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Success in the Twenty First Century - Mark Charmer

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This is an entry in The Future We Deserve - a collaborative book project about the future. See all the entries or talk about this entry.



The opportunities to access, absorb and distribute content are so prolific today. The implications of this change are so profound that it will take us decades to adjust.

Probably the biggest implication is for how we perceive, or define, success. In 2010 we have an intriguing situation where the majority of young people, and many, many older ones, now actively manage their "PR" each day. The main route is through new social tools such as Facebook and Twitter, and more personalised publishing in the form of blogs, MySpace pages, personal websites.

What this does is give each individual a little taste of the adrenalin that comes from fame.

Throughout the 20th century, we were all exposed to fame, almost always as something that happened to others: famous actors - "movie stars" - musicians, artists, writers, politicians and occasionally lesser heroes (normally elevated to fame by having "their story" "told" through a film or newspaper article). The other route to fame was through notoriety – usually criminal notoriety. Myra Hindley remains ones of the most famous people to have lived in Britain in the 20th century.

The mechanisms by which this elevation to fame would occur were controlled by just a few industries – the newspaper, magazine and book publishing industry had the power to promote what it believed in, or what it believed would sell.

We've therefore all grown up assuming that the gateway to a higher level of achievement is through being written about in - or even writing for - the newspapers.

Music has been packaged for us for half a century into styles that we would associate with peer groups, or use to dissociate from other groups. It has been used to frame ideas, movements, even to articulate the personality of places - New York, Los Angeles, London, Paris.

It's now possible for anyone - absolutely anyone - to record and publish their own songs. Or write and publish their own articles, poems, even books. Or take photographs and publish those, often instantaneously.

This clashes with almost every established assumption about "the way the world works". Those who run the established global content publishing and distribution systems have absolutely no idea what to do - in June, music giant EMI, the Beatles' original record label, has chosen to retrench and become a rights management business, selling (read "milking") content back catalogues.

In front of use - poised - is a world full of people who aspire to somehow feel famous, who will find that each tingle of exposure via Facebook or Twitter will build their hunger for more.

The reality of the content publishing industry is that it has no interest in serving the needs of this mass market. At best (or perhaps at its most cynical) it seeks to "crowdsource" from this huge talent pool and create manufactured stairways where "the lucky, talented few" can be successful. Simon Cowell's extraordinary celebrity media economy built around shows like X-Factor is an obvious example. Dragon's Den is another.

What happens to everyone else doesn't seem to matter to this industry. They believe this "mass market" will remain passive, being adjusted, manipulated and satisfied by a small chosen few - the truly famous - that we will all be satisfied to watch and follow.

This isn't going to work. When millions – if not billions – are suddenly given the tools to self-publish, we have no terms of reference to predict what will happen next.

Some argue that life will go on pretty much as before, but with lower music sales, which "hurts" the industry's ability to foster new talent, further depressing the impact that music has on our own culture, our lives.

I think the future will be driven by more localist, but interconnected groups of people. I think many will grow to feel let down by the big publishers, because said publishers can't contemplate – can't cope with – helping them all become famous.

In a society where many want their piece of fame, there is only one logical path forward – local heroes.

The situation doesn't just apply in artistic publishing – it applies to business and government.

Those who believe they can contribute will find that the institutions they wish to contribute to cannot handle them – they have neither the capacity or cultural urge to provide these people with a sense of contribution, of fame. The breadth of situations where this will occur is mindblowing – from the product design student who thinks he can help Ford create better cars, to the individual who believes it simply must be possible for their city administrators to provide a lift in the local railway station.

Such frustration will increase dramatically in the next few years and become something so difficult for the established institutions to handle that many will crumble under the pressure.

In many cases the frustration amongst the mass would-be heroes will turn to anger. They will at first collaborate, then be tempted to compete and then return more assertively to collaborate. By which time the institutions will have no choice – no alternative ideas – but to let them in.

Rather like punk sought to challenge the lazy, tired '60s hangover that was the 1970s, this new mass market will almost anarchically unravel the existing institutions.

A big contributing factor will be that those who are out of work – especially those who are talented and out of work – will no longer be isolated and disenfranchised from organising and producing and distributing content. The out of work have access to all the new publishing tools, and potentially more time available, to harness them.

Is this David Cameron's "Big Society"? Perhaps it is. There are two ironies here – first that the character of this society is likely to be quite different to what Cameron's think tanks have implied. It will leave public administrators – central and local government, health, education and transport bodies – shell-shocked and impotent. This will contrast with the congenial Womens' Institute, cake-baking character that the coalition government is expecting. The second trait is that it will be much more social – much more socialist – that the think tanks expect, reflecting the tendency of the open internet to reward more liberal initiatives.

My advice? Be a part of the change you want to see.