In the early 2000s, I had a brief and enjoyable run-in with the world of trend-spotting and technology futurism. I guess this was the transition point between a period when the geeks were still experimenting with new forms of digital sociability and the corporations had worked out what they wanted from 'new' media. As something of an outsider to this fast-talking world of predictions and Silicon Valley anecdata, I would be transfixed by seminar presentations and talking shops, in which it was never entirely clear who precisely knew what, or on what basis they knew it. Nor was it entirely clear where money fitted in to the scene. Of course, nobody was in it for the money; but they still wanted to continue the conversation back at their central London loft, or over an expensive breakfast the next day. The borderland between innovation and capital needs its cultural and economic sustenance.
When technology futurists and trendspotters got together, with a smattering of geeks, business consultants and maybe the odd tame BT engineer, there could be a lengthy mexican stand-off, as everyone waited to see who was willing to share some dazzling insight first. Murmers about a recent visit to 'the Valley' would be the New Economy equivalent of loosening a top button or showing a little flicker of leg. But who was to know if anyone else had any real futurological beans to spill?
Then, out of nowhere, it would happen. Waiting for a pause in the conversation, one well-shirted man in trendy glasses would sit back in his chair and throw down one of his aces: "what's so different in Tokyo now [this being a time when references to Japanese IT usage could still be enough to make the entire Nasdaq stand to attention] is that teenagers aren't holding their phones to their ears any longer, but typing on them in front of their eyes"...
An epistemological bell had been rung. A glimmer of a smile would appear around the lips of the geeks, while the trend-spotters would scribble furiously in their moleskins, nodding urgently. Others glanced at each other, with an I-know-that-you-know-that-we-both-know furtiveness, as if someone had just broken sweet consultancy wind. It was a form of magic.
Where had this pearl come from? How was it so perfectly formed? If I'd been a little less trusting or concerned with intellectual norms of accreditation and citation, I probably could have worked it out. This brilliantly concise nugget of wisdom had been thrown into the pool, not only for everyone's consumption, but to be recycled for future use. It was a contribution to the chat commons. But, by the same logic, it had also been extracted from the chat commons on a previous occasion.
(A few months later, I showed a draft version of a report I'd written to an external associate. The report contained a concise insight into online social networks that I had discovered from - and accredited to - an American sociologist, Paul Resnick. The associate in question commended this insight in particular, offering as proof of its credibility that he had successfully sold some consultancy to Orange on the back of it. I wasn't sure whether to be flattered, to pass on this flattery to Prof Resnick or to suggest to Prof Resnick that he invoice Orange directly.)
I'm frequently reminded of this game of futurology poker, thanks to twitter. I am basically a 'lurker' in the twittersphere, following friends and peers, but hiding behind an impersonal institutional twitter account. I follow the general hubub, while contributing very little. It's like being on the bank of the Thames, watching a flotilla go by, or a viewer of BBC2s Review Show as Paul Morley drones on about why nobody else understands the 1980s as much as him. No offence; except to Paul Morley, obviously. I enjoy most of it tremendously.
What really transports me back to those croissanted mornings of technological chatmanship is one particularly odd genre of tweet: the real-time quotation of a conference speaker. Most twitter-users will know the score. Someone is at a conference, and broadcasting each nugget of wisdom as it lands from the podium. "Austerity isn't the problem without a solution, it's the problem of a failed solution #economyconference". "Facebook is to entrepreneurs what petrol stations are to pedestrians #technologyconference". "Evolution has solved the problem of death by replacing it with a problem of life #dawkins". "Steve Jobs wasn't a CEO, he was an OEC #China". What the hell are you all on about???
Is the conference speaker communicating exclusively in arguments of 140 characters or less? Or are the audience stripping out everything of any depth or weight from what they're saying? Is the tweeter performing some sort of public service function? Who, exactly, is intended to benefit from having these contextless aphorisms floating around our networks and heads? Maybe the idea is that, when I'm next on a conference platform and searching for something tweetable to say, I can plunder the past by plucking "the tree is nature's equivalent of a bicycle #TED2012" from the tweet phrasebook.
I recently read Philip Mirowski's intimidating More Heat Than Light, about the origins of neo-classical economics' theory of value. One interesting passage from the book concerns the 'free trade mercantilists' (Nicholas Barbon, John Houghton, Dudley North and William Petty). This bunch of pamphleteers criticised the mercantilist argument, that the wealth of a nation could be measured in gold, and that the purpose of the state should therefore be to engage in zero-sum acts of hoarding. As Mirowski argues, Petty in particular came extremely close to inventing classical economics, by arguing that markets have some autonomous function and that wealth exists independently of any monetary measure of it. However, he did not make the final leap (made by Adam Smith) of formally identifying labour as the standard measure of value.
Similarly, Eve Chiapello has shown how accounting provided many of the categories and tools that later made up classical economics, including categories of capital and profit. The point, as pragmatist sociologists stress, is that codified social science is a late-comer, which arrives only after human practices have evolved to the point where they can be formalised and rendered objective. The problems and perspectives that underpin classical economics long pre-dated Smiths Wealth of Nations. In that sense, a formalised social science became both possible and (arguably) necessary, because there was already sufficient common understanding of a certain view of economic life. A social science that simply descended on us from outer space would be both useless and meaningless, no matter how brilliant or truthful. If lions could speak, we should not be able to understand them, and all that.
I suspect that the same is true of twitter. People already communicated in 140 characters or less, before its invention. Knowledge already had to be produced in a style that enabled ease of circulation and re-use. The tweet has a pre-history. No doubt twitter's founders were attending similar meetings and seminars in the early 2000s, noting the virtue of concision and aesthetics of seeming well-informed. The norms pre-dated the technology, but were heavily localised in a world of futurism and seminars, that few were privy to. Twitter therefore extended its founders already-existing social norms, in the same way that the internet has done more broadly, for the once-localised norms of geeks and hackers.
If, for the sake of a thought experiment, we imagine twitter being introduced into Victorian society or even into 1970s society, I wonder if it could possibly have provided a platform for anything meaningful. Of course, the codification and automation of a social norm entrenches and transforms it in various ways, just as the invention of classical economics unleashed entirely new ways of talking about, governing and acting on economic processes. An uninteded cost - and, in the case of the windbags out there, benefit - of twitter may, in time, be that conference speakers increasingly strive to offer their insights as concise nuggets of wisdom, which can be dispersed by the audience into the ether. It may also be that these spread like memes, losing any sense of authorship as they travel. The pre-twitter tweets that were once scattered across breakfast seminars, as a hint of brilliant consultancy to come, now have an abundance that makes them difficult to escape.