What's Next

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in Upside on 1 January 2006

I generally hate to think about “what’s next” because it implies that there’s going to be a next “big thing.” I prefer to avoid such predictions, because most big things are really just amalgamations of lots of little things. In fact, as I see it, the very best next big thing we could hope for would be to transcend big things, altogether. Who needs them, except marketers, Walmart, and business plan writers hoping to demonstrate how their brilliant schemes can “scale” to infinity and beyond?

But “what’s next,” well, maybe I can deal with a bit of that by projecting forward from “what’s now.”

As far as the Internet is concerned, what’s next is not pervasive computing, cellular technology, or wireless solutions. Rather, it’s the coming realization of the real role that content plays in our lives. Content may be king, but very few people understand just what content is, or function it serves to we very social beings. The constant flow of content into our lives may make all this a bit clearer.

Take a look back, for a moment, at some content of the past. When my father was growing up, for example, bubblegum companies competed by offering free trading cards inside their packages. Little pieces cardboard with the images of baseball players proved the most successful, and soon children were buying whole packs of baseball cards with only a single stick of bubble gum. Today, baseball cards are sold without any bubblegum at all.

Despite gum’s textural attributes, baseball cards proved to be the “stickier” content. Why? Because they provide a richer media experience. Not only can collectors look at pictures, but they can also compare and analyze the statistics of each player as chronicled on the card’s back.

More importantly, this depth of data allows the card to serve as what I’ve started to call “social currency.” While children can debate the merits of one brand of gum over another for only so long, they can talk endlessly about the players’ whose cards they’ve collected, trade them, or even just peruse one another’s collections. See, the cards aren’t really ends in themselves; they are the basis for human interaction. Johnny got some new cards, so the other kids come over to see them after school. The cards are social currency.

We think of a medium as the thing that delivers content. But the delivered content is a medium in itself. Content is just a medium for interaction between people. The many forms of content we collect and experience online, I’d argue, are really just forms of ammunition – something to have when the conversation goes quiet at work the next day. An excuse to start a discussion with that attractive person in the next cubicle: “Hey! Did you see that streaming video clip at streamingvideoclips.com?”

Social currency is like a good joke. When a bunch of friends sit around and tell jokes, what are they really doing? Entertaining one another? Sure, for a start. But they are also using content – mostly unoriginal content that they’ve heard elsewhere – in order to lubricate a social occasion. And what are most of us doing when we listen to a joke? Trying to memorize it so that we can bring it somewhere else. The joke itself is social currency. “Invite Harry. He tells good jokes. He’s the life of the party.”

Think of this the next time you curse that onslaught of email jokes cluttering up your inbox. The senders think they’ve given you a gift, but all they really want is an excuse to interact with you. If the joke is good enough, this means the currency is valuable enough to earn them a response.

That’s why the most successful TV shows, web sites, and music recordings are generally the ones that offer the most valuable forms of social currency to their fans. Sometimes, like with mainstream media, the value is its universality. Right now, the quiz show “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?” is enjoying tremendous ratings because it gives its viewers something to talk about with one another the next day. It’s a form of mass spectacle. And, not coincidentally, what is the object of the game? To demonstrate one’s facility with a variety of forms of social currency! Contestants who can answer a long stream of questions about everything from sports and movies to science and history, are rewarded with a million dollars. They are social currency champions.

Content on the Web is no different. Sure, the Internet allows people to post their own content or make their own web sites. But what do most people really do with this opportunity? They share the social currency they have collected through their lives, in the form of Brittney Spears fan sites or collections of illegally gathered MP3’s of popular songs. The myth of the Internet – and one I believed for a long time – is that most people really want to share the stories of their own lives. The fact that “content is king” proves that they don’t. They need images, stories, ideas, and sounds through which they can relate to one another. The only difference between the Internet and its media predecessors is that the user can collect and share social currency in the same environment.

Those of you who think you are creating online content, take note: your success will be directly dependent on your ability to create excuses for people to talk to one another. For the real measure of content’s quality is its ability to serve as a medium.

If this is true, and I think it is, then the next big thing for the Internet and humanity alike is the realization that our media has served as little more than excuse to interact with one another. And once we make that leap, we will most likely come to wonder what it’s all for. Why do we have this overwhelming urge to interact by any means (or medium) available?

Because, my friends - and this is where I’ll venture into the deep end of the pool - we are attempting nothing less than the construction of a global brain. A shared consciousness.

Like virtually every one of our evolutionary predecessors - from the multi-part cell to the first multi-cellular organisms - human beings will most likely learn to function as a coordinated being. Before you dismiss this as new age optimism, remember that the alternative to such a strategy is, most likely, rapid extinction. Unless we come to understand the nature of our potential interdependency, we will surely go the way of the many bacteria that never learned how to exploit the benefits of teamwork and good communication.

My sense is that the underlying purpose of the Internet was to provide us with a test run of global consciousness. It’s a dry, safe, electronic way of experiencing just a hint of what it might be like to participate in an instantaneous, all-encompassing social reality.

Our natural resistance to such a scenario is our fear of losing our cherished sense of individuality - itself, most likely, an illusion broadcast by the genetic materials that depend on our instinct for “self” preservation for their survival and replication. But if our very survival as a species comes to hinge on our relating to one another in a more organismic fashion, you can bet these same genes will compel us towards much more cooperative models of what we now think of as society.

What’s next? Probably a few more interim steps like the Internet - cellular networks, wireless communities, and other ways to experience the exchange of content in increasingly effortless ways. But then, and most likely within just a couple of generations, we’ll find ourselves working like the best trapeze artists: without a net.

I believe we’re on the verge of discovering (or, through genetic engineering, enhancing) as-yet untapped cerebral and emotional resources, like empathy, compassion, and even telepathy. Instead of going online to communicate, we’ll accept the fact that we human beings are pretty much “online” all the time, anyway. We’ve simply refused to acknowledge or develop such an awareness because it means admitting that those people starving over in Africa aren’t really “over there” at all. They’re right here with us. They are us.

What we are working to get over is the false notion that increased interdependency necessitates a subversion of the individual. If we see ourselves as little more than consumers, it’s hard to work through the seeming paradox. But if we come to understand that our access to social currency only increases the more open we are to its exchange (I’ll begrudgingly take a lesson from the free market libertarians on that one) then “ownership” itself will be revealed as a booby-prize.

For the time being, the Internet and our other developing technologies give us a way to experiment with impending social intimacy. Imagine the privacy issues associated with global consciousness! The Internet provides an opportunity to model strategies a bit more subtle than copyright and encryption. Carrying a cell phone around with us challenges us to develop ways of coping with a lifestyle in which we are accessible to everyone else, all the time. Likewise, as component parts of a community consciousness, we’ll need a way to incentivize ourselves with something other than personal profit motives. Perhaps the swelling population of Internet millionaires will start to share with us what it is that gets them out of bed in the morning.

So, as I see it, “what’s next” is the thing that we are so industriously preparing for right now: the dissolution of the boundaries that keep us from evolving into something much greater than the sum of our parts.