Still Doing Digital – Insights from Cardiff, March 2017

Over two days and two events last week I was given insight into future-thinking, digital integration in the arts and how new technologies will impact our lives.

On the first day I was commissioned to photograph a conference about Digital Innovation in the Arts. As a photographer you are concentrated on getting the best possible images of speakers and the environment, but you can collect nuggets of information here and there.  BBC-led afternoon sessions on VR were genuinely fascinating, and enjoyable to photograph.  While this tech might still be a considerable time away from mass market penetration, on a visceral level it remains really cool.

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The next day I attended one morning of the BBC’s Digital Cities 2017 event as a delegate. I didn’t know a great deal about it and had registered fairly casually online. (It’s free and looks interesting).

“Digital” Is Still Here

There were natural crossovers between the two events, with a number of familiar faces at both.  One question asked at the second underlined a general observation of both. It concerned our acknowledgement of digital as a separate entity, and a tipping point when we will cease to mention digital altogether.

It seems that we have not reached such a tipping point yet. Digital is here to stay and firmly embedded and integrated in our day-to-day lives, how we live and how we work. And yet the word “digital” remains gainfully employed.

Some might say it shouldn’t be. You could accuse it of feeling evermore redundant, or even fraudulent.  Is it an intentionally confusing, obfuscating device to promote expertise or scare people into thinking they need extra professional training?

Either way, here digital apparently still is: a flag, a banner, a lectern, infinite presentations later. Digital.

Nic Newman at Digital Cities 2017

My attention was more focused on the second day. The newly renovated and improbably eclectic Tramshed Building is home to coworking spaces, start-up businesses, flats, a bar and large concert space at the other end of the building.

I attended mostly for the talk of impressive sounding chap Nic Newman, Digital Strategist & Research Associate at Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism. He was bound to know interesting stuff which could help me populate an undernourished blog on an underloved website.

Initially he talked about our consumption of media rather than the practice of doing journalism or technology development. With the use of slightly impenetrable (to me) Verge content bar charts he stressed how distributed media is a gamechanger.

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We Are All Tagged

Another theme I took from the talk concerned monitoring and liberty and how, if we choose to use online platforms and generally engage in the ‘digital’ world, anonymity will be virtually impossible. Today our identities are public data commodities. We will create more personal profiles and develop more preferences. We will always have to log-in and be verified.

Buying physical newspapers with physical cash, which could be under threat sooner rather than later in any number of ways, might be the only way of consuming media without being tracked. Perhaps you might get away with using an old radio too.

Of course these developments are all being promoted as helpful aids. They will support us in quickly delivering more of what we want. But there is also an intrinsic creepiness to it. It is not comfortable knowing you are always being watched, analysed, measured, monitored, in unknowable ways.

There’s even more potential for big brother surveillance in the form of machine learning, predictive and anticipatory analytics, some of which is well embedded already. Google Maps probably knows where you live and work, and if your regular pattern is interrupted.

It’s hard not to get all Orwellian and angry about it, but you might also choose to be relaxed and philosophical. Wasn’t tech always heading in this direction, the arms of the most powerful minority to control the many? And if we’re all good, decent, upstanding members of society then there’s nothing to worry about. Right?

Battle For The Lockscreen

This part of Newman’s talk made me smile as it brought back memories of blogging about the potential power of what was called the idle screen back in 2009.

The challenge of not draining all battery life while the device was asleep has been largely addressed by pop-up notifications. Although even notifications can have a considerable impact on battery if you have too many switched on and routinely receive a lot of notifications.

Tech has evolved to allow us to message directly from the lockscreen when prompted by message notifications (in SMS or Instant Messengers). But according to Newman, better things are afoot. This includes options to instantly play video, visit text or share content.

It flicked through my mind that such developments are probably all profoundly bad things for road safety. Advances in self driving cars had better get a move on.

Messaging Appetites Undiminished

Our appetite for messaging is still ravenous, with messaging apps now surpassing social. It was unclear to me from the graph whether this was in downloads or usage, but I had an issue with directly comparing the two anyway.

Comparing messaging and social feels like comparing making a telephone call with reading a newspaper. They are two entirely different communication experiences. I’d wager that most users experience Facebook as if they are casually reading a magazine or newspaper. It is not necessarily a participatory experience. One is active and one is passive.

Nonetheless, messaging is big and apparently so is the integration of robotic messaging. Although the latter is not a thing I’m confident will sustain and flourish. Examples were cited for news and weather, such as CNN message bots directing users to Top stories or personalised stories, and a weather app responding to requests for forecasts in certain cities.

Usually if we detect a chat bot, we don’t much like it. It’s like when a call centre worker follows a script in a sales call. Sure, it can be effective but we’d prefer it packaged in a different way.

Where this might work is in an urgent, immediate function, where we care less about the human touch. A case in point would be the Uber Messenger, a form of conversational commerce which can send a taxi to pick you up.  Equally, perhaps, fast food deliveries.

Audio and voicebots

The subject of chat bots also opens to door to audio and voicebots: an entirely different matter. In this audio realm we are not obliged to laboriously tap out words for a computer to process. We are merely speaking out loud, asking for stuff, independent of any screen, albeit for a computer to process.

In the current era where we are chained to screens for many hours of the day, this is difficult to comprehend. But it’s been predicted by the analyst Gartner that screenless audio will command 30 per cent of web browsing by 2020. Sweet irony of vision being unimportant in 2020.

There’s huge potential application in the car dashboard. Apple Car Play or Android Auto will integrate with over 200 car models in 2017, according to Newman, supporting hands-free messaging and other familiar apps. Facebook too will be a big player in audio, having made a major acquisition. Currently, most users need to see Facebook in order to use it. Soon this will no longer be the case and all status updates will get a voice. How terrifying is that?

Automation and AI

Newman cited Martin Ford’s book Rise of The Robots and its claim that 47 per cent of jobs will be lost in the US over the next two decades as a result of automation and artificial intelligence. A jobless future was outlined whereby worker revolt preceded an economic equilibrium in which humans live more productive lives on guaranteed incomes generated by bots.

Newman gave further examples:

  • Bots as personal assistants organising our lives, emailing people meeting invites.
  • Self-driving cars
  • A robotic iPhone recycler
  • Shops without human cashiers
  • A formulaic AI-produced football match preview
  • Programmatically produced movie trailers.

All this will be critical to the future for relevance, efficiency and creativity. The word ‘efficiency’ I find is commonly used alongside technological developments, software and inventions. And it often promises to ‘do things quicker’. But it’s worth disentangling speed with quality. If it truly makes good on that promise and does something quickly and effectively, great. Although it’s always probable that will take fine tuning.

Back To Video

Newman ultimately spun the talk back around to video, and how the BBC might do things differently.

The short form of native live online video is exploding and will be powerful for news and talent. But there is long-form competition for BBC in the shape of films being made by Bloomberg, CNN and the Economist.

Signing in, registering, creating profiles and delivering notifications will all remain important. (That is, presumably for as long as the BBC enjoys licence-fee payers).  The BBC needs to confidently approach platforms, partnering with other publishers for best deals. Online video experimentation should be reverse engineered back to television. Our current post-truth crisis is an opportunity to build credibility with distinctive quality content.

These are scary, difficult but exciting times for digital, technology and content. Both events reinforced the power of technology in culture, how we live and work with it, and how we create and consume it. Our dependent, desperate smartphone suckling like data starved newborns is not likely to dwindle. Its existence is critical for media publishers and advertisers. As is the production outstanding quality content that strikes out and goes to different places, that shows what’s possible and why the BBC is awesome.

Evidently there’s some life in digital yet. Common use of the word will survive for as long as it evolves.

The slides from Nic Newman’s presentation are publicly available here.

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