Friday, 22 March 2013

Are we the product of our own technologies?

Every 3-5 years there is a change in how people use technology and new services. It is driven by both social change and the accessibility of new devices and new services. We saw this when the iPhone first appeared and of course Facebook has driven tremendous change. These things can only drive change if they fulfil a human need, even if that need is not articulated and is latent.

We all (well most of us) communicate far more than we have ever done in the past and more than that we can now easily communicate internationally and in a way which is more open (visible to others). The big question is what is behind this 'wave' of change?

What are these latent needs that we are perhaps only semi-aware of?

There is, and has been for most of our history, a constant interaction between people and technology. But what is going on is much more than just interaction, there is an almost osmotic process taking place at the intersection where people and technology needs are being exchanged and an evolution of both is taking place. Technology is adapting to meet our requirements and we are changing how we live our lives in ways which embrace what these new technologies can offer us.

In principle this is nothing new, we have been adapting and adopting technology since the stone age. Who knew to chip a flint with a stone to make a tool, almost certainly the first flint tool was created accidentally but once it was seen as useful, technologists developed it, more used it and it was developed further until it was widely adopted and reached a point where it was very sophisticated. However what we are seeing today does not take lifetimes to evolve, it can happen in months or even weeks.

We have seen in services which grow at an exponential rate that their success is often due to their ability to satisfy a previously unmet or latent need. Facebook, now with over 1 Billion users, and not just 'registered users', but people who access it at least once a day, is an example of this. Why? Because people like to chat and to see what their friends are doing! But with our busy lives, there is very little time to chat, so something that makes it easy really helps.
People like to share their experiences, whether it is visiting a Japanese Mountain or finding a great article in the Washington Post, the ability to simply share a picture or a web link fulfils a human need. People feel guilty if they have not spoken to relatives for a long time. Just dropping a quick message or sharing a family occasion allows us to maintain a relationship. We are curious and being able to see what our friends are up to without having to actually chat, is also useful. Seeing that my niece has travelled to Sydney to visit her Mum and Dad is nice, I don't need to 'say' anything, but it is nice to know she is OK. Seeing pictures of a journey or an arrival can in an instant make us feel good.  Pictures are important to us, they capture a point in time, they give us a reflection point and more than that they give us something we can talk to others about.

Many of these human needs are ancient, the need for example to communicate and to share experiences has been with us since we first started to exist as communities and is part of how we think about ourselves and the world around us.

Philosophers might argue that the phrase proposed by RenĂ© Descartes; 'I think therefore I am' might now be modified to, 'I co-operate in complex tasks using language, therefore I am', but it is a bit long.

And what about the way we are now able to co-operate? Why has Wikipedia been such an unexpected success? When Jimmy Wales first explained his ideas to an audience at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in May 2005 (I was there, sitting in the lecture theatre at the MIT Media Lab), the group, half industry and half academic thought he was mad! With hindsight you can see why, they were sitting there thinking; You are going to allow anyone to publish information and then allow anyone else to edit it. Yet here we are today with possibly the greatest collection of human knowledge ever created, in the main, by co-operation.

Wikipedia serves a basic human need, the need to communicate our thinking to others and then with them to evolve it. As people, as a society and culture, we build on our experience and knowledge and we develop our thinking by sharing it with others. Today with the tools that are available to us we can communicate and collaborate globally, we can share experiences across our planet, we can see quickly and easily what others, anywhere, are doing and talking about.

In a letter to Robert Hooke in February 1676 the rather modest Isaac Newton said; 'If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants'. Perhaps today we might say that we can see further because we are able call upon billions of other eyes and the insight behind them.

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