People like to chat, over the water cooler, down the pub, in the playground (and the classroom) -pretty much anywhere they can get away with it. Reach for a thesaurus and the number of synonyms for 'talk' would be sufficient to fill this article (tempting!).
A quick look at Wikipedia and I have learned that anthroposemiotics, is the field dedicated to understanding how people communicate, which just goes to show how good we are at making up new words. Anyway, nice though it is to circumlocute, I should probably get to the point…
… Which is that our love of communication has been the major force in driving the development of technology, more or less in parallel with our love of trade. Ever since the wireless telegraph, technological innovations which facilitate conversation have taken off and grown exponentially; often far beyond any reasonable expectation, SMS, email, Facebook and Twitter are all examples of our seemingly insatiable appetite for… blether (scot).
The connection between talk and trade is also pretty inescapable. Wherever people gather for a natter other people will try and sell them stuff, which pretty much sums up Facebook. Social media, or Web 2.0 as it is sometimes called, is based on a simple formula. Give people free facilities for social interaction and then in return use the information and attention they give you to sell them things. And, provided everybody understands the deal, this seems perfectly reasonable to me.
Despite its enormous success the social media formula has its limitations - the openness which has allowed such exponential growth is a barrier when it comes to more serious conversations. In many creative fields, such as the music industry, protecting intellectual property has become much harder. Legitimate concerns about privacy and excessive state control seriously inhibit data sharing between government agencies and, even in business, we pay for this every time we want to open a new bank account. For me the next challenge in the application of technology to the real world is in the facilitation of 'serious' conversations.
My first example and a source of considerable frustration recently is KYC or as most of us seem to experience it - you clearly don't know your customer! It is perfectly reasonable to expect financial institutions to check the identity of the people they do business with but once they know who we are, we would quite like them to remember. Producing a passport and utility bill - again - to open an account with a bank where you have had a current account for 20 years is, frankly, ridiculous. This type of inconvenience is a total failure to use IT effectively, despite the trillions spent on systems by the finance sector globally. It creates a genuine drag on legitimate business and is totally ineffective in preventing real financial crime, a lot of which seems to be committed from the inside anyway.
Sorry - got a bit carried away there! But I think many people who work in the banking sector would share their customer's frustration. The problem is actually quite simple, banking systems are built to service accounts, not people, for perfectly understandable historic reasons. No amount of investment in Customer Relationship Management systems over the top of accounts has solved this for us.
A quite different and very interesting challenge exists in education, not just schools but right across the spectrum of learning communication and verification. Here the challenge is more to do with blending flexibility and access to the very best content with human interaction and individual communication. Put simply the best teachers are limited by place and time and it is difficult to exploit their talents more widely and reward them accordingly. Meanwhile the structure of the qualifications that define educational success is incredibly rigid in both timing and design. There seems to be a strong feeling that technology could be the key to a better way to communicate knowledge, both to the learner and back to the assessor. The challenge is to find ways to do this which both value expertise and retain the human interaction which makes learning fun.
My final example is in the way we share information with the 'powers that be'. For most of us, and for most of the time, we provide information to government agencies primarily to access services. Health, education, planning, social security, the registration of births deaths and marriages, work permits, jobs, children's holiday sports, the list goes on. Some of these services are provided directly, and some are contracted out, but all require the exchange of very similar information, and whilst we don't want our personal information to be shared without our consent - it would be nice not to have to provide it quite so often. Here again the problem lies with systems which are designed around functions rather than people and certainly not designed to make communication flow more freely.
All of these examples represent the sort of serious conversations we sometimes have to have and the less they get in the way of serious gossiping the better. So my challenge to the world of ICT is to build Web 3.0 to make serious conversations cheaper, simpler, safer and more human because humans plus technology equals communication.