Posted on November 30th, 2010 in Life, Politics and Law, Technology | 1 Comment »
We’ve reached the time of year when people start reflecting on the recent past. The latest issue of Time Magazine looks at the past decade. Pogue’s latest piece reflects on his 10 years at the NY Times. I love this sort of introspection, and I’m looking forward to seeing more over the next two months. Still, when we read things like this, we would do well to consider that we’re still very near the beginning of the computer revolution.
What does it mean to still be at the beginning? No one completely knows what this means because we can’t predict the future. Pogue’s piece does a nice job of pointing out some trends that are likely to continue in the future, but I think the best description of the future that I’ve seen lies in a RailsConf talk by Gary Vaynerchuk:
I can’t summarize Vaynerchuk’s talk because it’s about half Q&A and half completely rambled together. He starts out by giving some of his background, which is quite interesting, and he ends up talking extensively about the future of technology and business. He’s extremely energetic, genuinely humorous, and despite the talk being held at a technical conference, there’s no technobabble because Vaynerchuk isn’t a technologist. I suppose I should also warn you that there’s some language in here that the FCC would not approve for TV. Luckily, YouTube doesn’t care, or about half of this talk would be bleeped out.
I do want to talk about two things Vaynerchuck gets dead right in his talk. First, he’s optimistic about the future of technology. If you’re not familiar with the concept of an Internet optimist or an Internet pessimist, here are a couple paragraphs from Adam Thierer introducing the concepts:
The cycle goes something like this. A new technology appears. Those who fear the sweeping changes brought about by this technology see a sky that is about to fall. These “techno-pessimists” predict the death of the old order (which, ironically, is often a previous generation’s hotly-debated technology that others wanted slowed or stopped). Embracing this new technology, they fear, will result in the overthrow of traditions, beliefs, values, institutions, business models, and much else they hold sacred.
The pollyannas, by contrast, look out at the unfolding landscape and see mostly rainbows in the air. Theirs is a rose-colored world in which the technological revolution du jour is seen as improving the general lot of mankind and bringing about a better order. If something has to give, then the old ways be damned! For such “techno-optimists,” progress means some norms and institutions must adapt—perhaps even disappear—for society to continue its march forward.
Clearly, there are negative sides to both of these positions. Thierer promotes a pragmatic optimism for Internet technologies, which is a sort of middle ground that generally sides with the optimistic view, but doesn’t buy into the fringe arguments on both sides. Vaynerchuk sides with the optimists in his talk, and the optimistic view makes the most sense to me, particularly in light of the past decade or so. How much has new technology changed your life in the last ten years? And how much of that change was for the better? If your answer is “most,” then you too are on the path to Internet optimism.
The second thing that Vaynerchuk nails in his talk is the recognition that the skills of a small town three generations ago are more likely to succeed in the future being brought about by new technologies. As he puts it, the skillset of our great grandparents’ generation may actually be more important to success than the skillset of our parents’ generation. The organizations that succeed will be the ones that clearly and genuinely care about the people with whom they are working. This is already happening in business (as Vaynerchuk indicates), but it will happen in every area of our lives.
One important reason the skills to succeeding are changing is, as Vaynerchuk repeats throughout his talk, that “the truth is undefeated.” The truth will only become more important in the future of technology. Technologies are making it impossible to cover up how you really feel. For businesses, this means (in part) that slick advertising alone won’t work; they actually have to develop a product worth buying. For governments, the future looks more like honest transparency than WikiLeaks, but there’s still a lot to do before we get to the sort of future possible even if we were limited to existing technology. For individuals, the picture is even more complicated. Technology is impacting some fundamental social constructs, like privacy and identity. Maybe Wheaton’s Law has been right all these years: “Don’t be a dick” because the truth will eventually become widespread.
As much as I enjoy reflecting on the past, Vaynerchuk’s thoughts on the future are excellent YouTube viewing. The future is going to be awesome in ways that we can’t really envision right now. We’re still at the beginning.