30 Years of Technological Transformation
It’s easy to look at the ways we’ve networked organizational life over the last forty years and see only a constant stream of endless changes. In retrospect, however, it’s possible to see three discreet phases to the way information and services have flowed through networks of individuals, technologies and organizations since the late 80s.
First, more affordable server hardware and increasingly powerful processors made it possible to manage most aspects of an organization’s IT on local servers, connected to work stations via cables and modems and to the Internet via a single connection. Individuals began to do their work in email application, databases, spreadsheets, etc–all managed (and likely hosted) within their organization. The tools of trades became digital, from media to accounting. IT departments were born, and CIO’s became a feature of any leadership team.
A few years later, web browsers, web commerce, and the dotcom boom created a mad rush and an optimistic anarchy that made anything seem possible and everything seem a little crazy. Where the digital signal between users and organizations had previously been textual—email or bulletin boards and forums like usenet groups—now entire media ecosystems were thrown into chaos when things like music and video migrated online.
Finally, following the crash of dotcom bubble, when early euphoria met reality, there has emerged what became known as web 2.0, wherein processing power and information storage moved from local networks to the cloud; where licensed information and services flow in unparalleled quantities, at unimaginable velocity, across networked individuals and organizations. Our constant connectivity and ubiquitous devices have transformed the web itself into our computing platform. The transformation requires we rethink everything, from our social networks to our personally identifiable information, and that we face the consequences in unexpected places, like electoral politics. We’ve taken on a new, Cyborg-form, where the experiences, desires, bodies, and collectives that make us human are inextricably linked in webs and networks of information, algorithms, learning and adaptive machines, and media. In this new data universe, it’s never certain where silicon ends and carbon begins; where consciousness and unconsciousness exists in zeroes and ones, as well as in neurons and synapses. What distinguishes this era isn’t simply that we’ve built tools of unprecedented power, but that we’re in the midst of the massive task of adapting ourselves to these new tools. How this happens will determine our future.
The last time humanity enjoyed such a massive leap forward in productivity and possibility—the Industrial Revolution—brought in its wake unprecedented economic and social divisions, characterized by greed, cruelty, and the abuse of institutions to hoard power and wealth. One has to think that humanity found this previous era equally shocking: a disembodied human voice in a telephone or a radio, a machine that moves with speed and power many hundred of times what a human is capable of; or the mass distribution of news and entertainment over strange media all shaped humanity for the century and a half that followed. Humanity didn’t stay the same, either: our psychology, organizational and family life, sexuality and desire, economics and education have all fundamentally changed and shaped who we are. We only emerged into an era of when prosperity could be shared and spread after massive social upheaval, two world wars, and the dawn of a new revolution: the Information Age.