Sunday, January 31, 2010

Coming Soon: Disruptive Technology

Heather Havrilesky wrote a piece on Salon yesterday entitled, "Digital Nation": What Has the Internet Done to Us? Her article anticipates the broadcast coming on Tuesday night of the PBS Frontline episode of the same name.  You can watch the trailer for the Frontline episode here.  If you miss the broadcast, you can watch the program later as a streaming video on the Frontline website.

Havrilesky, who has spent the last 15 years in the world of web companies and journalism,  writes of her growing sense that we have created a monster, a world in which all we have are web and media distractions.  We can't seem to disconnect, even if we want to. 

One of the Frontline producers of this week's program is Douglas Rushkoff who has been an internet guru and champion of the digital age.  Havilresky quotes Rushkoff as saying,

I've always prided myself on offering soothing answers to people's anxieties about this stuff," Rushkoff continues later. "I felt like I was in on a secret, that these old fuddy-duddies were panicking unnecessarily, underestimating our kids' ability to adapt to the new reality unfolding before us...Combating distraction, it's not as easy as just turning off your e-mail program. You turn off your e-mail program, it's not your e-mail program that complains, it's your friends, it's your boss, it's your bills. You know, 'Where's that report?' 'Why haven't you answered your e-mail?' 'Are you mad at me?' You can't do this in isolation. If you're going to deal with the problem of distraction it's something that we're all going to have to deal with together.

I think we can all relate at some level to an ambivalence about the Wired World.  Personally, I cannot imagine living without access to Google or e-mail.  I love being able to read everything from the news to blogs.  YouTube and a host of other web video services brings the world to our laptops or desktops.  We are fifteen years into our new, digitally-connected world and we are not quite sure where it is taking us.

If it is any comfort, people have been here many times before.  Every new disruptive technology brings out our greatest hopes and our greatest fears.  Shortly after Gutenberg invented moveable type, the authorities (both the church and the monarchies) tried to ban some printed books as they  quickly realized that a reading populace might just start asking questions.  (I wrote about this in a post a couple of years ago on William Caxton.  You can read it here.) The authorities wanted to have this new printing technology deployed in ways that served their needs - but they also wanted to maintain control.  Of course it didn't happen that way.  The borders between countries were too porous.  Trade and travel brought books back home.  Once unleashed, printing changed everything.  I think we could agree now that printing was a good thing.  It certainly has caused problems along the way but who (but tyrants) would want to live in a world without printing?

People were equally concerned about the first railroads.  They changed the way people saw their world.  Speed annihilated distance.  Wolfgang Schivelbusch, in his book The Railway Journey, writes of one early observer:

Heinrich Heine [a German journalist] noted this [the disorientation of space-time consciousness] in 1843 when he wrote of the 'tremendous foreboding such as we always feel when there comes an enormous, an unheard-of event whose consequences are imponderable, and incalculable', and called the railroad a 'providential event', comparable to the inventions of gunpowder and printing, 'which swing mankind in new directions, and changes the color and shape of life.'

Railroad journeys changed everything.  Schivelbusch, later in his book, quotes Francis J. Lieber's writing in 1834: 

From Albany to Schenectady, you travel by rail-road; and the least exciting of all traveling, it seems to me, is decidely locomotion by steam on a rail-road.  The traveler, whose train of ideas is always influenced by the manner in which he proceeds, thinks in a steam car of nothing but the place of his destination, for the very reason that he is moving so quickly.  Pent up in a narrow space, rolling along on an even plain which seldom offers any objects of curiosity, and which, when it does you pass by with such rapidity, that your attention is never fixed; together with a number of people who have all the same object in view, and think like you of nothing else, but when they shall arrive at the journey's end -- and situated, you find nothing to entertain and divert you, except now and then a spark flying into the window of the car...There is no common conversation, no rondolaugh [sic], nothing but a dead calm, interrupted from time to time, only by some passenger pulling out his watch and uttering a sound of impatience... (Italics in original.) 

I read in this passage the deep impact on people's lives of the experience of a new and disruptive technology.   Would we be better off without railroads?  Highways?  Automobiles?  Yes, I can imagine times when I might want to throw these out in favor of a quieter, simpler life but I think most of us wouldn't want to go back to the world of the 1830's or even the 1930's.

Technologies can fundamentally change our world and fundamental technologies can change it profoundly.  We cannot even fathom where the Wired World is leading any more than the speedy early railroad traveler could envision the connected world of air travel and interstate highways that we now take for granted.  No one frets that we will lose our marbles from going too fast.  It is doubtful that we have been ruined by the railroad, the automobile, or the jet plane.  

We are on a very fast ride into the future driven by the next generation of technology.  As humans, we develop new ways of adapting to disruptive technologies.  But it can feel really scary at times. Keep your seatbelts buckled in the event of unexpected turbulence.

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