The changing content of a bottle can tell us a lot about the future of content overall.
I’m old enough to remember having whole milk delivered by the milk man, and that first creamy mouthful you used to get off the top of the bottle if you didn’t shake it first. These days we don’t drink so much whole milk. First, we started skimming all the cream and fat out of it. Then we started switching to a whole different range of milks. Oat, almond, and ten different flavours of soya. The milk we get has less cream in it, and we have a whole range of different milks to choose from.
The same basic things are true of the content we consume. There’s more choice, but the ratio of cream to milk is almost certainly worse than it was. When we consider the future of content, there are some things to celebrate, and some challenges ahead.
The cream ratio
Why is the cream ratio so much worse now? Because of two factors, both of which I believe are ultimately positive.
Firstly, more people now have access to the tools of creation and publishing. Education is more widespread. Digital publishing has brought the marginal cost of adding another video, e-book, or blog post to our collective digital catalogue down to near zero.
Secondly, no-one is going to stand in your way if you want to publish something, with a few notable exceptions. The old intermediaries may have ensured that the quality that reached a mass audience was generally higher, but their processes also did a lot to limit the access to market of many people with talent but not the right connections or background.
We have traded a higher standard of quality overall for much greater diversity and accessibility. And I think that is a trade worth making. But in the next few years, as the range of content in the global market continues to increase exponentially, we’re going to need some new ways to navigate the morass, both as publishers and as consumers.
The continuing exponential
Why do I believe that the future supply of content will continue to grow? Because the next generation of content creation tools will not just benefit from even greater resolution and bandwidth, but more importantly they will offer even more natural interfaces for content creation. We will all have the ability to create rich three-dimensional pieces in the near future. Virtual objects, creatures, spaces and even whole worlds. And we will do this naturally, perhaps even subconsciously.
If the current direction of technological travel continues, we will all be recording our lives in rich multi-dimensional video for large portions of the day, simply as a factor of how the next generation of mixed reality devices – headsets – will work. And we will interface with, edit, remix, and broadcast this content with intuitive voice and gesture commands, assisted by artificial intelligences that will do much of the work for us.
How on earth will we navigate the range of choices available? And how will brands who want to reach us find their way to us.
Your decision engine
I foresee us increasingly outsourcing choice to machines. Personal assistants that know us deeply, intimately, and that can understand what we enjoy and what we value. They will know us by watching us, collecting data across multiple dimensions. They will watch our social interactions as they do now, but they will also watch our emotions. Monitoring our breathing, heart rate, galvanic skin response, and neurological activity, they will understand when we enjoy something. Examining our buying behaviour, our financial state, and watching the state of our possessions as they degrade and get used up, they will know what we need and can afford. Then they will take decisions on our behalf.
Who owns these taste-makers, and who can influence them, is perhaps the biggest battleground for business in the second quarter of this century. Will we own and control them ourselves, having them act as shields for our limited attention, and curators of our own personal universe? Or will they be delivered by the corporate behemoths, the things they want to sell us wound invisibly into the strands of our own expressed interests?
This matters, because in tomorrow’s blended reality, the content that reaches us literally defines how we will perceive the world, not just through the screen but everywhere we walk.
Watercooler moments in the future of content
The continuing expansion of the range of content presents challenges to publisher, consumer, and society.
As publishers and brands, how will we find an audience in the future? Part of the answer comes from knowing your audience and accepting the likely limitations on the scale of that audience. The future is a million niches, and many fewer events that unite them. This is why phenomena like The Bodyguard and Game of Thrones attract such a frenzy: cultural events that unite us are increasingly rare.
Smaller niches tend to be more protective of their own carefully curated identity in my experience. Cracking that shell from outside is hard as Budweiser’s pride experiment showed.
As consumers, will we accept the role of the machine in defining our buying and consuming habits? In many ways, we already have accepted it. The lack of resistance to social media bubbles drenched in fake news over recent political cycles has shown that.
As society, will we accept the decline of the watercooler moment, the cultural phenomena that bring us together? Or will we break out of our personalised worlds to find more shared moments?
On the last question, I am cautiously hopeful. But we need to be conscious of the changes that are happening to the market for content over the next decade. We need to consider what they mean for the future of content, and consider our interventions if we are going to succeed in what could be a very challenging environment, as publishers, as consumers, and as a society.