Webstock speaker wrap-up: Clive Thompson

For Webstock 2014, BNZ Digital sent a big crowd along. It was, of course, great. Now we’re writing a ‘Webstock Speaker Series’ for the rest of the team. Each day we’re covering a single speaker from the main conference. Here’s my contribution from today.

Today it’s the misleadingly-boringly-named Clive Thompson, who rocked day two of the conference with a talk he called The New Literacies. This after he spent the previous night rocking, or at least blue-grassing, the BNZ-sponsored Start-Up Alley. Clive’s the guy on guitar. (Photo credit: some rando on Instagram called jacobbuck).

He also writes. I’ll definitely be reading his book Smarter Than You Think, half because he’s a clever guy who would no doubt write good books and half because I love a good title as much as I love confirmation bias. Speaking of confirmation, the proof that he’s a good writer is his blog, Collision Detection.

But let’s turn to The New Literacies. Clive spots patterns between new media and old (as in his latest blog post, Why 18th century books looked like smartphone screens), and this is the basis of a presentation about “technology to think with”.

The set of technology that we think with starts with the written word and includes images, video, games and even manufactured objects. (There’s probably more, but he only had half an hour.) As Clive sees it, each of these has evolved (so far) in similar ways.

Take the early days of the written word. Not only did it have old people up in arms about how it would ruin young people’s minds (how you lookin’ now, Socrates?), it was also very expensive. When something’s expensive, we use it for one-to-many communication. Even when you fast-forward from clay tablets to the Gutenberg press, which made creating written words miles easier than ever before, still only a few people actually had their writing distributed. It was a broadcast medium.

Over time another use emerges: one-to-one communication. It’s still wasn’t easy – George Washington would write letters on the back of old letters, so scarce was writing material, and if you wanted to buy a ballpoint pen in 1945 you would have needed about $100 in today’s money – but technological improvements shifted our use of the written word. It became more disposable, to the point today where we’ve gone beyond 1:1 communication and even use it for writing notes to ourselves now. Think of this third step as the “Post-It phase”.

So there’s the pattern: Technology is invented, expensive, and used for broadcast. It improves, cheapens, and we add 1:1 communication to its uses. Finally it becomes almost disposable, and something we also use just for ourselves.

You can see the start of the same pattern with photography, videos, and even games, each of which have moved beyond an expensive broadcast-only beginning to also having 1:1 uses. (Clive himself has written a game for an audience of one.) 3D printing is shifting the creation of objects from something that “broadcasts” many copies of the same thing all over world to something much closer to a one-to-one model as well.

So, what’s next? The question Clive ended with invited the Webstock audience – “an audience of hundreds of makers” – to work out what the Post-It phase will look like for digital media like videos, games, photos and 3D-printed objects. It’s a good question.

Clive Thompson, ladies and gentlemen!

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