Event Review: Online Information 2012 Day 2

In the second part of his write up of the Online Information conference, Steve Borley discusses the keynote speech by Gerd Leonhard on the future of the internet and offers his overall thoughts of the conference.

The keynote speaker on the second day, Gerd Leonhard, is a media futurologist and his tiny wee topic was ‘The future of the Internet’. Very stimulating it was too. With a title like that it was always going to be pretty wide-ranging and Leonhard covered a lot of ground.He argues that “data is the new oil”; that big data is a new natural resource and indispensable to business and society.  He asks if we’ll come up with a better business model that we have for oil, with a few large corporations controlling the raw data and refining it into that which we can use. Will we create a better system that pays for the externalities (external costs) of big data in a way we have singularly failed to do with oil?

His second message was that we better get our business ready for the big data world. He points out that everything is moving from ‘stuff to bits’, that is: becoming virtualised. He cites education, money, music and many other industries that now increasingly exist in an online, virtual form.Leonhard told us our increasing willingness to rate, like and generally pass comment on things is part of a trend towards an increasingly networked society and all business models will have to similarly be networked in future. In almost every industry the centralised behemoth model is dead or dying. We’re passing through the decentralised models and soon the distributed, liquid business models will prevail. Why? Because our experience of life is networked, linked up (and LinkedIn) to others.

Steve Borley

Steve Borley

This, in turn, poses questions for the individual and who they are. Leonhard argues we are seeing the rise of the ‘Fabricated Me’; the personality and identity that we create for ourselves in the networked world. But, he says, we must bear in mind that Facebook knows what we are saying and Google knows what we are thinking. This puts everything about us potentially out in the open and his view is that ‘data spills’ are increasingly likely. He also argues that the ‘hedonic treadmill’ of constant commentary and updating of where we are, who we are with and what we are doing will becoming increasingly difficult to keep pace with. We can’t compete with all 800 million people on Facebook in the interesting, fun and attractive stakes. Despite this, the trend is towards ‘public by default’ and that in the (near) future we will have to pay if we want our online privacy.So just a bit in there to consider….. I couldn’t argue with much of it though I was intrigued by his acknowledgement that the BRICI countries (that’s BRIC plus Indonesia) will be where the growth in online participation yet didn’t really address the issue that Internet usage in China is already very high, but participation is via networks that we don’t use in the West – RenRen instead of Facebook, and Sina Weibo a kind of Twitter/Facebook hybrid. If that remains walled off, will we really develop the “global brain” he spoke of, and if not how does this change his thesis about the future?Nonetheless, it was a really stimulating presentation though the scope does make you wonder – similar to Doctorow – so what am I supposed to do about it exactly?

So, where does this leave Online for 2013? I must admit, by day two of the conference I did become slightly overwhelmed by the incongruity of people travelling some distance and all the cost that entails to hear speaker after speaker talk about how life is now…. online.. We sat in a room to hear this and – with an entirely straight face – speakers said so under a big sign saying ‘Online’.

Am I saying Online 2013 is non-starter? No I’m not. There was a lot to enjoy this year but there was also a missed opportunity or three. I have to say the social media stuff delivered via Vivastream didn’t work for me. That’s a factual statement. It just didn’t work on my phone. It stopped being mentioned by lunch on the first day and I get no sense that I missed anything vital, though I appreciate that may only be my experience.

The biggest missed opportunity was the absence of more sessions that leveraged the fact that real people were in a room together. In truth most of the programme could have been delivered by webinar and been no worse for that. But there we were and, apart from a small space for exhibitors, there was virtually no effort made to use the fact that we were face to face. Indeed, the lunch arrangements were so chaotic – with literally nowhere to sit at a table to eat and talk – that they actually discouraged real life conversation.

So, next year, if we are going to come together again can we use the fact we’ll be in a room together a bit more creatively: knowledge cafes, breakout sessions, discussion groups? Either that, of course, or relocate the whole thing to Stockholm.