I n puzzling out the shape of the future, it’s not the
stories themselves that matter so much as the
pattern. Once you’ve recognized that, the stories
jump out at you.
Take this morning’s New York Times. A story on
the increasing competition among the paparazzi for
celebrity photographs describes the quality of the
information at one leading celebrity photo agency:
“He opens a drawer, pulls out a few stacks of
paper. Here, he says, are this week’s scheduled
movements of every famous passenger of a major “The future is here. It’s just not evenly
limousine company in Los Angeles… Here, too, are … distributed yet.” — William Gibson
passenger manifests of every coast-to-coast flight on
American Airlines, the biggest carrier at Los Angeles for democracy, leveling the playing field and giving
International Airport. ‘I get the full printout,’ he says. equal access to all.
‘If they fly any coastal flight, I know. I can also find What’s interesting is that even when you can see
anybody in the world within 24 hours. I guarantee it.’ the direction the trends are taking us, there are many
He says he has law enforcement officers on his variations in the possible shape of the seemingly
payroll, too, and can have a license plate checked in inevitable future. Police state, maybe. Intrusive
an hour on weekdays, 20 minutes on weekends.” commercialization, almost certainly. But you can
There’s money in tracking celebrities, and the tracks also frame this pattern as the global small town.
they leave are bigger than those left by you or me, but They say that in a small town, there’s no privacy.
don’t be fooled: information about where you are and The blogosphere is today’s town newspaper and
what you do is also available, increasingly in real time. town gossip rolled into one, and digital cameras,
Porous access to huge electronic databases contain- cellphones, and SMS from the front lines make sure
ing the tracks we all leave in cyberspace — credit card that breaking news gets picked up quickly. Just when
purchases, travel arrangements, what we read, and pundits were bemoaning the centralization of radio
who we talk to — ensures that those who have the and television by giant companies like Clear Channel,
time for a deeper look can find plenty of information. podcasting and vlogging have flung open the doors
Here’s where the makers among us come in: rather of competition once again.
than just bemoaning the loss of privacy, the fact that And that’s another pattern: this alternation of
big businesses use this data to drive marketing into centralization and decentralization can be seen
every aspect of our private lives, or the warning that again and again. A new technology springs up from
the police state is coming, makers figure out how to the edges, breaking the stranglehold of entrenched
ride the trend and turn it in a positive direction. players and lowering the barriers to innovation.
So, for example, during last year’s presidential Entrepreneurs capitalize on the new technology;
election, maker Michael Frumin of New York eventually, the winners of the economic competi-technology/arts group Eyebeam built an amazing tion consolidate their power and shut out newcom-site called fundrace.org, which mined the public ers. But then (paraphrasing poet Wallace Stevens),
databases of the Federal Election Commission and “the story begins again, in the yes of the maker,
built visualization tools to show the patterns of spoken because he must say yes, because beneath
contribution for each candidate, right down to the every no lay a yes that had never been broken.”
local level. Before Fundrace, this data was theoreti- You can get URLs for the referenced stories (and
cally available to the public, but because access was others) at
difficult, it was largely the province of political
organizations, lobbyists, and other industry insiders. Tim O’Reilly (
tim.oreilly.com) is founder and CEO of O’Reilly
Frumin and his colleagues at Eyebeam struck a blow Media, Inc. See what’s on the O’Reilly Radar at