Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Technological and Social Change

One lesson I have learned over the last years is that technological change is much faster than social change. It has not been always like that, or has it? For the past 25,000 years or so, technological progress has been pretty slow and predictable. I found an interesting paper that was recently published by the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia: Social and Technological Change in Western History, accompanied by an well illustrated Power Point presentation. In his paper, Alex Wright gives a good account of the history of technologies for the collection and dissemination of information/knowledge and its implications on social history (I must read his book GLUT: Mastering Information Through the Ages).

Most technologies that revolutionized the way information was managed before and intiated social change are well known to us. Language, different forms of writing, eventually the different alphabets, handwritten books, the Gutenberg printing press, the steam engine enabling the industrialization of printing, telecommunication, and even the rise of personal computers all took their time and were slowly absorbed by mankind. In most cases, there was enough time for people to understand, digest and utilize the new technologies. Only 15 years after email became available and user friendly to more than a few computer geeks, somewhere between 1 and 2 billion people worldwide have an email account (the latest figure I could find was from 2005, when there were 668 million email users. Compare that to the growth of telephone users, which took about 100 years to reach the same dissemination, and only got a boost through the introduction of mobile phone technology.

Meanwhile the technological development moves on, hardly recognized by a large part of the population. Since about 5 years, knowledge and information is widely shared among people who in many cases don't know each other. We haven't really had time to digest that and understand what this means to social change. Well, the younger generation does. While 69% of US adults use email as their main form for sharing information, a growing part of young people marched on. They do not use email any more but one of their preferred social network services such as facebook, myspace, twitter, etc. "Power Sharers are a new category defined as individuals that share content at least weekly and share with 11 or more people through at least one channel. Adult Power Sharers represented 35% of the online population, and Youth Power sharers make up 62% of the online population." (taken from itfacts.biz).

Unlike many other authors I don't believe that the age of social networking was a short one and is basically over. We are still in the experimental phase of it. Change agents in organizations (and their consultants) have only started to scratch the surface of what can be and will be the future of collaboration of large networks. Just to remind you: companies are actually transforming into networks, dismantling their boundaries. It all has just begun. How can we believe that we can solve the problems of the 21st century with approaches from the 20th century?

The latest hot technology that I have just discovered is provided by a company called Cepstral, which is in text-to-speech conversion. Enter any sample text in English, Italian, German or Spanish and select whether you would like to hear it read from David, Linda, Vittoria, Matthias, Miguel or one of the other artificial voices. Instantly, and in a pretty good quality. Amazing
Photo: loop_oh on Flickr (CC licensed)

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