Most media people are pretty terrified of terms like “Big Data” and “IT engineering” but we need to get over that. The future is written in digital media and we had better understand what’s going to happen. Get with it or get lost!
I have been writing a lot for Business Day on the emergence of Web 3.0 – the Big Data web. And in our workshops at the Institute for the Advancement of Journalism in Johannesburg, South Africa, Web 3.0 is looming large. I’ll think aloud a bit to suggest where this leads.
There have been lots of attempts to describe Web 3.0, some clearer than others. Essentially, it is the outcome of the huge data-driven power of search engines. The term “search engine” is in itself misleading because while Google and Yahoo do search on your command, they are also collection engines that profile you. It is this collection function, married to the delivery of personalised information(fit for you) that defines Web 3.0. In a sense, Web 3.0 is less a development of the World Wide Web than it is the upshot of data processing power in general.
Some web commentators are very enthralled by trends such as MUVE (the multi-user virtual environment or virtual worlds). Exciting and colourful voice-text-image media are certainly part of the emerging web but they depend, like other features, on the data-processing platforms on which vast internetworked systems now run.
There is a not-so-futuristic picture to be painted of media now and to come. Web 3.0 is where we are heading and the media will, once again, take the impact of new technological trends unless they anticipate and become proactive in response. Web 3.0 is already with us in outline. It is a development in which machine intelligence, automated content selection, and massive database profiling of individuals shapes the nature of communication. Web 1.0 was brochureware; Web 2.0 became interactive and social; Web 3 is all about the interpretation of meaning digitally.
What this implies is that our computers are becoming our personal companions (and business advisors) because they are increasingly capable of finding, storing, comparing, extracting, focusing and delivering content that counts for each of us individually.
Web 3.0 is different in kind from its predecessors. Where Web 1.0 and 2.0 came about inside the World Wide Web, Web 3.0 is largely the product of external IT engineering which is being imported into internet functions. While there are synergies between the web, its uses, and search algorithms, much of the new web owes its existence to broader trends in information processing.
Although the Internet is going on 45 years old (1969) the inception of machine intelligence was predicted long before and is now becoming a reality. Fears that computers will take over the world may be misplaced, but what is certain is that they will take over the world of communication (if they have not already done so!). The semantic web has dramatic implications for media. There are short, medium, and long term perspectives on all of this.
- In the short term we are already seeing increasingly personalised news and views. You can select your news profile on many services.
- In the medium term this will pan out as “Your News Medium” entirely shaped by your preferences (which the net has learnt by observing you). We are on the way there already.
- In the long term, picture the situation where you chat to your wristwatch or self-drive car saying you want to know the latest of interest in your line of work, or hobbies, or personal relationships. You are quickly told some headlines and asked what interests you. A holographic video flashes before your eyes with a robotic but realistic presenter greeting you by name and chatting to you, interactively, about the things that you requested. Everything is styled to suit you and the machine is capable of carrying on a conversation. This is going to cost, of course, but mini-payments and personalised credit accounts will take care of the payments (for those who can afford it).
- That is the utopian view. It’s an upbeat sketch of our future, a vision that stirs techno dreams.
- The dystopian view is that the robot is one of George Orwell’s propagandists (government or corporate) telling you what to believe and think. The dangers of ultra-personalisation include the reinforcement of prejudices, narrow tribalism, and confining us in mental boxes. Because of paywalls, the digitally poor will become poorer. And also, the NSA has already demonstrated that none of us escapes surveillance.
One service the media can and must continue to perform is to break out of the box. The economics of media are also bound to change and keep on changing – a kind of perpetual revolution in paywalling. With increasing personalisation comes the opportunity to reach every individual on the “long tail” of media with specific services and products.
We know this already, although most media are not technically capable of taking advantage. What they need is more IT engineering to get into the Big Data revolution and stay with it.