All sorts of startling innovations have failed to take off; any number of incredible inventions have not changed the world. But two things have a bigger chance than most of causing that kind of change: cheapness and abundance. They are potent in themselves but, of course, they're often connected - cheapness causes abundance, which causes more cheapness. And you know what's getting really cheap and really abundant these days? Screens.
Screens have gone from being a precious thing locked in a heavy wooden cabinet in your living room to being something you give away - literally. A German company launched video greeting cards a couple of weeks ago. They cost about EUR30. You can send them to your friends. Think about that. Something you can stick in a regular(ish) envelope, which contains a screen, a microphone, a USB connection and a video camera. It's reusable and rechargeable. You've probably paid hundreds of pounds, if not thousands, for something similar.
And now it's in a birthday card. That's the kind of cheapness that changes things. I'm not sure I see it turning into abundance via EUR30 birthday cards, but it might happen. Maybe these cards will get adopted via artists or taggers or some other subculture and they'll invent something interesting you can do with them. And maybe it won't be at EUR30; maybe it'll be when they get to EUR5. Because, as William Gibson says, the street finds its own uses for things. Most media forms don't succeed at what they were supposed to be for, but they tend to find a niche.
Similarly, I suspect the street will soon be finding a use for all those spanking new screens around our cities. Have you noticed, for instance, all those screens appearing in newsagent windows, mostly advertising themselves? They seem like screens in search of a problem, an opportunity that someone saw because screens are getting cheap. And more advertising must equal more opportunity, right? There are fancy new ones on waste bins in the City too, aiming at bankers with headlines and financial information, assuming a screen plus a target audience equals opportunity.
Maybe it'll work out, maybe people want more screens with more news on, but I suspect it won't. And then the fascinating stuff will happen. Some sort of media fire sale will eventually put these screens in the hands of people with imagination and verve, people with something to say. Look, for instance, at bus-tops.com - an art project using screens on top of bus stops to give artists and regular people a digital presence on the street. It's early days, but I suspect their openness will yield more interesting content than another network of more news.