Nearly 2011 already? Gosh, doesn’t time fly. We can’t stop it coming, but what on Earth will it mean for us when it gets here? Is there light at the end of the tunnel, or is it just a train heading our way? I don’t hold enormous faith in crystal balls under even frivolous circumstances, but I’m game for some stabs in the dark about issues that might vex, engage or amuse over the coming 12 months.

Private vs public
Even before Wikileaks grabbed the headlines< – and hung on them tenaciously – the impact of social media on our lives was an important ‘matter arising’. With HR departments variously scouring Facebook for incriminating evidence not just on employees but people not yet even on their payroll and claiming that HR was the natural locus for ownership of social media within organisations, the 24/7/365 Day of the Digital was upon us. (For a very literal demonstration of how social media has increased its reach and scope, see Paul Burr’s visual map of Facebook links, although ‘Friendships’ may not now embrace all the uses to which Facebook is being put.)

While living their lives in public was once the domain of celebrities, the web and its offspring have extended the privilege of living under scrutiny’s double-edged sword to an ever increasing number of us. 2010 has seen major news stories linking social media with diplomacy, job hunting, campaigning, protesting and the difficulties of others knowing when you’re joking: it’s hard to believe 2011 won’t see more headlines. And not all of them will be on paper or on televisions either.

Always a hard card to play, and it’s difficult to know whether the coalition government should be applauded for bravery or criticised for romanticism. But fairness has been one of the discussion points of 2010, and – the matter being far from settled – it will exercise for a while longer yet. The fall-out from 2008 will continue to float down on us for many years yet, and the consequences remain unpredictable. (I still remember being surprised in November that Belgium had become a PIG.) 2011 will be the year in which the cuts start to be actually felt rather than mostly just talked about. While it’s clear that the public sector will bear much of the brunt, 2011 could also see a number of other demographic groups pointing out that they are being squeezed until the proverbial pips squeak.

The closing days of 2010 have already shown one example: although the impact on the young, on women and on the middle class (“squeezed middle” has surely been one of the phrases of the year) has already been much commented on, a press release by CIPD has highlighted what is happening to the middle-aged:

Unemployment among the under-24s and the over-50s may have been making the headlines, but it turns out that these very groups have snapped up the majority of the 350,000 new jobs created this year. In fact, according to a survey by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, two-thirds of these jobs went to people under 35, and the remainder to the over-50s. Which has pushed unemployment among the 11m UK workers in the 35-49 age bracket up by 2.9% since the beginning of the recession. Are they the new ‘great ignored’?”

Who – or what – decides?
I don’t want to type “we live in interesting times”: it’s too corny. I think Bette Davis was nearer the mark when she said “Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy night” – she just had a poor grasp of the timescale. But I can’t help but think Russell T Davies might have nailed it when he put the following words in a character’s mouth:

The Twenty-First Century is when it all changes. And you’ve gotta be ready.”

Taking the verdict of a fictional bisexual time-traveller makes as much sense as that of a more conventional futurologist: no-one’s crystal balls are entirely clear. There’s even an argument that sci-fi is an appropriate vehicle for social messages: after all, sci-fi authors have a professional interest in thinking about what might be, and what it might be like for us if it turns out that way. And although they might function almost as one-man think tanks, they are – as professional writers – dependent on market forces for their livelihood. I do, however, appreciate that argument falls apart when you recognise that producing something ‘incredible’ – in the sense of being hard or impossible to believe – isn’t a failing with sci-fi. But sci-fi’s mixture of entertainment and crystal ball gazing isn’t unique. The gaming industry isn’t just an economic competitor to Hollywood: as gaming has moved online with almost everything else, gaming techniques are influencing communications, teaching and learning and much more. Super-Mario isn’t delivering annual performance review findings just yet, but don’t be too surprised if …

The growing debate that casts regulation and legislation on one side and market forces or social influencing on the other could well reveal a lot of messy tangles in the grey area between its extremes. Wikileaks again illustrates this, on several levels: should payment processing companies withdraw services to an organisation that’s been charged with no offence because it’s hit headlines and one of its employees faces a possible charge for offences completely unrelated to its work? How should we feel when nation states consider drafting legislation specifically to enable them to prosecute someone who’s made them angry, embarrassed and very uncomfortable – and who they might not otherwise be able to prosecute? How should we feel when markets allow important sectors (banking, obviously, and depending which country you’re in possibly construction too) to act in ways that have ultimately catastrophic consequences for whole societies as well as whole industries?

It’s all at a rather different level to who decides what Gap’s logo looks like, or if a retailer can act as if our breasts are too big too deal with. But we look like we’re going to be stuck between a radical and reforming coalition government, turbulent markets and some dramatic social changes (demographics and technology being just two big issues) for some time yet. It won’t just be a question of who has the answers, but who we allow to implement them. (If life turns pear-shaped in the coming years, I’d put a fiver on accountability becoming much more of an issue too – although the US legal action against BP and other firms over the Deepwater disaster that was announced this morning might be an early taster.)

The end of civilisation as we know it
No, not a doom laden statement. I was thinking more along the lines of ‘the start of civilisation as we are going to have to get to understand it’: apart from delivery lorries, little is likely to stand still for long. Even protests happen on the hoof nowadays (and I wish I’d bookmarked a YouTube clip the other day from one of the earlier – peaceful – student protests where someone had overlain footage of lithe youthful students being chased gamely but rather breathlessly by policemen with the Benny Hill chase scene music: a little humour can be very restorative).

One of the news topics of the last couple of days has been whether or not the Chancellor has a ‘Plan B’. As Stephanie Flanders points out in her BBC blog, the government – whose Plan A is rooted in a political philosophy and a particular economic position – are keen to position any potential variation as “plan A, subclause (b)”.

I’m not so sure the naming is that important: whether you publicly brand a change of strategy as some whole new thing or not is matter of marketing – whether admitting/announcing it makes sense depends on your market and your audience’s perception of what has gone before. (If you’ve been making a string of howlers, admitting you’re changing course is probably healthy. If admitting a mistake would make things worse, proceed with caution, but recognise others might be waiting to bring this to the world’s attention.)

What’s more important is a willingness to change plan, shift strategy, remain observant both internally and externally and modify a plan where the one you have isn’t working any more. Old certainties might be comforting in new circumstances, but don’t expect them to fit as well as they used to.

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