Life in the Digital Diaspora

Let us set aside, for the moment, the comforting belief that current technologies and “new” business models are dramatically different than they were in 1995 when the Internet revolutionized our access to (and capacity to disseminate) information.

Instead, for the moment, consider a broader history within which these innovations exist:  marked by a true conclusion of the Industrial Age (itself heralded by the electrification of industry, fueled by steam and internal combustion engines and enabling mass production of things that could be bought and sold) and the beginning of the Information Age, when “knowledge workers” became the primary source of value production.  In this context, the past twenty years should only be viewed as the first phase of the Information Age – one that continues to unfold, transform, and facilitate every part of our daily lives – and let us assume, as a consequence, that this Age (like its industrial predecessor) will remain for the next 100 years.

From this vantage-point, we might understand that this isn’t the end of a 20-year cycle of innovation but rather the very early stages of a much longer and more dramatic shift – economically, socially, historically.  From this vantage-point, we realize that our current fascinations (the best Cloud, the newest Messaging Service, the soon-to-be-released device that combines everything we might ever want in every color and shape) are not end-points but merely the next in a series of tool-and-service waves that alter, professionally and personally, the means to enhance our lives and entertain ourselves.

What changes are visible on the near horizon?

Twenty years from now, we will not need to carry those “everything” devices – we will wear them and drive them.  Twenty years from now, what will be valuable will be the data we own (who we are and what we do and where it was done) and the data we aggregate for others.  (Note: Whomever invents the method for establishing the actual value of our personal information and presents a mechanism for monetizing that value will lay true claim to the next Big Thing.)

We’ll no longer need to send our teen-aged sons and daughters to the grocery store when we need more milk and eggs.  Our refrigerators and pantries will monitor our household supplies, relay needs to central distributors who store, provision, and deliver the “stuff” of our lives in the manner that utilities (natural gas and electricity) is provided today.  And we’ll no longer need to send our college-bound children across the country at great expense for graduate educations, because Princeton will be in the cloud.  Dartmouth, the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa?  In the cloud – No need to physically go to where knowledge is resides, because knowledge will be usefully distributed (selected, paid for, updated, improved upon) and consumed as popular music is now i-delivered.

My grandfather made the desk that I now use to support the television/game-station/routers needed in this generation.  He made things and sold them.  My father changed the family business to focus upon the sale of things made by others.  What do I make?  Essays like this one, composed only of words, responding to the words of others, adding my teacup of water into the relentless and burgeoning information stream.

What will my son make? Surely his contribution will be as different from mine as mine was from my father, and his father – because our “work product” changes as the world changes.  And his son will wonder what he does for a living, just as my son wonders about me, just as those who were born at the end of the Industrial Age could not imagine automobiles that talk or television with more than three channels.

As the Information Age continues, should we construct more office buildings?

That’s the old way of doing things.  Like the huge factories of the previous age that now sit, empty, in blighted neighborhoods no longer filled with bustling communities, the way we work will surely be transformed in much the same manner.   If I had been asked to provide advice (they didn’t ask) I would have discouraged Apple’s executives from the immense expenditure for their new (“spaceship-style”) headquarters, because it is the Old Way of Doing Things.  If I had been asked (they didn’t ask) I would have applauded Adobe’s decision to transform itself from selling “stuff” (delivered via CD or downloaded onto last year’s device) to leasing a constant flow of tools that function “in the ether”  – because that is what corporations will provide when my son becomes a primary wage earner and needs the next productivity innovation allowing him to gather-improve-disseminate his specialized contribution, whatever it may be.

Of course, there are constants.  Some things will remain the same.

We will always need shelter.  We will continue to rely upon networks and communities and the occasional helping hand of a neighbor.  We will still value fine things, the excellence of heroes and artists, and the efficient gathering of goods that nourish our activities.  We will still depend upon the selfless protection of those who battle fires, and diseases, and the unfortunate things humans sometimes do to other humans.  These constants will be interwoven with unimaginable technologies to fill such needs, and equally unimaginable ways to circumvent them, deplete what is scarce, and hoard what should be shared.

We’re not finished, now that the Cloud has been adopted and mobile devices are ubiquitous.  These are only pre-cursors to what comes next, and what comes after that.

This is an Age, not a trend, and it is just now unfolding.

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