When the Spinning Jenny was invented the world didn’t change. Yes, many people lost their jobs, the social fabric of the time collapsed for a large segment of the population and a popular, anti-technology movement was formed in the Luddites. But none of that was of a sufficiently large scale or lasted long enough to create a lasting impact.
What really changed the world however and ushered the industrial revolution was the transition to new manufacturing processes that necessitated the creation of a process-driven culture. That culture allowed the scaling of enterprise to successfully work, created new ways of deriving value from people that did not require the personal touch and became applicable to many different spheres of human activity that did not directly have to do with industrial manufacturing (eg, finance, retail, service organisations and institutions).
The microchip that made computers possible was the Spinning Jenny equivalent of the 20th century but the digital revolution that happened, despite the disruption it brought to many industries and the creation of new sectors did not really usher a true digital age. All it did, like the Spinning Jenny, was to take what required a lot of manpower or talent and computerize it so that it could be done by one person who was relatively unskilled.
Desktop Publishing, for instance, did away with the need for typesetters, editors, typists and a whole lot of job titles one would have found in demand in the early 20th century Printing business. Computerization and the internet allowed us to do our own banking, get our own petrol at pumps and do our weekly shopping online, becoming in the process bank tellers, petrol pump attendants and supermarket checkout clerks. That was great for Banks, Petrol Stations and Supermarkets that no longer needed to have a lot of expensive manpower but not so great for us.
The age of the industrial internet is the time when the real digital revolution is going to take place and five radical technologies that did not exist before are at the very heart of it.
Search is a no brainer. Information is useless if you cannot somehow organize it and then store it in a way that will allow you to be able to retrieve it when you need it. Information retrieval (which is what search is) has come a long way from the days when search would deliver web pages based upon the statistical probability of keyword occurrence within a document. Semantic search makes use of computing power, computer architecture (in deep neural networks of connected devices) and software programming (through self-learning algorithms) to provide a more fine-tuned context and content aware approach to retrieving web pages. With search becoming person-sensitive and time and device-dependent we are edging, by degrees, to the days of predictive search where a search engine will indeed “understand what you mean and give you back what you want” that Larry Page once described as his ideal of a perfect search engine.
Search technology is not just ubiquitous now but it is also largely invisible. Google Now, for instance, brings together its awareness of personal profiles, emails, social media activity and the web to provide hyper-targeted content. Voice search with its quick Google answers to questions like “what’s the weather like tomorrow?” feels more like a personal assistant than a traditional search. As connected devices become faster, connectivity becomes deeper and the Internet of Things (IoT) brings together even more layers of Big Data, search will become not just a tool that helps us do things but the only means through which we can make sense of the increasingly dense data we will find ourselves in.
This will impact on everything from the way we remember things and the way our brains are rewiring, to the new sets of skills that we will have to learn to use.
Finance is an exception to this list not only because it has existed as far back as there has been any kind of human economic behavior to speak of but it has also always been global in nature. In fact a clay promissory note for silver dating back to Babylon, 546 BC, is displayed at the Met in New York City.
What digital technology is making possible however, for the first time is a reworking of the until now hierarchical structure that required an authority to determine the value of a currency (gold, silver, dollar bills) and an institution to back it up.
The approach has been hierarchical, top down and marked by the presence of an overseeing authority (usually the State) and a limited supply the value of which fluctuates according to demand. Money is the ultimate symbol of power as well as trust.
The problem is that as fiat currencies they have always been regulated by what is widely regarded as the establishment. This has always led to the same model of transaction which places the bank or money institution at the hub of any exchange of money. If I want to send you $5 from my bank account to yours I have no other option than to do so through a bank. Whether I do it as a direct wire transfer or use my debit card, credit card or PayPal account, the money will follow the same route. It will go from my account into a bank server where it will be allocated by the bank according to my instructions and be sent to your bank account or PayPal account.
The bank debit or credit card company, or PayPal will take a cut for the transaction because it happens through their ‘secure’ network. Fair enough, but if I saw you in the street and passed a fiver your way the same end result would have been accomplished and no one would have asked me, or you to pay a fee.
Cryptocurrencies however do not work like that. Because they are already encrypted they do not require the overseeing presence of a banking or money institution to legitimize them. Their value, too, is determined by the laws of supply and demand but, unlike fiat currencies, they are decentralized and linked to an individual.
Banks are looking at both the blockchain technology and the cryptocurrencies it makes possible with a view to muscling in. Finance is so fundamental to our world that even tiny changes in its processes have significant effects so this is very much an area of interest whose impact has not even yet been made felt. Consider that this is happening alongside intense personalization with the very way we make payments changing (think mobile phones and cashless societies and peer-to-peer networks) so stay tuned.
Unless you’ve been living in a barrel at the bottom of the sea the past twelve months you’ll be aware of the breakthroughs in Robotics made by Google’s Boston Dynamic
and the projections being made because of these breakthroughs. Maybe up to 50% per cent of jobs will vanish and certainly the initial benefits will go to those who (sigh) always benefit from such change. But disruption of this magnitude is difficult to control and impossible to tailor. We will see effects that have been unexpected and the entire fabric of society and the way politics is done will change, as a result.
Right now, of course, all roads appear equally feasible. All outcomes equally plausible. But this is because we are at the beginning where nothing is yet pointing towards a particular direction.
Augmented Reality (AR)
Mention Augmented Reality and immediately everyone thinks of Google Glass and how, its first iteration failed to set the world on fire. But that is not quite AR, although it’s pretty close. Of a more practical nature are the softer overlays offered by Google Now, Cortana and other personal assistants. It is the invisible assistance of Google’s Voice which itself is all about search, knowledge and the overlaying of digital on offline reality. It is in the phones we carry with us and their ability to augment our abilities by adding many digital layers to the environment around us, like Google’s Project Tango. It is found in Google Maps and Waze and the countless apps that imitate them.
Augmented Reality is already happening in many small ways which are constantly being refined. Without thinking too deeply about it we are already living in a world where navigating the offline landscape without online digital assistance is becoming harder and harder. And all this before we properly get into the impact of cloud AI and the ubiquitous presence of machine learning.
Virtual Reality (VR)
Just like AR is associated with Google Glass, virtual reality (VR) is almost synonymous with Facebook’s Oculus Rift. Virtual reality is something Facebook has invested heavily in. As technologies go it is still of unknown potential despite the fact that it is the subject of much excitement.
Typically, the practical application and current impact of this technology is in inverse proportion to the coverage it is receiving, so there is not that much I can say about it right now. It will revolutionize some things (maybe the VR porn industry alone will create such an impact that VR will slowly seep into other areas) and it will definitely challenge us on notions we have barely achieved clarity on, like identity for instance. It will certainly not go unnoticed.
Reality is becoming more and more porous. Technological changes across many different fronts are producing remarkably similar pressures: they are creating personalization, accountability and transparency. They are eroding the authority of top-down, monolithic command-and-control systems and they are challenging our notions of borders, nationalities and timezones.
Because the digital world revolves around actionable states and value propositions the traditional symbols of power and status are losing their attraction. More than that they are fast losing their ability to command our respect. These are unintended consequences but they are changing us nonetheless.
As we are becoming more and more depended on technology to do things that are necessary for us (like getting directions from a phone, for example) we will also demand that the legacy structures of the 20th century change to accommodate us. Whether we realize it or not, the world is in flux, being refashioned even as you are reading this.