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Technology & Societal Change: How innovations are changing our lives

Agriculture, the written word, the printing press, industrialization or the Internet: far-reaching technical accomplishments have always had massive effects on our behavior, our society and our system of values. Just like cloud, mobile, social networks and digital information are changing our lives.

Tipping points: from agriculture and animal breeding through to HTML

We like to speak of major revolutions, disruptive forces, and quantum leaps - but usually, these are grand exaggerations. Mankind has developed slowly, in an evolutionary manner. Time and time again in the history of human development certain triggers for these developments have been clearly discernible. The so-called Tipping Points, the magic moments that Malcom Gladwell describes in the eponymous book. No measures of huge dimensions, but tiny initial sparks that trigger avalanches and are infectious likes viruses.

No one can exactly say what triggered the domestication of human beings, when some 10,000 years ago in the region of today's Syria and Mesopotamia the transition unfolded from hunters, to gatherers and farmers, who bred animals and worked the land. Families, tribes and clans soon developed into villages, cities and entire cultures. In the course of an additional six to seven thousand years the Sumerians developed characters in order to not only hand down knowledge verbally, but also lay it down in writing. As today, knowledge meant power. And this knowledge was only accessible to a few individuals. This changed radically with the invention of the printing press with typographic characters. This invention enabled the exact reproduction of knowledge for the first time. We are all familiar with rest: alphabetization, secularization, the French Revolution, equal rights for all.

From a socio-cultural standpoint the invention of the printing press was a major milestone, on par with the use of language, the first utilization of written texts, of characters and fonts, and finally the invention of the computer, or better, the invention of Hypertext Markup Language (HTML), a language with which - based on computers - standardized information can be exchanged across all borders - via the World Wide Web.

The Web Is Interaction Between People

In 1989 Tim Berners-Lee developed hypertext in order to make the exchange between scientists at CERN and MIT more efficient. The Web soon succeeded in establishing itself as a platform for the dialog and interaction between all people. In 1990 a mere 313,000 computers were connected to the Web, while their number had shot up to more than 100 million computers by the year 2000. Today, there are an estimated 2 billion Internet users. These are scenarios that Berners-Lee had already outlined in 1999 in his book Weaving the Web: it is just as important to be able to edit the Web as it is to be able to browse. Computers are there to manage tasks in the background, in order to simplify cooperation between people. Consequently, the Web should have a network and not a tree structure so as to avoid a hierarchization establishing itself. And ultimately, IT engineers and computer scientists not only have technical responsibility, but also hold moral responsibility.

“That was what it was designed to be as a collaborative space where people can interact”, stated Tim Berners-Lee, in a talk with Scott Laningham of IBM developerWorks.

The Web brings democracy to communication

Previously, it was not only knowledge that was administrated and managed in a statutory, governmental manner and stood for power. The rule over communication channels was also monopolized for centuries. Around the middle of the last century people sent telegrams and the mail was delivered twice a day. Communication in letters was characterized by devote attitudes and exaggerated politeness. Greetings were exchanged respectfully, sincerely and with expressions of the highest esteem, while individuals were addressed in a highly personalized and embellished manner. Finally, the envelopes were sealed and taken to the post office.

Today, there are some 3.15 billion e-mail accounts and an average of 112 mails are received per day and per account - 72% of which are spam. A lot of mails and messages are in the style of telegrams. We keep things short. The generation Y has developed its own language. Things like "imho irl sota" – or in my humble opinion in real life state of the art. And why do we do this? Because we quite simply no longer have the time for extensive correspondence, or wish to take the time.

But SMS and e-mail, blogs and social network sites have some very different effects than merely simplifying language. They are characterized by the fact that everyone can use them. Communication is no longer the monopoly of government owned organizations. Book burning and censorship are no longer capable of stopping ideas, innovations and standpoints from spreading.

“We are seats or eyeballs or end users or consumers. We are human beings - and our reach exceeds your grasp. Deal with it," is one of the theses of the Cluetrain Manifesto, issued at the peak of the dotcom bubble in 1999, by R. Levine, C. Locke, D. Searls and D. Weinberger.

Innovation and disruption

We are not experiencing the beginning, or the dawning of the information age - far more, we are right in the midst of it. This is not a short-lived trend, but an irreversible development that is accelerating and becoming increasingly relevant. With consequences for every individual, for companies and indeed for society as a whole. Peter Sondergaard, Senior Vice President at Gartner Research, identifies four factors responsible for this new era:

“This is now the era of mass collaboration driven by consumerization of IT. The new era brings with it urgent and compelling forces - the cloud, social networking, exploding information and mobility […] brought together, they are revolutionising business and society.”

These factors and instances are unleashing innovative effects, because users are now able to access data any time, and from any location, creating networks, communicating globally and interacting permanently. They are also disruptive, because our traditional understanding of communication is no longer valid. Everyone is capable of sending, publishing, receiving and sharing. Communication can no longer be controlled and steered. Communication evades the influence of the individual, but also the influence of society.

Are we facing an information collapse?

In the age of the information society individuals are exposed to a tremendous flood of information. We know how the human brain processes information, categorizes and prioritizes and naturally reaches certain limits. "My head just can't keep up," confesses Frank Schirrmacher, co-editor of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, in his book entitled Payback (Blessing, 2010). Today, every user is subjected to a raging torrent, a virtual tsunami of information. We are constantly forced to evaluate what is important and what is unimportant, to make decisions and to filter out. All of this is an overwhelming and overburdening experience.

2020: Information finds users

How will we handle information in future? We are convinced that the scenario outlined by Berners-Lee will become reality: computers will qualify information in the background, calculate semantic relevancies and assume tasks - automatically and unnoticed. Pieces of information will be structured according to their interrelated significance and will become content and context.

Everything will be networked. Everyone will be able to communicate with everyone else, regardless of where they may happen to be and what they may be doing. In this context, communication will not only take place between people. Information, profiles and requirements will become one. The Internet will become a "social operating system" as Professor Dr. Gunter Dueck, philosopher and former CTO of IBM Germany Deutschland, coined the term. People will receive information, offers and situational recommendations according to their specific life situations. Unrequested and nevertheless to pinpoint precision.

Information will flow in an orderly manner again, and no longer as a raging and roaring torrent. Or to quote Heraclitus: Panta rhei. And the current, the flow or the river which we immerse ourselves in will be a different one, each and every time. What will be new is the fact that it will always be our own, individual river, our flow, our current that will be dynamically shaped according to our situational requirements and wishes.

This is a future in which relevant information constantly creates new context. Mankind will leave the information society behind, and will finally talk about the knowledge-based society. And we will all have time again: time for each other.

Information creates relations.