Relax, It’s Only Your Future

I’m far more of a nostalgist than a futurist. My fascination with the yet-to-be has been either far-flung into the future or within the scope of a few months. That practical middle-ground of time, I’ve always thought it better left to financial oracles or mad inventors, both of which shape as much as they predict.

A conversation from the other day pulled my focus to the immediate future. In the closing moments of a meeting, the discussion turned to social media, social everything as we know it, and where it will go from here. After all, naysayers at the dawn of the Internet boom declared this magnificent World Wide Web as little more than a curiosity, a passing communications fad that would fade into oblivion once folks grew tired of typing so damned much. Yet here we are, still typing feverishly, even if the keyboard is mobile or virtual. And so, in the context of social media, is there a future for Twitter? For FourSquare?

Tweeting is not forever.

My conjecture is that none of these entities is permanent. Will tweeting become a punchline in ten years’ time? Sure. It already is. Before long, it’ll find a place on the shelf between telexing and two-way paging.

The idea that Twitter represents, however, that isn’t going away. Not to be too touchy-feely about the idea, but given the right opportunity, we enjoy sharing experiences with one another. We’ve gotten a taste of interpersonal communication on a massive scale. So while “tweeting” itself will surely shift out of our everyday vocabulary, something will have to take its place. To put it another way, the act of sharing select bits of information will become far less important than the sharing itself.

Who cares where?

And FourSquare? Even people who get Twitter don’t always understand FourSquare. Why the heck would anyone want anyone else to know they spent an afternoon at the grocery store? I mean, there’s sharing and then there’s a pitiful kind of retail bragging. But the idea of checking-in where we shop, where we dine and where we entertain ourselves, is an idea that needs only a sustained and quantifiable benefit to become just as fundamental as Twitter. Already, FourSquare rewards users with Mayorships that are in turn translated by various establishments. A free latte here, a free beer there. Some locations are just happy to have any check-in at all. And yet, the system could stand to be simpler. Wait on the app to load, wait for the app to gather your location from your phone’s GPS, then scan a list to confirm you’re really where you want to declare your physical presence.

Anyone who follows me on Twitter knows that I’m an inveterate FourSquare user, but even I get tired of the business of checking-in. For a quick stop at the drugstore for gum or Advil, it’s just not worth the bother. FourSquare Fatigue sets in. I come and go without a mention.

So what about the future?

The future looked different ten years ago.

In 1997, IBM launched their e-Business campaign. A multi-year series of commercials and print ads — some of which garnered awards for Ogilvy and Mather — showed us what the future could be like. One such commercial from 2000 was entitled “Supermarket.” Here it is in Spanish, though it needs little translation:

The greenish tint, the guyliner, the trenchcoat, it’s all a little too steeped in The Matrix and Y2K to be timeless. But I have never forgotten the idea of a store smart enough to passively know not only the prices of the items purchased but your means of payment. The idea, of course, was that IBM’s innovations in RFID technology would make consumables addressable.

Strangely, this commercial has taken on a new life in the last few years as a warning of things to come, a harbinger of a government conspiracy to inject us all with RFID tags — much like a pet. Just Google “RIFD IBM commercial conspiracy.” Some concerns go beyond the governmental and into the spiritual, citing RFID technology as the work of the Devil, an electronic Mark of the Beast. Of course, RFID as portrayed in the commercial is in the products, not the buyer. And his means of payment is an RFID tagged credit card, presumably. Frankly, I’m more concerned over the safety of the frozen meat he stuffed in his pocket than his immortal soul.

But I’m rambling …

So what about the future? Really?

(A warning. We’re entering the realm of speculation.)

The ease of use presented in the commercial will come, though in a far less dystopian manner. Via RFID tags or a technology even newer, you’ll be able to shop and go as you please. But that’s just eliminating a few minutes at the cash register, a convenience that isn’t all that life-changing in the long run.

The bigger evolution will continue as it has started, in communication.

Social media will move from active participation to passive participation, or perhaps simply acquiescence. It is generally agreed that social media is about collaboration, networking and sharing, but at the moment, it takes effort to do so. I’m confident that this will change.

This can be done now, in part. Last.fm has been collecting our musical tastes for years and Pandora attempts to discern our listening tastes. Facebook and Twitter give us the opportunity to answer, “What are you doing?” Through Flickr, we share our photos. Through YouTube, we share video. Soundcloud is for audio. All we’re missing is a grand and sweeping opt-in. Then we’ll have the ability to share whatever we’re doing at any given time. We will become our own walking broadcasts. Our friends will have the ability to tune in, as if we were radio stations. But how?

The word to keep in mind is ubiquity. If the worst fate for a technology is obsolescence, then the golden ring is ubiquity. When everyone has a powerful mobile platform — and they will, as smartphones are dropping in price and will soon become the free option with a new mobile pland — then everyone will be an independent producer of personal media. Whether or not this becomes a world-changing collaborative engine of Cognitive Surplus as per Clay Shirky’s latest written observations, that is yet to be determined.

But in the meantime, a smartphone will be found in every pocket, all of them location-aware and broadband/wifi-connected. Ubiquity reached.

Automatic for your people.

Our smartphone will take casual notice of the coffee shop we just entered, notifying the barista that this is our 12th visit. More often than not, we’ve ordered a large cup of the daily bold, but some days call for a hazelnut latte. “The usual?” they will ask and we’ll nod. “Anything else?” No, not today. A Paypal account (or evolved equivalent) we’ve previously authorized for this coffee shop will make an effortless transfer of funds. Our beverage ready, we’ll take it with a thank you, then speak the name of our new favorite song aloud and walk out with the tune in our ears.

And all the while, we’ve been telling (and showing) our connected friends where we are, what we ordered and what’s new on our playlist. Perhaps we’ll give them a glance of the barista behind the counter. This communication will not be limited to 140 characters and will be multi-tiered in levels of privacy. The experience will be textual, visual, audible.

Will people fear this? Hate this? Of course they will. But some people have been waiting for this all their lives …

The bigger question is, will you opt-in or not?

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  • Rusty

    There are so many things I actively participate in now that scared the hell out of me six or eight years ago, location-based services being highest on that list. The potential is both profoundly exciting and terrifying all at once.

  • Thomas L. Strickland

    I was one of the early haters on BrightKite, but here I am now … FourSquare-ing, GoWalla-ing …