The explosive growth of the digital world appears to have a further upside as new information technologies – and their social and professional applications – continue to unfold in ways most of us have not yet imagined.
Social media is more than a communications channel; it facilitates change. The Arab Spring provided a dramatic example of how that can work. With some help from Facebook and Twitter, protestors used social media to report on the news of the day and of the moment and affect change.
Two leaders of the digital information charge, Arianna Huffington and Biz Stone, spoke about their vision of the digital universe, and its future, at CME Group’s Global Financial Leadership Conference in October 2011.
Huffington is co-founder and editor-in chief of the Huffington Post Media Group, a news and blog site launched in May 2005. In February 2011, AOL acquired the company for $315 million.
Living in today’s society is “almost like having a split-screen world,” believes Huffington. “Depending on whether you’re looking at one part of the screen or the other, you’re incredibly pessimistic or incredibly optimistic. And both realities are real.”
Huffington continues: “On one side, we have the continuing turbulence of the financial system, the collapse of the middle class in many countries…youth unemployment, riots, a political system that seems incapable of responding to urgent needs.”
On the other side, she says, is an explosion of technology that includes Twitter. Quoting co-panelist Biz Stone, Huffington says, “‘Twitter is not the triumph of tech, but the triumph of humanity,’ because at its best, these technologies can bring people together across the world to accelerate significant change.”
Stone is best known for co-founding Twitter, launched in 2006. Currently chief creative officer at The Obvious Corp, which he also co-founded, Stone has worked for more than a decade on collaborative Web systems to facilitate an open exchange of information.
“Turbulence is a change agent,” Stone observes. “So even though we’re uncomfortable with change and turbulence, the truth of the matter is that it’s these sorts of things that bring about change.
“I hope that we continue to live in a place and in a time where we have continued turbulence,” Stone adds. “Not the kind of turbulence that brings about danger and death … but the idea of just enough turbulence to provoke change and to inspire us to create technology … specifically to create the kind of technology that inspires people to work together, to collaborate.”
“Social media is accelerating a response to what is happening,” Huffington says. Social media has not only intensified the response to issues polarizing Americans, she points out, it has made the organizing efforts like Occupy Wall Street easier.
The mechanics of flocking – sending out a Tweet and having numerous people respond and gather – are simple, Stone says. “It’s rudimentary communication among individuals in real-time that allows many to behave almost as if they’re one organism. “
But Stone argues that while technology facilitates change, it does not cause it.
“We can add more machines to the network. But no matter what we do – you know, it’s not technology that’s going to bring about real change,” Stone says. “It’s people. The Berlin Wall didn’t fall because there were telephones. Were there calls made between people to bring about that change? Certainly.”
The speeding up of technology and the flocking effect also has resulted in a new pace for business and the financial markets. That makes them more volatile, Huffington says.
But a look at the history of financial markets shows that people make more money when they get information faster, Stone says.
He cites as an example a firm that figured out where the fiber was coming into Manhattan and built their data center there. “So many of the trades are done by computers and algorithms now, and just geographically being closer to where the fiber comes in meant they got that much of an edge.”
In general, new technology “gives everyone an opportunity to get information quicker and in that way, it extends that model beyond markets and into everyday life,” Stone says.
Still, being able to live in a world of infinite information is a challenge. The reason Google is successful is because the Internet became unusable. “There were too many pages on the Internet,” Stone explains. “And so we had to create a centered box to type in what we were looking for and find the pages. “
The best of the old, the best of the new
Huffington’s vision of the future is not just about the next new thing, but about what she sees as convergence, of traditional and new media.
“In terms of media and journalism, that means bringing together the best aspects of journalism – fact-checking, fairness, accuracy – together with the best aspects of new technology – real-time, interactivity, engagement,” Huffington states. “It also means using new technologies to increase our power to have a social impact, because that’s going to be more and more important as governments are more and more strapped and civil society needs to be stronger.”
Stone also takes a philosophical approach when asked to look to the future. While the Internet’s legacy so far has been to give a voice to as many people as possible, he believes that going forward, there will be a great push towards quality.
That includes figuring out how to “separate the wheat from the chaff,” Stone says. “Relevance and finding the Tweets and the information that matters to you is the new frontier.”