Technology and everything associated with it has exploded and gone viral. The genie has exited the bottle and there’s no way to put him back.
The recent exponential growth of tools like social media, and the transition from what began as Web 1.0, or the first generation tools beginning with the Internet, which produced a static web, has rapidly transitioned to and through Web 2.0. Web 2.0 introduced interactivity via blogging and brought us to and beyond the social networking of Facebook, which most of us are now so familiar with. With the compression of exponential change into shorter and shorter bursts, we’ve entered the next realm of growth wrought by mobile technology, mainly smartphones and Web 3.0.
All of these technological developments divvy up our world into two distinct camps. One group thinks that all technology and its subsequent changes are good. There are many proponents and spokespeople that laud all things technological. A name connected, serving as a champion for this first camp, might be Ray Kurzweil, or the gang at Wired. Our second camp, which holds a position at the opposite pole from Kurzweil and company, are those holding positions equating technology, computers, and anything digital with the demise of all that’s good and holy. Wendell Berry would reside here, as would the late Neil Postman, Morris Berman, and even writers that were writing about technology’s dark underbelly 50 years ago, like Jacques Ellul and Lewis Mumford.
There is a third group. Their position takes some variation between blind allegiance to technology as a deity and the others that view smartphones as the end of life as we know it. There are varying degrees within this group. Some members lean towards the pro-technology camp, with others tilting towards the technophobic group, harboring reservations and concerns about technology’s endgame.
I put myself in camp #3. My position is a hybrid that holds that technology isn’t bad, and can even serve as an amazing tool in assisting with a variety of tasks related to communication. Obviously I’m all about the blog, and use Facebook and Twitter regularly. I’m also aware of and offer occasional caveats about holding the belief that technology carries with it the solution to each and every problem we face as a society.
I think anyone that’s on the north side of 40 remembers what the world was like before computers, cell phones, and Facebook. Heck, I grew up with a rotary phone and when Mary and I were first married in 1982, we were happy living without television for the first five years of our marriage.
Reflecting back across my life, I am able to draw upon enough experience, and a sample size that allows me to articulate (sans nostalgia) what I think the positive qualities were during the years when I was growing up; the 1970s and into the early 1980s. This was also around the time when I would marry, and Mary and I brought a son into the world. The interval between then and now is 30 years. A lot has changed over that period; communication, interactivity and how we stay in touch, as well as the quality of our societal fabric has evolved. Some would say for the better, some would say it’s now worse than ever, and then, others would say that history teaches us that there’s nothing really new under the sun, technology, or not.
There is a quality, or better, a characteristic about the time period when I was growing up in the 1970s that is remarkably different than our current epoch. There was a commonality—some might call it a unity—that emanated from everyone getting their news from a common local or regional source. That source was the daily newspaper. The three major networks and nightly anchors like Walter Cronkite and Harry Reasoner were akin to trusted friends, invited into living rooms from Seattle to Boston and points north and south. Some academics have argued that the loss of consensus that began in the 1960s, brought a period that was characterized by malaise in the 1970s, especially economically.
Now, there as many sources of personalized information as there are people with a tether to the Internet and a device to access it.
When Mary, Mark, and I moved back to Maine in 1987, if I wanted to stay in touch with friends in Indiana, I had to write them a letter. It required some effort, and there was always a time lag from when I first dropped my envelope in the mail receptacle, to the day I’d arrive home from work and find a letter from my friend sitting on the table.
Our current state of communication can be instantaneous. While arguably more convenient, we now rarely reflect before we respond. This can produce interaction that’s overly reactive because it lacks the space required for rumination. I would argue that this is one of the drawbacks to this current state of technological immediacy. At the same time, we can now share pictures with loved ones a world apart, Skype face-to-face, and stay connected as never before.
I will tell you that my first experience with the World Wide Web was a magical thing. Long before I’d own a computer, I was working at the Lewiston Sun-Journal. They had opened a computer lab where they had what we’d now consider ancient desktops that they were using for training. At that time, I had started hearing the first use of URLs on talk radio, mainly on political talk shows, like Rush Limbaugh’s. Everything was www this and www that and I felt like I was missing the next big thing. I was still unclear about the Interwebs and even if Al Gore really invented them.
A couple of my fellow district sales managers had been playing around with the computers and they offered to provide me with a quick tutorial. The browser was Netscape, and after spending 15 minutes of web surfing, I wanted to locate my own ramp to this information super highway. This was 1996. Netscape, a subsidiary of AOL, epitomized Web 1.0. In 10 years, they went from being the dominant web browser to holding less than one percent of the world’s web traffic. By 2006, it was all about Microsoft. By then, email had become the preferred method of staying connected. While I wasn’t an early adopter back then, I still viewed my contacts with AOL email accounts as tech dinosaurs and behind the curve. They generally were.
Friday was a demonstration day of the duality of our world we are living in during this second decade of the 21st century. On one hand, I had a standing date to meet Miss Mary at the Verizon Wireless store in South Portland. We had finally decided after talking about it for the past year that now was time to deep six our trusty BlackBerry smartphones and take the next step up the ladder of Web 3.0.
In Maine, it’s still winter, even though our calendars indicated that Wednesday was officially the first day of spring. The outside temperature was hovering below freezing when I looked out and I decided I wanted a fire in our wood stove to remove the chill in the air, since this was a work-at-home day for me. In cleaning out my wood stove, I noticed one of my rear fire bricks lining the fire box of our 20-year-old stove was cracked.
This has been happening for the past few years as fire bricks seem to have a useful life of about 20 years. Once or twice a season for the past few winters, I’ve had to replace cracked bricks. I now keep a supply on hand for that purpose.
This one happened to be at the back corner of the fire box, in a hard to reach location, abutting the center angle iron running the length of the stove’s fire box. Replacing it would require notching one of my replacement bricks with a 1 ½ inch cut in the corner. Given the nature of the cut and what I’d later learn, was the precision required in replacing the brick, I knew I needed a tool slightly more sophisticated than a hammer and a chisel.
Like many projects attempted over my period of home ownership, what begins as an expected 45-60 minute project, by completion, often results in an investment of much more time and energy than originally factored. Notching my firebrick fell into that category.
I had a masonry blade for my portable circular saw, but figured I couldn’t get the level of precision required. Worse, when I removed the traditional cutting blade and tried to install the one designed to cut brick, it wouldn’t fit into the bracket. Several calls later, I found that my local True Value store (no big box for this job) in Freeport knew exactly what I was describing and he told me that he had a carbide rod saw that would attach to my hacksaw. My solution was a simple, low-tech tool that cost $5. Back home, I began what would become a painstaking, labor-intensive practice of sawing back and forth; basically wearing away a groove in the brick. It took about 50 minutes to complete my first cut. I was merely getting started on this job.
By 2:00, I had to wrap up to make a phone call, hop in the shower, and then head to South Portland to pick up my magic, mobile phone. My firebrick still didn’t fit into the slot in the back corner, requiring a bit more precision of a cut to get it into the space abutting the angle iron. I was still an hour away from completing my task. I also wasn’t able to build a fire until I fixed that fire brick.
Mary and I got our new phones. I went with the Motorola Razr HD, and she decided she wanted to go Apple and get the iPhone 5. It’s the Baumer tech version of Hatfields vs. McCoys, or in our case, Google vs. Apple.
While the first flush of owning the new phone has been positive, even early Saturday morning, figuring out how the phone actually worked, I still wasn’t done with my very non-technological task of fixing my fire brick and getting a fire lit. By 9:00 am, I had my brick in place and a fire roaring.
My feelings and attitude towards technology have gone through a period of evolution. Rather than fight a battle I recognize I’ll never win, I’ve embraced social media, recognizing that mobile communication and the new tools can enhance my capacity to communicate, create opportunities, and I’d argue, even use this new Web 3.0 technology for community-building.
What I don’t subscribe to, however, is the Kurtzweil-lian worldview of technology as being our savior. While new phones and social media help connect us, often across gulfs of geographic distance, there comes the time when face-to-face is necessary. In fact, I think having the ability to engage in person dovetails nicely with an awareness of, and the ability to use social media tools like Facebook, Twitter, and other similar platforms.
I saw this firsthand this week when I journeyed five hours north to Aroostook County. In my role with the Maine Business Leadership Network, I’m in the process of planning a series of regional employer summits focused on disability hiring. A group of local leaders, who I first met in November on a previous trip to Presque Isle, are helping me get this off the ground in June.
So far, I’ve had a couple of phone calls with my “boots on the ground” people in Presque Isle and Caribou. Given my past experience, and success in this kind of work, I knew that at some point, I had to make another trip north because email, social media, and phone aren’t sufficient to get it done—it still requires some face-to-face time building what I refer to as “intentional” partnerships. These are the ones that tend to yield lasting results.
I’m not unsympathetic to the concerns that some people have about technology. There are dystopian possibilities with each new uptick in the ability of devices to track, monitor, and keep tabs on our movements. The one area where we haven’t done a good job in our rush to embrace the latest device or platform, is recognizing the importance staying current regarding issues of free speech, privacy, innovation, and consumer rights. There are groups that are, however, like the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF).
At the same time, success in a free agent economy requires knowledge and awareness about how to communicate successfully. Being networked now also means using social networks to your advantage.
Taking the time now to learn the basic building blocks of social media, coupled with other tools that are timeless, like knowing how to connect with someone at a business-after-hours networking event, will serve you well and yield positive results.
Trust me on this one. It’s what I’ve been all about the past couple of years.