Ben Hammersley is an Internet Futurist who coined the term ‘podcast’, predicts the direction of the web for Wired magazine and presents documentaries on cybercrime for the BBC. He’s proof that you don’t need to scale a mountain or hack through a jungle to be a modern day explorer.
From his books on facing a digital future without fear to extolling the virtues of online communities driving social change, Hammersley’s natural flair for storytelling makes him the perfect person to report back from unchartered cyber territory.
What does exploration mean to you?
There were two types of exploration in the early days of the Internet. The first was just being exposed to global enthusiasms. One of the things you realise I think is that everyone is a nerd about something in an awesome way.
Certainly something that’s really become apparent to me over the last year or so as I’ve been doing educational projects that there’s so many resources and so many possibilities to become an expert in something. The Internet is incredible bounteous in that kind of way. So it’s just realising that you’ve fallen into the greatest library in the world that’s filled with enthusiastic people.
“Information overload is nonsense.
You don’t walk into a bookshop and suddenly have a stroke.”
What was your first computer?
The ZX Spectrum. It was very seminal machine for a whole generation. Clive Sinclair in the early ‘80s bought out a series of sub £100 computers and the spectrum was the first one that had colour and graphics. The thing about that generation of computers was to use them you had to learn how to program and so there’s a whole legacy of people who are in their late 30s/early 40s who cut their computing teeth on that generation of machines. It wasn’t the first computer programming, but it was the first time that computers were cheap enough to be in the home and cheap enough that you could buy your precocious 11-year-old a computer.
What does an Internet Futurist do?
I help the senior members of large organisations understand the impact on their lives and businesses of modern digital technology. I can make evidence based predications about the trajectory of certain industries and then can help companies come to terms with those predictions, to mitigate against them, or just understand what going on.
It’s sort of a cliché that you hear about disruptions and the pace of change but it is true that large organisations aren’t really used to, or set up, to adapt very quickly. That’s why you end up with the collapse of the music industry because they just couldn’t adapt fast enough and they didn’t understand what was happening. And by the time they did understand what was happening they weren’t able to do anything about it.
Why do you think there’s so much online antagonism?
Along with that enthusiasm and the great hope for humanity we’ve also found and trying to deal with for over 25 years now, for various physiological and sociological reasons the Internet is full of the most horrific [people] ever recorded. But we understand why, one of the theories is called ‘The Online Disinhibiting Effect’, which is basically if I was to launch into a tirade in a public there would be social consequences and social feedback. If I launch into a tirade online or unacceptable social behaviour online there’s none of that feedback so it’s not damped down and in many ways the lack of feedback means if you get any at all it makes it more extreme.
I think as much as it’s easy to focus on the nasty stuff. Actually 99.999% of people’s experience online is potentially positive and certainly with a little bit of social effort can be insanely positive.
Lots of people feel overwhelmed by social media and feel the need to go on breaks from it. How do you cope with information overload?
It takes a very long time for humans and society to adapt to new technologies. The reaction is either all or nothing. Either full on facebook feed or I can take it no longer and I’ll turn it off. Information overload is nonsense, you don’t walk into a bookshop and suddenly have a stroke. You don’t go into a newsagents and freak out because there’s so much to read. You just have to learn to edit and how to use the mute button.
How do you protect your privacy online?
What do you mean by privacy? Old people are always saying ‘young people of today, they don’t understand privacy because they share so much personal information with facebook and each other in public’. When you look into the research of the youth on facebook what you find is that those kids totally understand privacy. That they have calibrated their disclosures with the different value sets to people in their 50s.
As one of the original ‘Internet settlers’, do you ever feel as though the party crashers are ruining everything?
It used to be a thing in the early ‘90s that every September there’d be a new influx of people into the Internet because it was people going to university. So for all of September news groups there’d be an influx of people who didn’t know the social norms and after about four or five weeks the pre-existing community would sort them out and social norms would return to normal.
And then there was basically a point in the late ‘90s when AOL allowed all of their users onto the Internet properly and that was called ‘The Eternal September’, which was the number of new users will always outnumber the old users and so it becomes much more difficult to enforce social norms.
Certainly people who were online before ‘The Eternal September’ felt (a sense of) ownership or stewardship, very so often you can feel like ‘Will you all just clear up, you’re making the place untidy’. So stewardship and a bit of stroppiness but that’s been replaced entirely by an appreciation of the vastness of the stuff you can look at and the sheer multiplicity of things, which in my view is much better.