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The direction of IT is towards theatre and conversation

Technology forecasting is fundamental to what must be done in technology commercialisation. Legal opinion (AKA legal forecasting) should get with the program. Understanding the broader imperatives for a technology to work is vital. Otherwise a risk is that legal opinion will make or contribute to make something that is unworkable.

About 10 years ago I was inspired to prepare an adaptation of a graphic. The inspiration came from a publication issued by the Institute of Intellecual Property in Japan. The publication was titled "Exposure '94: A Proposal of the New Rule on Intellectual Property for Multimedia".

At the time I was on an intense mission to understand multimedia so as to do a better job as a lawyer for multimedia developers. As I was preparing my adaptation of a graphic I found in Exposure '94, I also was reading books by Brenda Laurel such as The Art of Human-Computer Interface Design (Addison-Wesley, New York 1991) and Computers as Theatre (ddison-Wesley Professional, New York 1993).

Laurel was a technology forecaster who wrote concisely and clearly. Her ideas were few in number, but I found them profound.

Only in recent years have the increased uptake of broadband, and related developments in IT and the Web, provided a flurry of evidence for Laurel's early insights about what was possible with IT in technical and design terms as we moved forward.

As I worked on my adaptation of the graphic, I was convinced that if I understood the direction of multimedia technology I could do a better job at forecasting possible legal responses and outcomes.

What was then called "multimedia" is today taken for granted, ie programs that combine text, video, graphics, audio and other types of content. Hence the word multimedia is hardly now ever used.

Here's the graphic I ultimately settled on:

axes-(large)

As you look at the graphic, here are some comments to help you understand the long term direction of information technology highlighted by it.

  • The horizontal axis has two poles - sensory communications on the left and symbolic communication on the right.
  • The vertical axis has two poles - active communication at the top and inactive communication at the bottom.
  • The oval shapes position modes of communication into a rough hierarchy depending on the degree to which they involve active and sensory communication.

The general direction of new communications applications, media, technologies or devices (collectively let's refer to them here as "solutions"), is plotted from the bottom right hand corner of the graphic to the top left hand corner. Thus inside the large dotted red arrow shape we see each new solution moving in a direction generally towards the top left hand corner.

The solutions are moving to the poles of sensory communication and active communication. The solutions are heading towards theatre and conversation. Contemporary solutions have moved closer to what human beings do naturally, communicate through theatre and conversation.

In light of the graphic and Laurel's writing, we might see the links between, on the one hand, the ideas of theatre and conversation, and on the other hand the activity (nay interactivity) users now regularly engage in at MySpace, YouTube and other Web 2.0 type sites and applications.

It is obvious that Web 2.0 applications facilitate sensory and active communications. It is also remarkable.

Merely 20 years ago computers and IT were dominated by stand alone devices featuring exclusively alphanumeric code, ie text and numbers. This was the era of IBM's "green slime" text on black screens. The vision was there for a brighter future but it took time and numerous developments to arrive. Today computer screens come alive with audio-visual content and innumerable and easily applied ways for users to interact with other users over the Web.

Within this frame of sensory and active communication we can position the emerging Web 2.0 application winners. They are discussed in an earlier post: Wisdom for Commercialisation of Social Networking Websites.

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Another thing that is remarkable is the shift in attitude about freedom for users. Some applications for social networking which restricted active communication between members failed in the 1990s. For example, Apple launched in 1994 eWorld. On release in Australia, Apple described eWorld in its eWorld user agreement as: "an online information service consisting of electronic mail, software libraries, searchable databases, entertainment, news, public forums, and private forums...".

WikiMac tells us that:

  • The two most widely used parts of eWorld were the eMail Center and Community Center. The Community Center was an online BBS where thousands of ePeople (eWorld users) congregated to chat about various subjects.

In the online BBS or forum, eWorld used a heavy moderator who ensured everyone behaved as they used the chat facility. I saw this in operation one night looking over the shoulder of a friend as with great amusement he tested the system by saying naughty things in a chat line. My friend's typed short posts either did not appear online or were removed almost instantly. We lost interest, the censor won. In time the only one left to turn off the lights at eWorld in 1996 was the censor. The censor's actions contrast against the following Coates principle set out at the end of Wisdom for Commercialisation of Social Networking Websites: "Use a light touch. Don't be authoritarian."

eWorld seems to have failed for various reasons. But with the benefit of hindsight we can note that the BBS or forum at eWorld was going against the grain favouring open and uncensored online communication between users. Few recognised that grain in the 1990s. The future only arrived after innumerable failed experiments fighting against the grain. The future brought what we have today in social networking on the Web.

I believe the legal considerations for online communications are today seen as being more manageable by lawyers and non-lawyers alike. As a consequence we are witnessing a flowering of sensory and active communication supported by lawyers who can get with the program.


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