Somewhere beneath the rolling pyroclastic hype of the 90’s web and the mobile ‘00s, as most meaningful discussion of people and technology got polished off the face of the planet, something really did change. All that sound and fury, while not particularly articulate or well directed, was, at least, like an adolescent’s hormones, either the source or the signal of something seismic. Experienced Analog Undergrounders know to take that kind of blatant, yet ambiguous marker as an entry point to something deeper.
As best I can tell, all that noise, motion and stink was related to the emergence of the Digital from being a “how” into being a “what.” “Pyroclastic hype, indeed” you might say. O.k. let me try again.
It’s been practically imprinted in the DNA of every corporate IT drone that IT comes second to some mysterious inspiration about businessy things somewhere else in the “business.” That attitude spilled over into development of the Digital in general. Rarely a “what for”, almost always a “how to”. Someone else figures out where we’re going. We just figure out how to get there. Yeah, there’s always been that rogue element wondering back alleys with a solution in search of a problem to club into submission, but you wouldn’t want your kid marrying one of those hypoteers.
Then Glick’s First Law of Software kicked in. To refresh, my first law of software is that users will invent uses for applications that their creators never imagined. Back in the pre-big bang miasma of early networking there were all kinds of proprietary document sharing and discussion management networked applications. Then this guy in Switzerland (how appropriate) proposed a platform neutral way to share and interlink research docs across the emerging internet. Bang. Really big bang. But not immediately. The world wide web was spread pretty thinly over the world’s population for the first several years of its existence, with most of the small constituency well plugged into its original intent. But then the software genie, as it always does with killer apps, got out of the bottle.
Users and Genetic Engineering
Al Gore to the contrary, nobody really invented the internet in all its random, evolving glory. I’m pretty sure there was never a small cabal of businessmen somewhere that woke up one morning and said we’re going to do something that will shift commercial power from the producers where it’s been since the beginning of the industrial revolution to the consumer that previously pretty much had to take whatever was offered at whatever price was stated.
And there were aftershocks to that big webby bang. Mobility was almost as big, maybe bigger, but certainly of significance whatever the measure. There probably wasn’t, at the beginning anyway, a plan that said let’s take that hand held device that carries voice and replace the voice with text and music and apps and embed it so deeply in the young adult experience as to make it a new social currency. Ya’ can’t make that stuff up! It just happens, emerging from the roiling chaos of creativity, striving and greed that is an open market.
Somewhere along the line, all those Digital “how-to’s” added up to a “what-for.” You’d have to be in some kind of pharmaceutically induced denial to suggest that technology hasn’t driven business and society in all kinds of different ways over the last 10 or 15 years. Some of it’s been pretty amazing, some of it pretty amazingly foolish, but the most successful businesses have been as good at reacting to technology as they had been at driving it previously.
Reality Version 329722.1
A new “what.” So what? Well, when “what” wonders over the border from Analog reality, with all its well understood and socially supported constraints, to the wild west of Digital Virtuality, we need to start paying more attention to how that virtuality will influence our new reality.
I don’t want to stumble into the quagmire of whether there are inherent values embedded in this or that technology. It’s enough to know that technology in general and Digital in particular makes some outcomes more likely. How we decided to value those outcomes is another conversation, but the probabilities are, within reasonable margins of errors, easily discernable facts, at least over time. Yeah, one of the glories of being human is the way we confound those probabilities, but… damn just got the boots of reason and logic sucked off my feet.
So back to the, ah, factual probabilities… Let’s take the rich media, multi-tasked environment that digital natives swim in. All those images, video clips, down-loaded individual songs, simultaneous chat sessions, and text messages swirl together into a rich stew of data steaming off all kinds of information, right?
Well, yeah, but no matter how tasty the confection is that all you want to eat?
The More Things Change…
All that virtuality, may, in practice, not be adequate preparation for some mundane hallway conversation with your boss, or some dining room discussion with your spouse. As some of our “whats” cross the Analog/Digital boarder, we have to remember that even now, not all the “hows” came along for the ride. Before the IT tribe starts our drumming, dancing celebration of having finally seized a few “what” flags, we might benefit from recalling our ingrained experience that “how” inevitably follows “what.” What’s more, some of the “hows” of meaningful change, contribution and value like relationship, communication and meaning haven’t exactly been our strong suites nor have we always effectively built them into our digital progeny.
Make no mistake. Seizing the flag of “what” is not the same as creating sustainable value. Value emerges in the interactions between people and groups, organizations and societies. As all that Digital “What” lava begins to cool, as the land firms up and the first green sprouts appear, let’s not forget all we’ve learned in the Analog world about connections and constraints, value and meaning.