Forecasting Trends Backwards

Forecasting for the Future” was the title of an article published in the recent issues of the JANET Newsletter (No. 9, September 2009 – PDF format). It won’t surprise people that the byline for the article was positive about the future:  “Outlook – sunny, with a good chance of videoconferencing“.

To be fair, the byline was a play on words of the topic of the article, which described use of the JANET Video Conference Service (JVCS) at the Met Office. The article concluded with a quotation from Tim Marshall, JANET CEO:

The Met Office videoconference programmes are an excellent example of how the JANET Videoconference Service makes sense not only in terms of delivering excellent educational content and cost savings, but also through its real contribution in reducing our customers’ carbon footprint“.

Such optimistic views of the benefits which technologies promise to deliver are, however, being criticised. In a post entitled Postdigital: Escaping the Kingdom of the New? Dave White introduced the ‘postdigital’ concept, a topic he revisited after co-facilitating (with Rich Hall) a post-digital F-ALT session on the opening night of this year’s ALT-C conference. As Dave described in that post, in the session (which I attended) the participants were invited to debate a series of statements which were designed to provoke post-digital thoughts, including:

  • Learning technologists are obsessed with technology more than learning, which is why elearning will never make the mainstream.
  • We are purveyors of the worst kind of spin: ‘This new thing will solve all your problems’.

But how might we go about challenging such ‘technological determinism’ (which, of course, goes beyond the e-learning community)? Inspired by the F-ALT session and further brief discussions with Dave, an approach I took in a panel session on “Top Technology Trends for Libraries and Information Professionals” at the recent ILI 2009 conference was to take as the starting point the optimism felt towards various examples of today’s technologies and to travel backwards in time, and attempt to give plausible reasons why today’s exciting technologies will not be around in the past.

This was an idea I got from a BBC 4 programme back in 2007 which I described in a post on “The History Of The Web Backwards“.  And following the postdigital discussions it occurred to be that the approach might be worth revisiting.

The night prior to the panel session I described the idea to a number of fellow speakers including Tony Hirst and Peter Murray-Rust. Tony was full of enthusiasm for the idea and, as he often does, came up with new ways in which we could use this approach (e.g. looking at a variety of expected future trends and how we got there from the present). And a few days later Tony alerted me of a YouTube video which took a similar approach:

After I had given my brief presentation, which I had published shortly before the conference, Peter Murray-Rust did wonder whether such Radio 4 humour would be understood by an international audience.  And I did notice that some of the tweets about my talk had failed to pick up on the humourous intent of my presentation. To summarise what I said (or meant to say) with respect to the demise of Twitter:

Today many people are exploiting the potential of Twitter to help them find resources they are looking for. Indeed last night I tweeted that I was looking for a good pub to go to and my Twitter community helped me in my information searching task – and because they knew me, they knew to suggest a good real ale pub and not a trendy wine bar. An Ask-A-Librarian service wouldn’t be aware of my personal preferences.

But, as we travel through time backwards, we need to ask “Why did twitter die off in the early part of the century?”

The answer is obvious. Twitter doesn’t scale. As more and more people asked such questions, the Twitterverse became clogged. “It’s similar to email spam” people felt and started to cancel subscriptions to the service.

And of course although I can benefit, as an early adopter, from having large numbers of followers, many people will have only small Twitter communities, and so won’t gain the benefits which I have.  So Twitter is inherently undemocratic and professions such as Librarians, with their commitments to social inclusion, were amongst the first to move away from such undemocratic technologies.

The demise of Twitter was eventually accepted by all.  And in the new environment of the latter part of the twentieth century, people met in pubs with their real friends.  The term ‘virtual friends’ was felt to be on par with ‘imaginary friends’ – something you grow out of. And to mention the ‘followers’ you had would result in strange looks and suggestions that you should seek psychiatric help!

Funnily enough, although I am aware of reasons why people are sceptical about Twitter and why some Twitter fans feel that the service may eventually be replaced by an open source or distributed alternative service,  it wasn’t until I gave the talk that I used the “Twitter is inherently undemocratic” argument.  So using the device of seeking to give persuasive reasons why technologies disappeared as we travel backwards though time did give me some fresh insights.

Why then, did video-conferencing, which had such a bright future in 2009 die out?

Although popular at the high of the environmental concerns in the early years of the twenty-first century subsequent research by sociologists revealed that academic and librarians preferred face-to-face meetings. Further research revealed that most conference participants can’t remember the details of talks given at conferences, which made people question why one should use networked technologies to access talks which are quickly forgotten.  Rather than computer networking, people networking (including plotting, politicking and such skull-duggery – as well as opportunities for sexual relationships) were found to be the real reason why people travel to conferences, although for some strange reasons, such issues were not identified in the user needs gathering exercise.

Might this have an element of truth?

1 Comment

  1. “…revealed that academic and librarians preferred face-to-face meetings.”
    Well maybe, but people are different and most people I know do not like meetings, or indeed do not find them very useful. Maybe video conferencing is a failure because it is simply a distributed version of the the traditional face-to-face meeting. The problem with both sorts of meeting in my opinion is their immediacy – one is frequently expected to respond to comments or questions without the time to think, or to be able to check facts. Something like Google Wave may be much more appropriate for many discussions, but ultimately people vary in the way they prefer to communicate.



  1. What I Noticed For The First Time In The Past 24 Hours « UK Web Focus - […] was to provide different insights into technological developments. Two years later in a post on Forecasting Trends Backwards I described a YouTube …

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