New year, old idea ?

A new year always provokes thoughts of what has gone and what is to come. The news media, feeding our liking for the comfort of the repetition of the annual cycle, devote much space in January to this kind of reflection, which often seems not to change much from one year to the next. I admit to rarely finding anything uplifting, or even convincing, in this sort of ruminating. Did any of them spot the credit crunch coming, and tell us to take evasive action ? Or advise that all the world would twitter ? I think not.

Richard Watson
But this year it was a little different. The commentaries seemed to me to me a bit more insightful, less wowed by technology. And, I suppose, more in line with my own prejudices. My favourite, popular in nature of course, but none the worse for that, was a ‘brief history of 2010‘ by Penny Wark in the London Times, based on the views of the futurist Richard Watson.

Of the various points raised in Watson’s ‘history’ of the coming year, the most striking to me, not least because it is very much in line with what others have suggested, is his idea of a “flight to the physical”. This builds on his previous comments about about the paradoxical isolation caused by ubiquitous digital communication – “we can get instant news and tweets throughout the day, but we don’t know our neighbours’ names” – and a consequent hunger for shared experiences in a common physical space. Watson writes “If virtual connection can never match its physical equivalent, this is partly because we associate digital with speed, being disposable and therefore of low value, and partly because we like to hold and touch real things… Downloading a video is easy and efficient, but it’s a soulless experience compared with going to a good video shop, having a chat with a movie buff, and looking at row upon row of illustrated titles”. The he moves on to the – by now increasingly common but still welcome – pean to an unfashionable institution: ” the public library, feared moribund in recent years, is in its element because it’s about much more than books. It’s a quiet and safe community space, an experience that enables you to access expertise from commercially uncorrupt resources, and that’s both ethical and resource friendly”.

A similar note is struck by Fleur Britten in her Sunday Times magazine article on what’s new for 2010. Quoting the trendspotter Marian Salzman, she notes the need for ’emotional spaces .. to retreat from the modern buzz to ‘safe spaces’ .. get low key”. Although the L-word is not mentioned, the message seems similar.

is digital the future of paper?
Of course, no two futurologists could be expected to agree on much. Britten quotes authorities who tell her that “the next decade will be video, video video .. prepare to move from words to images”, and that “print won’t die, it will be become electronic, with the arrival of [digital paper]”. On the other, more restrained hand, Watson tells Wark that “paper is not dead, and … while news will mostly be delivered online, serious comment and analysis and novels will largely stay on paper”.

On the whole, though I make no claim to be much of a futurologist, I’m with Watson. Particularly because of his idea that “we’ll see phrases such as slow media emerge as people realise that if you read things on paper you are more relaxed, you register more, you reflect and see the big picture”. As one of my PhD students is researching the idea of slow information, I feel comfortably ahead of the trend.

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