picture.
This ‘metathinking’ framework may increase our ability to develop strategies for systems level critical thinking, to rapidly adapt to change, and to create conditions that facilitate creativity and innovation.
My initial goal is to unpackage these three trends, and then identifying the strategies that can be used to develop foresight and skills for dealing with an increasingly fast-paced, complex global environment.
Trend #1: Social Technologies
“When social communication media grow in capability, pace, scope, or scale, people use these media to construct more complex social arrangements – that is, they use communication tools and techniques to increase their capacity to cooperate at larger and larger scales. Human history is a story of the co-evolution of tools and social practices to support ever more complex forms of cooperative society.”
- Technologies of Cooperation, IFTF
We’ve certainly seen this as the web has evolved over the years into a platform that allows us to connect, collaborate, and create in ways that were previously impossible. So now what?
In a recent Guardian article, After Social Networks, What’s Next?, VC Peter Thiel’s response to the question was to ask:
“Are we at the end of innovation of social networking? And is social networking the last innovation of the internet?”
If the goal of communication technologies is to connect to one another, then it makes sense. We all know the real-time web has arrived, and it’s about engagement, sharing, and relationship building.
The next step is to figure out how to make those connections do something for us: how do we leverage these vast networks?
Trend #2: Increasing Complexity & Compression
“The explosive development of the Internet and related information and communication technologies has brought into focus the problems of information overload, and the growing speed and complexity of developments in society. People find it ever more difficult to cope with all the new information they receive, constant changes in the organizations and technologies they use, and increasingly complex and unpredictable side-effects of their actions.”
- Francis Heylighen
Essentially, our communication tools are developing faster than we’re learning how to efficiently use them. Through social media technologies, we are able to build relationships and connect with one another at the global level, but we still haven’t fully grasped how to harness the power of these networks to help us filter and make sense of all the incoming information.
The other side to complexity is the complimentary process of STEM (Space, Time, Energy, Matter) Compression. To distill down a massive body of work into a phrase, it means: doing more, better, and with less. The idea is that as complexity increases, the STEM forces compress and informational processes increase in efficiency, which in turn allow for the next level of complexity.
This seems relatively straightforward – ‘how do we do more, better, and with less?’ is the question organizations ask themselves to stay profitable, what educators ask themselves in the face of budget cuts, and what we ask ourselves as we manage our households in a recession.
Some other examples:
Twitter’s 140 Character Limit
An article on Copyblogger, titled How Twitter makes You a Better Writer, lists three reasons the 140 character limit is effective:
- it forces you to be concise
- it forces you to exercise your vocabulary
- it forces you to improve your editing skills
In other words, the limitation is forcing us to learn to compress information in less space without it losing its value. It means information can be sent in short bursts and spread throughout multiple networks via the retweet feature. It means that information can find its way to the people who can extract its value and do something with it.
If you’re a conference-goer, you’re probably familiar with this. It’s a presentation format that started in Japan in 2003. The presenter gets to show 20 slides, with each slide shown for 20 seconds before it automatically moves on to the next. That gives the presenter 6 minutes and 40 seconds to get their point across. It’s about avoiding “death by powerpoint,” but also about brevity.
Flickr’s 90 second Upload Limit
They say they’re “trying something new.” The ‘something new’ is forcing the user to learn how to filter information from noise.
And finally, this post on ReadWriteWeb, How Blogging Has Changed Over The Last 3 Years (Stats), lists these findings:
“The big picture is that total engagement with online content is growing while on-site engagement is declining in significance, as off-site engagement, like link sharing on social networks, grows. Surprisingly, this off-site link sharing has also extended the lifespan of content.”
What that’s saying is that we’ve found a way to increase the efficiency of communicating our message. Here’s the conclusion:
“While the real-time web is all about lowering the latency,” Grigorik says, “the pervasive nature and number of people engaged in their communities and conversations (the Social Web) is helping with information discovery. People are worried that the real-time web will destroy their readership as everyone just gets distracted by the newest shiny thing on Twitter, but the numbers show something very different. It’s so easy to spread information now that it lasts longer and finds more niches – this trend is helping content travel further.”
It seems that the challenges we face with information overload are being supplemented by the tools that would solve those problems. It’s a matter of learning how to implement the systems that will harness the collective intelligence of the social web to provide information while filtering out noise.
Trend #3: Accelerating Change
The concept of accelerating change suggests that the rate of technological, social, economic, and cultural progress has been increasing throughout history. For the sake of semantics, lets just say that “progress” means ‘doing more with less.’
These dynamics have been observed in everything from agricultural productivity to the increasing power of information processing (Moore’s Law), utility of social networks (Reed’s Law), and more controversially, in human intelligence (Flynn Effect).
Why might this be important?
Because we experience time as linear, and live such short lives, it seems there has been sudden explosive technological growth over the past few decades:
But on an exponential scale, it seems relatively predictable:
What might that mean?
According to Ray Kurzweil:
“An analysis of the history of technology shows that technological change is exponential, contrary to the common-sense “intuitive linear” view. So we won’t experience 100 years of progress in the 21st century — it will be more like 20,000 years of progress (at today’s rate).”
I can’t even really conceive of what that means, so let’s look at something we can wrap our heads around.
Some of today’s shifts are covered in Social Media Revolution, a video illustrating the rapid adoption of social technologies and their implications for society and business:
These are some broad, macro-level trends that seem to have been co-evolving and fueling each other all throughout history, but are now becoming more apparent to us. If social networking is the end of innovation on the internet, perhaps one of our biggest challenges will be to figure out how to leverage these networks to filter through the noise, make sense of information, and solve problems collectively…
…and perhaps develop a new system for thinking and understanding the world altogether?
I hope you made it to the end of this post. It’s dense, but I wanted to lay down the theory before moving on.
Technologies of Cooperation – Institute for the Future
Understanding STEM Compression in Universal Change – John Smart
Control Over Perceived Environments (COPE) – Alvis Brigis
The Simulation Era – Alvis Brigis
A Brief History of Intellectual Discussion of Accelerating Change – John Smart
Total System Quantification – Toward the “Everything Graph” – Alvis Brigis @alvisbrigis
Complexity and Information Overload in Society (PDF) – Francis Heylighen