Archives For Technology

Remember tech in 1991?

Jerry —  August 24, 2016 — Leave a comment

Can you scroll your brain back before wifi, smartphones and the App Store? Before the Intertubes, the Web, Google and Google Docs, back to a world of faxes, LANs, pagers, PBXes and early (too early) pen computers?

This talk will help you. In it, in 1991, I went to Lotus Development’s HQ in Cambridge to explain a research service I was just launching called Continuous Information Environments (CIE). Lotus (the makers of 1-2-3, then Lotus Notes) was already a client of our other services including the one I launched a few years prior called Intelligent Document Management (IDM), which was sparked into being by electronic imaging technology but avoided that topic like the plague because scanned documents stored on optical media were so, well… stupid. Oh, the company that hosted all of this research was New Science Associates (hi guys!), an unfriendly spinout from Gartner Group that was later acquired by Gartner.

There are many things to note in this talk aside from my shiny forehead, double-breasted suit and firmly gripped styrofoam coffee. For example, I’m using acetates to present on an overhead projector. Acetates. That blew my mind on watching this talk again. And I don’t mention the Internet until an hour and 24 minutes in, during the Q&A. It was still a locked-away military research network to most of us.

The first three and a half minutes of this talk I’m explaining New Science’s retainer research model, so jump past that if you want to get to the tech. I did get to boast that we were using Lotus Notes to distribute our research. We (New Science) were early with electronic publishing, alongside Patty Seybold’s Seybold Group. (When I joined Esther in 1992 I got to learn to use XyWrite and AMIX, the American Information eXchange, a horribly designed online publishing platform. Two steps backward.)

A few more observations with the benefit of hindsight. At the time:

  • I was a big fan of pen computers, but a pen-less touch interface, the kind that is ubiquitous now, was not in my frame of reference.
  • Most of my examples cited male bosses and colleagues. I learned some gender neutrality later.
  • I laughed at thinking that a small device might have global positioning capabilities, an inexpensive commonplace now.
  • Momenta, my favorite pen-computing startup of the moment, hadn’t blown up on the launch pad yet. (It dosn’t even merit a Wikipedia page; sniff!)
  • At Momenta’s launch event, I sat next to Esther and gave her the CIE white paper. Then we swapped publications. Then (months later) she asked me to join her. I almost said no (thanks for the advice, Dan Miller!).
  • So many company names have vanished into the memory hole!
  • Faxes. Remember faxing?
  • Our focus at New Science was helping corporations use technology wisely, hence so many examples grounded in call centers, insurance claims adjustment, etc. Our clients ran Advanced Technology Groups — back when that was still a thing.
  • I forgot to bring a box of paper copies of our research reports with me. How 1990s!
  • I thought pen computers would be everywhere in five years, so around 1996. The iPhone launched in 2006, with no pen. Sometimes advances take a while to gestate and catch on.

Enjoy some time-travel:

A footnote: When I launched the Intelligent Document Management service for New Science in 1990, I drew this diagram to explain it:

IDM Scope Diagram

Prior to that moment, all the service brochures in our industry (retainer tech market research) were basically bullet points. Gartner, IDC, Forrester, BIS Cap, etc. From that moment forward, they went visual. Everyone needed a conceptual diagram.

And the diagram I use in the talk above is this one, for CIE:

CIE Scope Diagram

Last word: if you squint while looking at both diagrams (and maybe sip some mezcal while doing so), you can see the outlines of the tech world we inhabit today.

From 1992 to 1998, I wrote about the future of technology for Esther Dyson in her monthly newsletter, Release 1.0. We also ran an annual conference, the PC Forum, which back in that day was one of the top two conferences that all startups wanted to debut at.

My favorite panel at PC Forum was this one about online community, titled (I think) Virtual People and Places. Two of the panelists, Bob Kavner and Sherry Turkle, had just been onstage (you can see them in this video). Then three more folks joined us — Adam Curry, Carol Peters and Stewart Brand — and we had at it. In a great way. Like this.

The University of Alabama’s College of Communication & Information Sciences invited me to help them plan for the future of the disciplines they cover, from the news to PR and advertising. The sincerity of their invitation bubbled up through the series of meetings we had while I was there.

At the end of those meetings, I gave a talk, followed by four respondents and questions from the audience. You can play the talk by clicking on the image below; the Prezi I used is here.

I wish Dean Nelson and his colleagues the very best in this process. As you can tell from my talk, they have tricky, shallow waters to negotiate, but there is much to fix and reinvent.

What do you suggest to media schools and practitioners?

How will we deal with abundance?

Jerry —  April 24, 2013 — 1 Comment

Provoked by Tim Wu’s review of the book Abundance, Chris Mitchell of ILSR asked whether abundance might not be too much. Won’t we get bogged down in all the choices we have to make?

I love this question because I think seeing abundance (and acting in ways that generate abundance) is a big piece of the solution to the world’s present woes. As a point example, here’s 8 minutes on how we needlessly create artificial scarcity in education, when in fact there is abundance.

We’re just so accustomed to the institution as it exists today — in this case, education — that we can’t see the abundance, which violates many of our dearly held beliefs.

The problem with sudden abundance that Chris described is the Tyranny of Choice (pdf), which Barry Schwartz has investigated well, and Malcolm Gladwell has popularized by writing and speaking about it in his appealing way (I think it’s in this TED talk). A typical story: When faced with 23 jam samples, people bought fewer than when they saw only three. Our mental fuses pop when there’s too much to consider.

When the Cluetrain cabal announced that Markets Are Conversations, a common complaint was that nobody wants to enter a negotiation or selection decision every time they are thirsty for a soda pop. Yup. No doubt.

The good news is that over time we get used to abundance. We form habits. We learn what we like, we share opinions, we groove behaviors that make us happy. Now and then we change them.

The advent of the Internet is the latest firehose of abundance in our lives (compare to the telegraph, then TV). Despite all the hyperbole already written about the Net, it is an amazing thing. Now we can communicate instantaneously with half the humans on this pale blue dot, at zero marginal cost.

Now everything people write on line is available, as well as their movies, tunes, scribbles and (sigh) breakfast photos (well, Zittrain and Pariser show how companies and governments are trying to stop this wanton open sharing, but I’m hopeful it’ll be around a while).

We’re at such an interesting moment in history. When I run workshops about the great change afoot, I’ll sometimes read out loud the semi-famous paragraph from Borges’ short story The Aleph, in which he describes seeing everything that ever happened, is happening, and will happen, through the Aleph (it’s the paragraph that begins “On the back part of the step”).

The Net is our modern Aleph. It just showed up a few years ago.

We’re overwhelmed now, as we should be. (It’s an Aleph!) Since the dawn of hominins (is that what we’re calling our precursors now?), nobody has been able to do what the Net now lets us do — a pretty good reason to preserve Freedom to Connect, if you ask me. It will take us a while to sort out how to deal with it all. Along the way, many of us will just check out or give up. So it goes.

But we humans do sort things out. We find clever mechanisms to sift through the torrent to find what we want. Today it’s hashtagsWODsplaylists, timelines, concept maps and pinboards. Tomorrow, who knows? We curate, share and recommend. We create better tools. Our perception of the environment evolves over time.

The bigger win, though, is when we let abundance back in to industries and sectors of life that have been denuded by notions like “scarcity equals value,” or by social norms and cultural conventions based on trying to stop bad actors from acting badly, rather than on cooperation, then dealing with the bad actors later.

Think about copyright overprotection. Treating the radio spectrum as if it were real estate along a beachfront. The compulsory education system. At the start of this post I pointed to that 8-min screencast about education. I amplify on it in my TEDx talk, which plays out this idea of designing from trust in education, and teases about more.

That’s all fodder for much more than these couple paragraphs. It’s the foundation of the Relationship Economy.

Early on, when the firehose opens up, the barriers crumble and all the new choices multiply, this process takes patience. But it leads to a better world.

Some time back, I answered the excellent questions posed by the Pew Research Center about the future of smart systems. Enough time had passed that I was pleasantly surprised to read the results, and to see a quote of mine called out. It runs as follows:

Jerry Michalski, president of Sociate and consultant for the Institute for the Future, shared a comprehensive view of flaws he sees, writing, “A few years back, BMW and Mercedes Benz had to turn off some of the onboard electronics on their high-end cars because complexity gremlins were making things break. Those are smart German companies that one assumes have a lot of control over their components and their software. Diabetic Jay Radcliffe recently hacked into his own wirelessly enabled insulin pump, changing his dosage. The Internet of Things and the subsequent world of smart systems, from smart cars and smart highways to smarter cities and smart homes is mostly overblown, and, in fact, poses a significant risk of creating overwhelming complexity, which could take down the Internet we now have. It also opens the door to hacking scenarios we seem to not want to contemplate. Every security technology becomes obsolete. If we connect all these new things and expose them to external control, you can bet some of the forces controlling them won’t be the designers or owners. As these connected devices age, they’ll just become more vulnerable. Imagine also the court cases of people hit by autonomous vehicles, for example. I see our ‘smarter world’ much as I see genetically modified organisms right now: very powerful technologies that could do a lot of good but are being implemented poorly.”

I’m typically an optimist, though not a techno-utopian. Imagining how complex a world full of smart things will be, combined with how unlikely it is that we’ll have a satisfactory field-upgradeable infrastructure (meaning the ability to increase embedded devices’ security in years to come, once they’re installed) makes me extremely skeptical that this ends well for us all.