When human beings came down out of trees they had few advantages over their predators other than they could think more deeply, communicate their thoughts to each other more effectively and run for longer. It was a miracle that we survived long enough to allow us to dominate this planet. But dominate this planet we have and that has been achieved in no small part through communications technologies that develop ideas to improve our productivity which in turn gave us the power to harness our environment for our own benefit. This current change in communications technologies enabling social media is likely to drive changes of a type and magnitude not seen before. I would like to explore some of those possibilities.
Communication leading to collaboration has been an important, perhaps the most important advantage in both our initial survival and the more recent domination of our environment. Points of discontinuity have been observed around spoken language (100,000 years ago), written language (5,200 years ago), printed books (600 years ago), radio and telephony (120 years ago), film (100 years ago), television (70 years ago) and social media since 2004.
We have learnt from previous disruptive changes that the ultimate benefits from any disruption are not usually understood until much later. Our ability to decipher an extraordinary amount of information from seeing and hearing a conversation has evolved over 100,000 years to the point we can detect happiness, anger, sexual attraction in milliseconds. How fast can you pick out a familiar face in a crowd or having met someone once recall that face sometimes years later and after seeing thousands and thousands of faces in between. It was once very important to be able to pick a familiar face friend or foe.
With only 5,200 years, (for many societies much less), to hone skills for reading and writing it is not surprising that reading and writing takes longer and conveys much less content than a face to face encounter. If you are given a choice would you prefer to attend a speech, watch the video or read a transcript? When Gutenberg invented moveable type in 1439 the cost of printing books plummeted but that was not the major disruption created by this new technology. Moveable type encouraged consistency of spelling and printers could easily separate words for easier reading. In fact most hand-scripted books had to be read aloud which limited the reader from laying their own ideas across those of the author. Some have argued that silent reading of printed books over the next 300 years sponsored free thinking creating free thinking groups who in turn changed the political landscape and saw the emergence of the Enlightenment.
Similar changes to cognitive ability occurred with later technologies such as radio, telephony and film. Leni Riefenstahl propaganda films especially The Triumph of the Will and Goebbels masterful use of both radio and film conveyed emotion and content with far greater impact than they could have achieved with printed words alone. Film started out as a recording of stage plays as did television start out as radio with pictures. It took a generation for each technology to evolve its own strategies for finding its place and value in human communication and collaboration. The Jazz Singer became famous in 1928 for it being the first talkie movie but in reality it is a poor ‘silent’ movie with four singing segments inserted to demonstrate it was now possible to lay sound onto celluloid. During the thirties the art of performing in, writing and directing film was honed with black and white film and when in 1939 colour technology became available, films like Gone With the Wind benefited greatly because the skill of acting, writing and directing did not have to change to anywhere near the level required when silent movies became talkies. But colour films delivered an amazing experience for an audience who could watch a story on the big screen in full glorious colour. The skills of the writers, performers and directors just got better and better and ten years after Gone with The Wind a new way of story telling emerged with brilliant films like The Third Man (but cleverly chosen to be made in black and white), in 1949 presenting a soundscape of gushing sewage and a fugitive being chased by police with echoes of steel tipped boots clamoring over stones with shafts of light cutting through dark recesses occasionally revealing the face of Orson Wells playing Harry Lime creating tension and suspense not previously experienced by any audience.
Social Media has emerged from the last big communications technology change and when more effective strategies are developed natively with the power of this new technology, society will again witness a massive improvement in how we communicate and collaborate. It has occurred to me that as we connect billions of people with each other through trillions of devices we will see profound changes in how we communicate, collaborate, think and organise in our societies. Without raising the spectra of brain to brain communications with brain waves, the emerging social media technologies will significantly improve how we create, evolve, develop and produce ideas. In the seventies when I joined IBM expert systems and artificial intelligence were driving much of the excitement in emerging technologies. What was imagined then has not become a reality but parts of the learning and many of the tools have been fed into everyday devices from the iPhone, near field communications, self parking and soon self driving cars, irrigation system and robots in manufacturing. Interactive story telling, online entertainment and extensive business collaboration will emerge from social media being able to engage groups across the world to double and then double again and again the speed and effectiveness of communication and collaboration.