A nation of journalists

2005: New media - Technology will soon give us the power to tell our own stories and topple monolith

The future is a strange land. Half glimpsed in films and books, it is a place where utopian visions collide with dystopian nightmares. What kind of new media will we find in this land?

Many who look to the future see a world of constant surveillance, enabled by what Herbert Kim, chief executive of the digital initiative Codeworks, calls "truth technologies". This is a scenario where biometric identity cards, global positioning systems and two-way screens allow male-volent forces, usually the government, to track you wherever you go.

But this nightmare, where the authorities control society through one vast, ongoing stop-and-search operation, will probably never happen. John Lettice, editor at the online IT newsletter the Register (www.theregister.co.uk), gives practical reasons why. "In the real world," he says, "databases are difficult to keep up to date - as demonstrated by practically any government department or agency you care to name. The more data you collect, the more difficult it becomes.

"The ID scheme will flop. If we are lucky, it will flop messily and spectacularly. In all probability, the NHS national programme for IT will trip over its own ambition a little before that. Overall, government IT has failure built in."

On a smaller scale, the current mobile phone will evolve into a "handy digi-communicator", predicts Dr Paul Newland, from the Centre for New Media Research at the University of Portsmouth. This tool would be a personal mobile interface device that will function as an extension of our senses, as well as carry data about our physical well-being and psychological status. "It could alert you to the fact that pushing your broken-down car in snow is medically not advisable - based on readings of current weather conditions, status of car, heart rate and knowledge of age-related physical limitations," says Newland. "Such a device will ultimately evolve towards the utopian goal of a digitally fabricated 'imaginary friend'."

Small hand-held devices that use wireless technology will become ubiquitous. John Gage, chief researcher and vice-president of the science office at Sun Microsystems says: "Your mobile phone or device will relate messages about, say, shopping offers and restaurant tables as you walk down the street, maybe even writing such information into your spectacles . . . Everything will be personalised."

And personalisation, indeed, seems key to these visions of a digital future. "The era of digital media is an era of personal media," says Kathi Vian, direc-tor of the ten-year forecast programme at the California-based Institute for the Future. "Personal media expression - in the form of personal websites, weblogs and photoblogs - will merge into collaborative media, as communities of like-minded people begin to provide an alternative to mass media. Media-savvy youth will take the lead in creating these 'no-logo' experiences."

Vian cites December's National Youth Media Justice digital workshop and festival and the Sundance Film Festival award-winning documentary Born Into Brothels, which features Indian children, born to prostitutes in Kolkata, documenting their lives using simple cameras.

Ashley Highfield, director of BBC New Media and Technology, forecasts that this cultural shift will change the mass media monoliths we have today. "Media will become a substitute for society as the society we will live in will be fragmented," he says. "People want to be fundamentally more involved in media, as they no longer know their neighbours. The major shift will be that media will become a two-way process. The BBC will no longer be in control; the people will be in control. Everyone will offer their own stories. We will become a nation of journalists and cameramen."

Furthermore, Highfield thinks that the increase in demand for "Martini-media" - in other words, tools which are available "any place, any time, anywhere" - will create seismic shifts in the media world. "The winners will be Sony and Microsoft, not the traditional media players," he says.

This cultural development will change political institutions for ever. "The traditional political party is under threat," says Richard Allen, the Liberal Democrat MP who is the party's spokesman on information technology. "It risks looking irrelevant, old-fashioned and hierarchical."

Above all, Allen says, "New media changes set the agenda: from big media companies to networks of ordinary people. Stories now bubble up from the grass roots. For political parties, this is a dramatic shift."

"People now have the ability to organise using the internet," Allen adds, pointing to websites such as MoveOn.org. "Political parties will have to evolve or be bypassed by these changes. New media give people the ability to support individuals outside of a party structure, and they enable spaces for new political groups."

However, Allen does not think that these new political forms will necessarily become permanent political fixtures. "What we could see is a series of shifting, unstable coalitions," he says.

What emerges from these predictions is a clear picture of a world where technology gives us access to what we want, when we want it, enabling us to control our lives and interact with our environment in ways impossible today.

Many of the institutions we know today could be unrecognisable in ten years' time. Whether those institutions are well enough informed about how new media and technology may influence the future is another matter.

But as Ben Hatton, managing director of the online solutions agency Rippleffect (www.rippleffect.com), says: "I think it will kick a few people up the arse."

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