Keynote for the Digital Fair of the Australian College of Educators, Geelong Grammar School, 16 April 2009. The full text of the talk is here.
Introduction: Out of Control
A spectre is haunting the classroom, the spectre of change. Nearly a century of institutional forms, initiated at the height of the Industrial Era, will change irrevocably over the next decade. The change is already well underway, but this change is not being led by teachers, administrators, parents or politicians. Coming from the ground up, the true agents of change are the students within the educational system. Within just the last five years, both power and control have swung so quickly and so completely in their favor that it’s all any of us can do to keep up. We live in an interregnum, between the shift in power and its full actualization: These wacky kids don’t yet realize how powerful they are.
This power shift does not have a single cause, nor could it be thwarted through any single change, to set the clock back to a more stable time. Instead, we are all participating in a broadly-based cultural transformation. The forces unleashed can not simply be dammed up; thus far they have swept aside every attempt to contain them. While some may be content to sit on the sidelines and wait until this cultural reorganization plays itself out, as educators you have no such luxury. Everything hits you first, and with full force. You are embedded within this change, as much so as this generation of students.
This paper outlines the basic features of this new world we are hurtling towards, pointing out the obvious rocks and shoals that we must avoid being thrown up against, collisions which could dash us to bits. It is a world where even the illusion of control has been torn away from us. A world wherein the first thing we need to recognize that what is called for in the classroom is a strategic détente, a détente based on mutual interest and respect. Without those two core qualities we have nothing, and chaos will drown all our hopes for worthwhile outcomes. These outcomes are not hard to achieve; one might say that any classroom which lacks mutual respect and interest is inevitably doomed to failure, no matter what the tenor of the times. But just now, in this time, it happens altogether more quickly.
Hence I come to the title of this talk, “Digital Citizenship”. We have given our children the Bomb, and they can – if they so choose – use it to wipe out life as we know it. Right now we sit uneasily in an era of mutually-assured destruction, all the more dangerous because these kids don’t now how fully empowered they are. They could pull the pin by accident. For this reason we must understand them, study them intently, like anthropologists doing field research with an undiscovered tribe. They are not the same as us. Unwittingly, we have changed the rules of the world for them. When the Superpowers stared each other down during the Cold War, each was comforted by the fact that each knew the other had essentially the same hopes and concerns underneath the patina of Capitalism or Communism. This time around, in this Cold War, we stare into eyes so alien they could be another form of life entirely. And this, I must repeat, is entirely our own doing. We have created the cultural preconditions for this Balance of Terror. It is up to us to create an environment that fosters respect, trust, and a new balance of powers. To do that first we must examine the nature of the tremendous changes which have fundamentally altered the way children think.
I: Primary Influences
I am a constructivist. Constructivism states (in terms that now seem fairly obvious) that children learn the rules of the world from their repeated interactions within in. Children build schema, which are then put to the test through experiment; if these experiments succeed, those schema are incorporated into ever-larger schema, but if they fail, it’s back to the drawing board to create new schema. This all seems straightforward enough – even though Einstein pronounced it, “An idea so simple only a genius could have thought of it.” That genius, Jean Piaget, remains an overarching influence across the entire field of childhood development.
At the end of the last decade I became intensely aware that the rapid technological transformations of the past generation must necessarily impact upon the world views of children. At just the time my ideas were gestating, I was privileged to attend a presentation given by Sherry Turkle, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and perhaps the most subtle thinker in the area of children and technology. Turkle talked about her current research, which involved a recently-released and fantastically popular children’s toy, the Furby.
For those of you who may have missed the craze, the Furby is an animatronic creature which has expressive eyes, touch sensors, and a modest capability with language. When first powered up, the Furby speaks ‘Furbish’, an artificial language which the child can decode by looking up words in a dictionary booklet included in the package. As the child interacts with the toy, the Furby’s language slowly adopts more and more English prhases. All of this is interesting enough, but more interesting, by far, is that the Furby has needs. Furby must be fed and played with. Furby must rest and sleep after a session of play. All of this gives the Furby some attributes normally associated with living things, and this gave Turkle an idea.
Constructivists had already determined that between ages four and six children learn to differentiate between animate objects, such as a pet dog, and inanimate objects, such as a doll. Since Furby showed qualities which placed it into both ontological categories, Turkle wondered whether children would class it as animate or inanimate. What she discovered during her interviews with these children astounded her. When the question was put to them of whether the Furby was animate or inanimate, the children said, “Neither.” The children intuited that the Furby resided in a new ontological class of objects, between the animate and inanimate. It’s exactly this ontological in-between-ness of Furby which causes some adults to find them “creepy”. We don’t have a convenient slot to place them into our own world views, and therefore reject them as alien. But Furby was completely natural to these children. Even the invention of a new ontological class of being-ness didn’t strain their understanding. It was, to them, simply the way the world works.
Writ large, the Furby tells the story of our entire civilization. We make much of the difference between “digital immigrants”, such as ourselves, and “digital natives”, such as these children. These kids are entirely comfortable within the digital world, having never known anything else. We casually assume that this difference is merely a quantitative facility. In fact, the difference is almost entirely qualitative. The schema upon which their world-views are based, the literal ‘rules of their world’, are completely different. Furby has an interiority hitherto only ascribed to living things, and while it may not make the full measure of a living thing, it is nevertheless somewhere on a spectrum that simply did not exist a generation ago. It is a magical object, sprinkled with the pixie dust of interactivity, come partially to life, and closer to a real-world Pinocchio than we adults would care to acknowledge.
If Furby were the only example of this transformation of the material world, we would be able to easily cope with the changes in the way children think. It was, instead, part of a leading edge of a breadth of transformation. For example, when I was growing up, LEGO bricks were simple, inanimate objects which could be assembled in an infinite arrangement of forms. Today, LEGO Mindstorms allow children to create programmable forms, using wheels and gears and belts and motors and sensors. LEGO is no longer passive, but active and capable of interacting with the child. It, too, has acquired an interiority which teaches children that at some essential level the entire material world is poised at the threshold of a transformation into the active. A child playing with LEGO Mindstorms will never see the material world as wholly inanimate; they will see it as a playground requiring little more than a few simple mechanical additions, plus a sprinkling of code, to bring it to life. Furby adds interiority to the inanimate world, but LEGO Mindstorms empowers the child with the ability to add this interiority themselves.
The most significant of these transformational innovations is one of the most recent. In 2004, Google purchased Keyhole, Inc., a company that specialized in geospatial data visualization tools. A year later Google released the first version of Google Earth, a tool which provides a desktop environment wherein the entire Earth’s surface can be browsed, at varying levels of resolution, from high Earth orbit, down to the level of storefronts, anywhere throughout the world. This tool, both free and flexible, has fomented a revolution in the teaching of geography, history and political science. No longer constrained to the archaic Mercator Projection atlas on the wall, or the static globe-as-a-ball perched on one corner of teacher’s desk, Google Earth presents Earth-as-a-snapshot.
We must step back and ask ourselves the qualitative lesson, the constructivist message of Google Earth. Certainly it removes the problem of scale; the child can see the world from any point of view, even multiple points of view simultaneously. But it also teaches them that ‘to observe is to understand’. A child can view the ever-expanding drying of southern Australia along with a data showing the rise in temperature over the past decade, all laid out across the continent. The Earth becomes a chalkboard, a spreadsheet, a presentation medium, where the thorny problems of global civilization and its discontents can be explored out in exquisite detail. In this sense, no problem, no matter how vast, no matter how global, will be seen as being beyond the reach of these children. They’ll learn this – not because of what teacher says, or what homework assignments they complete – through interaction with the technology itself.
The generation of children raised on Google Earth will graduate from secondary schools in 2017, just at the time the Government plans to complete its rollout of the National Broadband Network. I reckon these two tools will go hand-in-hand: broadband connects the home to the world, while Google Earth brings the world into the home. Australians, particularly beset by the problems of global warming, climate, and environmental management, need the best tools and the best minds to solve the problems which already beset us. Fortunately it looks as though we are training a generation for leadership, using the tools already at hand.
The existence of Google Earth as an interactive object changes the child’s relationship to the planet. A simulation of Earth is a profoundly new thing, and naturally is generating new ontological categories. Yet again, and completely by accident, we have profoundly altered the world view of this generation of children and young adults. We are doing this to ourselves: our industries turn out products and toys and games which apply the latest technological developments in a dazzling variety of ways. We give these objects to our children, more or less blindly unaware of how this will affect their development. Then we wonder how these aliens arrived in our midst, these ‘digital natives’ with their curious ways. Ladies and gentlemen, we need to admit that we have done this to ourselves. We and our technological-materialist culture have fostered an environment of such tremendous novelty and variety that we have changed the equations of childhood.
Yet these technologies are only the tip of the iceberg. Each are the technologies of childhood, of a world of objects, where the relationship is between child and object. This is not the world of adults, where the relations between objects are thoroughly confused by the relationships between adults. In fact, it can be said that for as much as adults are obsessed with material possessions, we are only obsessed with them because of our relationships to other adults. The corner we turn between childhood and young adulthood is indicative of a change in the way we think, in the objects of attention, and in the technologies which facilitate and amplify that attention. These technologies have also suddenly and profoundly changed, and, again, we are almost completely unaware of what that has done to those wacky kids.
II: Share This Thought!
Australia now has more mobile phone subscribers than people. We have reached 104% subscription levels, simply because some of us own and use more than one handset. This phenomenon has been repeated globally; there are something like four billion mobile phone subscribers throughout the world, representing approximately three point six billion customers. That’s well over half the population of planet Earth. Given that there are only about a billion people in the ‘advanced’ economies in the developed world – almost all of whom now use mobiles – two and a half billion of the relatively ‘poor’ also have mobiles. How could this be? Shouldn’t these people be spending money on food, housing, and education for their children?
As it turns out (and there are numerous examples to support this) a mobile handset is probably the most important tool someone can employ to improve their economic well-being. A farmer can call ahead to markets to find out which is paying the best price for his crop; the same goes for fishermen. Tradesmen can close deals without the hassle and lost time involved in travel; craftswomen can coordinate their creative resources with a few text messages. Each of these examples can be found in any Bangladeshi city or Africa village. In the developed world, the mobile was nice but non-essential: no one is late anymore, just delayed, because we can always phone ahead. In the parts of the world which never had wired communications, the leap into the network has been explosively potent.
The mobile is a social accelerant; it does for our innate social capabilities what the steam shovel did for our mechanical capabilities two hundred years ago. The mobile extends our social reach, and deepens our social connectivity. Nowhere is this more noticeable than in the lives of those wacky kids. At the beginning of this decade, researcher Mitzuko Ito took a look at the mobile phone in the lives of Japanese teenagers. Ito published her research in Personal, Portable, Pedestrian: Mobile Phones in Japanese Life, presenting a surprising result: these teenagers were sending and receiving a hundred text messages a day among a close-knit group of friends (generally four or five others), starting when they first arose in the morning, and going on until they fell asleep at night. This constant, gentle connectivity – which Ito named ‘co-presence’ – often consisted of little of substance, just reminders of connection.
At the time many of Ito’s readers dismissed this phenomenon as something to be found among those ‘wacky Japanese’, with their technophilic bent. A decade later this co-presence is the standard behavior for all teenagers everywhere in the developed world. An Australian teenager thinks nothing of sending and receiving a hundred text messages a day, within their own close group of friends. A parent who might dare to look at the message log on a teenager’s phone would see very little of significance and wonder why these messages needed to be sent at all. But the content doesn’t matter: connection is the significant factor.
We now know that the teenage years are when the brain ‘boots’ into its full social awareness, when children leave childhood behind to become fully participating members within the richness of human society. This process has always been painful and awkward, but just now, with the addition of the social accelerant and amplifier of the mobile, it has become almost impossibly significant. The co-present social network can help cushion the blow of rejection, or it can impel the teenager to greater acts of folly. Both sides of the technology-as-amplifier are ever-present. We have seen bullying by mobile and over YouTube or Facebook; we know how quickly the technology can overrun any of the natural instincts which might prevent us from causing damage far beyond our intention – keep this in mind, because we’ll come back to it when we discuss digital citizenship in detail.
There is another side to sociability, both far removed from this bullying behavior and intimately related to it – the desire to share. The sharing of information is an innate human behavior: since we learned to speak we’ve been talking to each other, warning each other of dangers, informing each other of opportunities, positing possibilities, and just generally reassuring each other with the sound of our voices. We’ve now extended that four-billion-fold, so that half of humanity is directly connected, one to another.
We know we say little to nothing with those we know well, though we may say it continuously. What do we say to those we know not at all? In this case we share not words but the artifacts of culture. We share a song, or a video clip, or a link, or a photograph. Each of these are just as important as words spoken, but each of these places us at a comfortable distance within the intimate act of sharing. 21st-century culture looks like a gigantic act of sharing. We share music, movies and television programmes, driving the creative industries to distraction – particularly with the younger generation, who see no need to pay for any cultural product. We share information and knowledge, creating a wealth of blogs, and resources such as Wikipedia, the universal repository of factual information about the world as it is. We share the minutiae of our lives in micro-blogging services such as Twitter, and find that, being so well connected, we can also harvest the knowledge of our networks to become ever-better informed, and ever more effective individuals. We can translate that effectiveness into action, and become potent forces for change.
Everything we do, both within and outside the classroom, must be seen through this prism of sharing. Teenagers log onto video chat services such as Skype, and do their homework together, at a distance, sharing and comparing their results. Parents offer up their kindergartener’s presentations to other parents through Twitter – and those parents respond to the offer. All of this both amplifies and undermines the classroom. The classroom has not dealt with the phenomenal transformation in the connectivity of the broader culture, and is in danger of becoming obsolesced by it.
Yet if the classroom were to wholeheartedly to embrace connectivity, what would become of it? Would it simply dissolve into a chaotic sea, or is it strong enough to chart its own course in this new world? This same question confronts every institution, of every size. It affects the classroom first simply because the networked and co-present polity of hyperconnected teenagers has reached it first. It is the first institution that must transform because the young adults who are its reason for being are the agents of that transformation. There’s no way around it, no way to set the clock back to a simpler time, unless, Amish-like, we were simply to dispose of all the gadgets which we have adopted as essential elements in our lifestyle.
This, then, is why these children hold the future of the classroom-as-institution in their hands, this is why the power-shift has been so sudden and so complete. This is why digital citizenship isn’t simply an academic interest, but a clear and present problem which must be addressed, broadly and immediately, throughout our entire educational system. We already live in a time of disconnect, where the classroom has stopped reflecting the world outside its walls. The classroom is born of an industrial mode of thinking, where hierarchy and reproducibility were the order of the day. The world outside those walls is networked and highly heterogeneous. And where the classroom touches the world outside, sparks fly; the classroom can’t handle the currents generated by the culture of connectivity and sharing. This can not go on.
When discussing digital citizenship, we must first look to ourselves. This is more than a question of learning the language and tools of the digital era, we must take the life-skills we have already gained outside the classroom and bring them within. But beyond this, we must relentlessly apply network logic to the work of our own lives. If that work is as educators, so be it. We must accept the reality of the 21st century, that, more than anything else, this is the networked era, and that this network has gifted us with new capabilities even as it presents us with new dangers. Both gifts and dangers are issues of potency; the network has made us incredibly powerful. The network is smarter, faster and more agile than the hierarchy; when the two collide – as they’re bound to, with increasing frequency – the network always wins. A text message can unleash revolution, or land a teenager in jail on charges of peddling child pornography, or spark a riot on a Sydney beach; Wikipedia can drive Britannica, a quarter millennium-old reference text out of business; a outsider candidate can get himself elected president of the United States because his team masters the logic of the network. In truth, we already live in the age of digital citizenship, but so many of us don’t know the rules, and hence, are poor citizens.
Now that we’ve explored the dimensions of the transition in the understanding of the younger generation, and the desynchronization of our own practice within the world as it exists, we can finally tackle the issue of digital citizenship. Children and young adults who have grown up in this brave new world, who have already created new ontological categories to frame it in their understanding, won’t have time or attention for preaching and screeching from the pulpit in the classroom, or the ‘bully pulpits’ of the media. In some ways, their understanding already surpasses ours, but their apprehension of consequential behavior does not. It is entirely up to us to bridge this gap in their understanding, but I do not to imply that educators can handle this task alone. All of the adult forces of the culture must be involved: parents, caretakers, educators, administrators, mentors, authority and institutional figures of all kinds. We must all be pulling in the same direction, lest the threads we are trying to weave together unravel.
III: 20/60 Foresight
While on a lecture tour last year, a Queensland teacher said something quite profound to me. “Giving a year 7 student a laptop is the equivalent of giving them a loaded gun.” Just as we wouldn’t think of giving this child a gun without extensive safety instruction, we can’t even think consider giving this child a computer – and access to the network – without extensive training in digital citizenship. But the laptop is only one device; any networked device has the potential for the same pitfalls.
Long before Sherry Turkle explored Furby’s effect on the world-view of children, she examined how children interact with computers. In her first survey, The Second Self: Computers and the Human Spirit, she applied Lacanian psychoanalysis and constructivism to build a model of how children interacted with computers. In the earliest days of the personal computer revolution, these machines were not connected to any networks, but were instead laboratories where the child could explore themselves, creating a ‘mirror’ of their own understanding.
Now that almost every computer is fully connected to the billion-plus regular users of the Internet, the mirror no longer reflects the self, but the collective yet highly heterogeneous tastes and behaviors of mankind. The opportunity for quiet self-exploration drowns amidst the clamor from a very vital human world. In the space between the singular and the collective, we must provide an opportunity for children to grow into a sense of themselves, their capabilities, and their responsibilities. This liminal moment is the space for an education in digital citizenship. It may be the only space available for such an education, before the lure of the network sets behavioral patterns in place.
Children must be raised to have a healthy respect for the network from their earliest awareness of it. The network access of young children is generally closely supervised, but, as they turn the corner into tweenage and secondary education, we need to provide another level of support, which fully briefs these rapidly maturing children on the dangers, pitfalls, opportunities and strengths of network culture. They already know how to do things, but they do not have the wisdom to decide when it appropriate to do them, and when it is appropriate to refrain. That wisdom is the core of what must be passed along. But wisdom is hard to transmit in words; it must flow from actions and lessons learned. Is it possible to develop a lesson plan which imparts the lessons of digital citizenship? Can we teach these children to tame their new powers?
Before a child is given their own mobile – something that happens around age 12 here in Australia, though that is slowly dropping – they must learn the right way to use it. Not the perfunctory ‘this is not a toy’ talk they might receive from a parent, but a more subtle and profound exploration of what it means to be directly connected to half of humanity, and how, should that connectivity go awry, it could seriously affect someone’s life – possibly even their own. Yes, the younger generation has different values where the privacy of personal information is concerned, but even they have limits they want to respect, and circles of intimacy they want to defend. Showing them how to reinforce their privacy with technology is a good place to start in any discussion of digital citizenship.
Similarly, before a child is given a computer – either at home or in school – it must be accompanied by instruction in the power of the network. A child may have a natural facility with the network without having any sense of the power of the network as an amplifier of capability. It’s that disconnect which digital citizenship must bridge.
It’s not my role to be prescriptive. I’m not going to tell you to do this or that particular thing, or outline a five-step plan to ensure that the next generation avoid ruining their lives as they come online. This is a collective problem which calls for a collective solution. Fortunately, we live in an era of collective technology. It is possible for all of us to come together and collaborate on solutions to this problem. Digital citizenship is a issue which has global reach; the UK and the US are both confronting similar issues, and both, like Australia, fail to deal with them comprehensively. Perhaps the Australian College of Educators can act as a spearhead on this issue, working in concert with other national bodies to develop a program and curriculum in digital citizenship. It would be a project worthy of your next fifty years.
In closing, let’s cast our eyes forward fifty years, to 2060, when your organization will be celebrating its hundredth anniversary. We can only imagine the technological advances of the next fifty years in the fuzziest of terms. You need only cast yourselves back fifty years to understand why. Back then, a computer as powerful as my laptop wouldn’t have filled a single building – or even a single city block. It very likely would have filled a small city, requiring its own power plant. If we have come so far in fifty years, judging where we’ll be in fifty years time is beyond the capabilities of even the most able futurist. We can only say that computers will become pervasive and nearly invisibly woven through the fabric of human culture.
Let us instead focus on how we will use technology in fifty years’ time. We can already see the shape of the future in one outstanding example – a website known as RateMyProfessors.com. Here, in a database of nine million reviews of one million teachers, lecturers and professors, students can learn which instructors bore, which grade easily, which excite the mind, and so forth. This simple site – which grew out of the power of sharing – has radically changed the balance of power on university campuses throughout the US and the UK. Students can learn from others’ mistakes or triumphs, and can repeat them. Universities, which might try to corral students into lectures with instructors who might not be exemplars of their profession, find themselves unable to fill those courses. Worse yet, bidding wars have broken out between universities seeking to fill their ranks with the instructors who receive the highest rankings.
Alongside the rise of RateMyProfessors.com, there has been an exponential increase in the amount of lecture material you can find online, whether on YouTube, or iTunes University, or any number of dedicated websites. Those lectures also have ratings, so it is already possible for a student to get to the best and most popular lectures on any subject, be it calculus or Mandarin or the medieval history of Europe.
Both of these trends are accelerating because both are backed by the power of sharing, the engine driving all of this. As we move further into the future, we’ll see the students gradually take control of the scheduling functions of the university (and probably in a large number of secondary school classes). These students will pair lecturers with courses using software to coordinate both. More and more, the educational institution will be reduced to a layer of software sitting between the student, the mentor-instructor and the courseware. As the university dissolves in the universal solvent of the network, the capacity to use the network for education increases geometrically; education will be available everywhere the network reaches. It already reaches half of humanity; in a few years it will cover three-quarters of the population of the planet. Certainly by 2060 network access will be thought of as a human right, much like food and clean water.
In 2060, Australian College of Educators may be more of an ‘Invisible College’ than anything based in rude physicality. Educators will continue to collaborate, but without much of the physical infrastructure we currently associate with educational institutions. Classrooms will self-organize and disperse organically, driven by need, proximity, or interest, and the best instructors will find themselves constantly in demand. Life-long learning will no longer be a catch-phrase, but a reality for the billions of individuals all focusing on improving their effectiveness within an ever-more-competitive global market for talent. (The same techniques employed by RateMyProfessors.com will impact all the other professions, eventually.)
There you have it. The human future is both more chaotic and more potent than we can easily imagine, even if we have examples in our present which point the way to where we are going. And if this future sounds far away, keep this in mind: today’s year 10 student will be retiring in 2060. This is their world.
The idea that the world is a database has a more distinguished provenance than just Google Earth. Back in the 1960s, R. Buckminster “Bucky” Fully proposed the Geosphere, a scale model of the world, 500m in diameter, and thus big enough that anyone could look onto it and make out their home.
The idea, Fuller thought, was to contextualize man in his environment. In doing that, he believed we would have a greater sense of the web of relationships into which we are embedded.
Even the natural world is a database of sorts, just ask a botanist or zoologist; each area has its own climate, soils, flora and fauna. All of this information is there, in some sense, but, for now, is revealed only to those with the education to keep the facts close at hand. That education could reside in the mind of an indigenous person, or in the mind of a dedicated scientist. (And lets not forget the amateurs, who often excel in one area or another.)
Here’s a basic problem: knowledge resident inside grey matter – or locked away within books, and lacking geo-context – is just too hard for us to grasp, search or absorb.
What is needed is an interface to this information; like the “cathedrals of memory” which served the ancient poets, we need an interface which can remind us of the thing itself, keeping all this information neatly at hand.
If we could walk through a landscape, and have this information presented to us, because it had been stored by geo-context (GPS and GPRS would do this, and the new generation of 3G mobile handsets provide both) we would have an immediate experience of knowledge; in other words, a moment of understanding within the environment.
That’s what Fuller wanted, and that’s what’s now possible.
The world of man is wholly artificial, in that everything within it is an artifact, a product of human activity. Civilization is entirely artificial. And, more often than not, when we travel, we journey from the comfortable artifice of home into an artifice created by other hands, other minds, and other cultures. Travel broadens the mind because it exposes us to other possibilities, other ways that the cultural norms could be, given different initial conditions.
What we need, as human beings, when we journey into foreign norms, are “handholds’, the points which can serve as translation between the world-as-we-know-it and the world-as-it-is-around us. That’s what a good travel guide, or good travel book does. That traveling companion is like the parent who holds your hand as you step into the deep end of the pool. The benefit of experience is that it bolsters the traveler’s self-confidence.
We can’t always afford a travel guide; we can always have a travel book, but the trouble with a travel book is that it’s often obsolete by the time it reaches publication. The world is dynamic; a book is anything but. Thus travel books progressively diverge from reality, sometimes with hilarious (or tragic) consequences. Books are also of fixed size; you can’t carry around with you a book that would tell you everything you might need to know about the United States, or California, or even San Francisco. There’s just too much there there. This means that the travel book is the equivalent of a photograph, with the same lack of dimensionality. You can possess one view of a moment in time, but there is no depth, nothing behind it.
So the Web comes along, which promises us something more, something dynamic (if not quite portable), and infinitely extensible. A website can be as deep an dense as required – just look at Wikipedia. It can reflect instantaneous changes in the outside world. It can be created collaboratively. And it can be accessed, instantaneously, from almost anywhere on Earth.
This set of characteristics sounds nearly perfect, and it is, with one big, important exception – the Web is not portable. Most people will not travel with an entire database in their laptop, updated minute by minute. Most people will not rush into an Internet café at every single opportunity to keep apprised of the latest developments in travel space or to post their own critiques. It’s too much work and too much bother, for too little gain. This means that the best efforts – such as Thorne Tree – are still essentially static entities; someone gets in front of a computer, uses the service, and keeps a snapshot of what they’ve read in their own head as they travel. It’s better than nothing, but it’s hardly good enough. Travel is about mobility; why should travel services be any different?
All of this work is converging, as it inevitably must, on the mobile telephone. Already there are more mobile telephones in the world than Internet-attached computers; there are more mobile phones in use in China than there are people in the United States. And the Chinese are probably buying a quarter billion mobile telephones a year. (Many of these are used models, as people sell old handsets to buy new ones.)
The modern mobile handset has about as much computing power as a computer of the mid-1990s; that may seem insubstantial by the standards of today, but mobile handsets are evolving far more rapidly than personal computers; within a decade there won’t be much difference between them. Already the mobile handset is Internet connected, via GPRS or 3G packet-switched networks. I have a “Mega Cap” plan from Vodafone AU, which gives me about 3 1/2 hours of GPRS access per day, at a fixed price. I never even come close to using it, but I’m working on services which I hope will start to eat into that enormous data budget. In a few years it won’t seem enormous at all; it might even seem a bit stingy. But for the moment I can have a taste of the future.
Devices like the ever-connected, ultra-powerful, mobile telephone are what the traveler of the next decade will be carrying with them. Already I can run Google Earth on my mobile. Given the amount of processing it takes to run Google Earth – it chugs along on my G4 iBook – it does a fine job. If my mobile had an integral GPS or Galileo receiver, my mobile Google Earth could track my movements in real time. (This can’t be very far away; I’d be altogether surprised if someone hasn’t done that already.)
Google Earth is not just a visualization of the earth; it is, in fact, integrated into Google’s planetary database. The integration is relatively loose right now, but that will only grow with time. It is the place to place everything about place. And travel is all about place.
The 21st century traveler travels with a mobile phone; the growth of GSM/GPRS networks – even the US has them, finally – means that one handset will work everywhere (though not necessarily inexpensively). The mobile is not the preferred interface to the Internet, though this is more of an interface issue than anything else; this is why Google Earth Mobile is so very interesting. Google Earth presents an interface which is intuitive, and which provides a front-end to the nearly-infinite Google database. When people learn how to put these two together, blend the database and make it mobile, we’ll have the first “killer app” for the mobile. And it’s a traveler’s essential, as much as a phrase book, or traveler’s checks.