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Can’t everyone define the future?

By Gavin, 4th August 2008

At least once a year I refer someone I meet to Danny’s superb piece on Wired UK.

I wanted to write about this now, partly because I’m embarking on a new venture, partly because there is a another bubble emerging, but mostly because I’m reminded of the “global coincidence of desires” that Danny spotted in 1994.

An amazing part of what Danny captured was what it felt like at that time: the genuine, emotive belief by an army of people that they could change the world (and many did), and how at a time when the nature of a website was something we were all trying to work out – that individual decisions fundamentally affected the architecture and building blocks that shape what we do now. Aside from the gold-rush, the underlying story of world-changing actions.

I was fortunate enough to work with Tony, Danny and Rik at Virgin Net.

I was in my mid-20s. I was an Astrophysicist and knew a bit about software. I had my own naive views of how the web might bring about the democratisation of information – both through bottom-up action and by redirecting mass-media – I had more than a little to learn.

I certainly wasn’t Wired. My move to London was enough of a culture shock – I remember my first meeting about “online community” – listening to Marketing define it as “everyone inside the M25”, me trying to describe the 800 person village on a small Scottish Island I grew up in, Tony describing Colours Magazine and Danny talking about the real things people were doing. I don’t think any of us actually understood each other.

I spent most of my 4 years at Virgin listening, watching, experimenting and learning how a coincidence of desires is impossible to execute – even within relatively small, exceptionally talented and committed team inside an international brand. Over the last 9 years I’ve learned a bit more about multi-dimensional communication; and the many impossible balances between corporate, social and personal objectives.

This global coincidence of desires is fueling collisions across all our spaces (“convergence” is never anything but a collision). The catalyst is our looming potential self-destruction – our “Resource Crisis” now encapsulates Climate Change and Peak Oil, Energy, Water and Landfill shortages, the depletion of raw materials, globalisation, the list goes on…

Each year I re-read Danny’s “What nearly happened” to remind myself how that time felt, and to re-contextualise one of the most important statements in it, a point that Tony made: “can’t everyone define the future?”.

Apart from great insights backed by luck, I’m not sure anyone understood how the web would really manifest itself today, and how long it would take. I spent at least 5 years attempting to get a YouTube-like idea off the ground, but the serendipity wasn’t fully aligned until 2 years after I stopped trying.

At ETech this year, Tom Loosemore summarised MySociety‘s 5 step process for changing civil society, which includes “Leave for X years”.

Now we’re in a space where we are starting to seriously address the combination of cloud, grid and edge, open APIs, open data, openID and oAuth – watching the unfurling of everybody, unpacking system that “dump excess energy in the form of structure” [Burke] and scratching the surfaces of digital identity management.

All these are arriving, coincidentally, at exactly the time we need them – not just in a technological sense, but driven by a global consciousness that we all know: that, really, we need to do this to address sustainable living.

Friends who’ve been pushing the environmental agenda for decades have a tough time right now, having everyone else come in an “own” their parade, but mass-adoption rarely recognises the small army of dedicated individuals who created the movement. It’s a painful transition but we need them all to help us work out what’s next even if it is “move all the towns“.

The fascinating thing for me is watching the whole sustainability space not only collide with itself, but with a broader, globally connected consciousness, driven by a Resource Crisis that will affect every living thing.

The personal desire to catalyse change has been evident in every single person I’ve met over the last 3 years, from politicians to scientists, from bands to hedge funds, from engineers to activists: “everybody”.

Our challenge lies in creative execution: to create many granular, networked spaces that can flourish. How can we let these networks flourish and not only create value for them, but redefine what value means in the process? The words are coming: “Creative Capitalism“, “Philalthrocapitalism” but you have to assume that these are the sticking-plasters of change, similar to the early old-media references to the Net, rather than the radical re-engineering that’s needed. That re-engineering will, most likely, come from unexpected places.

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