The past two decades saw digital as if it was something separate and distinct from humans. It’s part of the reason we point at social media and iPhone apps and call them "digital" while sorting TV and outdoor posters into the analogue bucket.
The truth is, of course, that all media has now become a blend of digital and analogue. But more than that, our whole environment has become "mediated" by the internet and so there is no longer any digital divide.
All of this is about to become a lot more obvious once advertisers, publishers and retailers shift from using purely behavioural data towards using biometric data. It’s already happening, made mainstream by the iPhone X and its abilities in facial recognition.
Over in China biometrics are booming. You can already "smile to pay" at the counter of KFC in Hangzhou. At Alibaba, office workers don’t need a swipe card or a password because facial recognition affords them access. And at the Hen na Hotel in Tokyo, it’s not only an automated check-in but a keyless stay because facial recognition is the method of access for your stay in a hotel that is fully staffed by robots not humans.
We are at the start of an exciting new era in which biology is the next technology.
However, brands and agencies are slow to catch on. And it is hard to see how IT and biology can blend to become a communications solution and how that could be executed in a creative yet commercial way.
But the clues were all around as recently as last year. In 2017, the Wyss Institute for Biology Inspired Engineering together with the Harvard Medical School managed to encode a digital movie into the genomes of living bacteria. A wonderful demonstration of the original gif alongside the replication in the bacteria shows just how close to perfect the replication of the image of a cantering horse was. It signalled a future in which computers will use DNA to store data, and make calculations, and in which cells can record the changes they undergo and share that information with us to use and understand.
The year before, the band OK GO recorded their new album on DNA. As the lead singer says in the wonderful BBC documentary that filmed their experiment: "I recorded music in college fifteen to twenty years ago, that I can’t play anymore. I can’t find the right DAT machine which looked like it was the future then, but now I can’t even find one to play these tapes on." Damian Kulash goes on to explain that the way to think about the future of data storage is to think of our bodies as the hardware and DNA as the software, and given that music and entertainment is just data then there is no reason to think those 1’s and 0’s shouldn’t be on DNA. It begs the question, who will be the first to store their ad on DNA?
There is so much more to come: with facial recognition, voice assistance and emotional analytics emerging and merging, we are just at the start of a new communications technology paradigm
Last week, Massive Attack continued the experiment as they marked the 20th anniversary of Mezzanine by storing the album in DNA molecules. It might be an expensive process but the value is clear: this masterpiece will be archived for hundreds, perhaps thousands of years, and available to be copied for ever more. As Andrew Melchior, the chief technology officer of Massive Attack, said to me, "it’s how to avoid nostalgia". And for anyone who has seen Blade Runner 2049, future searches of data stored on DNA could be the difference between knowing what is real and what is not.
This era has been a long time coming and I would argue started with the iPhone. Steve Jobs was a follower of Stewart Brand and an avid reader of his early 70’s "Whole Earth Catalogue" so much so that Jobs once described it as "Google in paperback".
It was the philosophy of whole-system thinking that treated the world, the whole world, as a tool kit to help us do things better - not obsessed by engineering and IT alone, but by ecology, communications, and the natural world too - the world made of flesh and bones and cells as well as the world made of silicon. It is no wonder then that the iPhone was the most intuitive, friendly and human of all the technologies of the last 40 years, often referred to as an extension of the human form. It pioneered "software" and in so doing was perhaps the best example of information biology so far. But there is so much more to come: with facial recognition, voice assistance and emotional analytics emerging and merging, we are just at the start of a new communications technology paradigm.
Kevin Kelly said many years ago that "there’s more information in biology for us to extract than there is in physics…there’s more data in the natural world than there is anywhere else". And it will be the brands who realise this first and start to treat communications as biological as much as something physical or digital that will win the battle for the most personal interface of all: you.
Tracey Follows is the founder of Futuremade
picture credit: Massive Attack - Mezzanine (Gatefold Cardboard Sleeve Edition) property of Circa Records Ltd