When did this all start? When did we begin outsourcing our long-term memories to Wikipedia and our rolodex to LinkedIn? When did we start to trust the Drudge Report over the NBC Nightly news? When did reinventing one’s identity change from leaving the farm and heading to the city – to changing Facebook profiles and updating Twitter accounts?
During this time of exponential growth in the capacity and capability of information systems we need to continuously assess where these changes are taking us. As managers of information systems it is not enough to understand how the code behind the software works – we must also understand the code behind our users.
A Short History of Mankind and Information Technologies?
When mankind began putting word to hide, papyrus, paper, etc. – a new level fidelity in our understanding of the world emerged. Sages, priests, and bards lost their monopoly on meaning. Histories and tales cataloging mankind’s achievements evolved out of lyrical tales susceptible to interpretation, manipulation, and the subtle drift of one’s memory. After the invention of writing there were “documented” accounts. Herodotus and Thucydides arose and the study of history would never be the same. The world would forever know the teachings of Socrates, Aristotle, St. Peter, Muhammad, Confucius, Siddhartha Gautama, Sun Tzu – due to some form of ink being applied in regular fashion on some form of paper.
Why did mankind do this? Why did our ancestors begin to jot down notes, pictures, and diagrams everywhere they went? Beyond the pride of ancient great leaders to have their deeds recorded for eternity there was another reason. Humans have limited memories which are prone to errors, gaps, and ends. If only a true record could be had – then these problems might be solved. The invention of the written word helps solve these problems. Mankind aspired to document thought so others could later decipher it. We all want to remember and be remembered. Therefore we invented writing – the first information revolution.
Flash forward a couple millennium to the invention of the printing press. Its invention made the production and collection of information effortless by comparison to the previous work done by scribes. It also reduced the possibility of errors in transcription. With this increased access to pamphlets, literature, philosophy, the bible, etc. the Age of Enlightenment arose – and suddenly we were off to the races. The end of the Dark Ages – the growth of science – the burgeoning belief in certain unalienable rights for all mankind – all could be tied back to the invention of the printing press. This was the second information revolution.
Step forward a few hundred years to the invention of computers and shortly thereafter personal computers. In using computers mankind’s interaction with information took a profound leap forward– whereby access to the vast stores of collective knowledge was not only gained – but the arrival of an augmented means of solving problems, of conducting calculations, of generating new visualizations and sounds also appeared. Computers changed how mankind looked at information. It changed passive entry and active consumption to a dynamic exchange. This real-time interaction accelerated learning and information sharing. Brick and mortar institutions no longer had a monopoly on educating the masses. Online degrees, the Khan Academy, Ted Talks, YouTube how-to videos, and DEF (Defense Entrepreneurs Forum) are all examples of the democratization of information due to networks and computers. Over the past three decades this revolution has altered where we go to find answers and what data sources we trust. Encyclopedias are out of business, Encarta has failed, yet Wikipedia is still going strong. Authors are no longer sacrosanct subject matter experts held on-high. They are real humans with online profiles – complete with embarrassing photos and tags they wish they could undo. These effects have shaped what has been deemed “THE Information Revolution” but what I consider just the third iteration in an ongoing evolutionary cycle of mankind with all forms of information technology.
Today, an inch past the invention of personal computers, we are witnessing the next sea-change. As impactful as the shifts from paper to print and print to compute were – the next information revolution will have just as profound of an effect. Throughout the first couple of decades of its existence – the personal computer remained tethered to internet links in offices, homes, and coffee shops – with humans sheepherding their actions with keyboard strokes and mouse clicks. They were rarely used by humans in direct interaction with their environment. We still maintain this need just as we still need libraries but the way in which people interact with personal computational devices is changing dramatically. These new devices have the potential to dramatically affect what captures our attention and how we direct our actions.
In the next generation of mobile devices, computer processing will gain new forms of digitized sensing – and these two functions will enable new and novel ways for mankind to create a computationally interactive dynamic. This experience will involve operators, sensors, and computational devices (i.e. smartphones, watches, glasses, etc.) collecting and processing environmental information in an interactive manner. Digital sensors will guide operators and feed various data sources and applications. These applications in turn will trigger the attention of operators to stimuli in their environment that may have previously gone unnoticed. Furthermore, the proliferation of sensors will likely alter our experiences by expanding the current limits of our biological senses. Digital sensors capable of registering electromagnetic information beyond human capacity may be translated into representations useful to humans. These means already exist but they typically reside in niche scientific or technical communities. As the scale, cost, and power requirements of these tools come down look for their integration into various mobile platforms. This next information revolution will be dominated this emerging symbiotic relationship with sensors and mobile computational devices.
The other dramatic change to how humans interact with their environments and each other as a result of the current information revolution concerns the impacts of computer involvement in shaping top-down, goal directed actions. The proliferation of mobile devices has given everyone both Google and Siri in all environments. We now can get instant gratification by finding an answer to whatever questions we have, wherever we are. As we outsource our memories and decision making to mobile devices we begin to inject a machine in the middle of our mental decision making processes. Our ability to judge the current state of our environment and make predictions about its future states has the potential to becoming increasingly linked to guidance and answers from our “smart” devices. The proliferation of supercomputing and artificial intelligent like systems, processing and serving information back to mobile devices we carry, will enable users to get better answers, recommendations, insights, and possibly even decisions for their actions – from machines. Will this lead to a dependency we cannot life without? How will those seeking to profit from this new reality inject advertising, propaganda, and or misinformation? Outsourcing decision making to machines represents a sort of red-line in a number of ethical debates about accountability for our decisions. Maybe we will develop control measures – or maybe we will not allow the technology to get there. Some think this shift has already occurred. One could argue we crossed a certain threshold when we started accepting Yelp recommendations over the advice of “the locals.”
Help me visualize this.
We have already seen the development of computational interactive experiences after the proliferation of smartphones and connected tablets. Smartphones are used for navigation, real-time recommendations on where to find the best Chinese food nearby, as well as dating and hook-up apps like Match.com. These apps take various basic sensor information, such as one’s location, and tailor specific content based on a user’s particular objectives.
As sensors proliferate – which they will – users will not only have to seek out information about their environment but they will be notified automatically about objects or items to which they may want to attend by next generations mobile devices and wearables. Advertising and marketers will swarm to any technology that allows them to interrupt the train of thought of potential customers so they can inject subliminal messages drawing them to their products. Health apps that react to various biometric inputs will help provide early warnings as well as optimal timing and dosage of medications. Emotional intelligence apps that measure voice infliction, body language, and facial expressions will allow users lacking in this inherent awareness the means to get instant feedback on how well a joke was received. Knock-knock. Who’s there? Mind reading.
The list could and should go on – but let’s return to our starting questions.
When did this all start? It began when we realized it we were not satisfied with the set of abilities we were born with. It began when we started to augment the frailties of our mortal coil and aspired to achieve our self-conceptualized full potential. Our memory has gaps – we invented a technology for that called papyrus. We ran out of books to read in our local monastery – we invented an industrial tool to churn out books for the masses. We could no longer keep up with everything being published and warehoused in libraries– we invented a computer to store all of this information and developed a means to search for it. We invented software to help us solve problems we neither had the time nor aptitude to compute. We were tired of only augmented our intelligence in our offices – we invented mobile devices and the infrastructure that feeds it. This process will continue – and you might ask when it ends. It won’t. Just ask Siri. For as we develop new technologies we also discover new gaps in our innate abilities. This leads us to invent some new technology that will fill this need. Every generation awakes a new to discover whatever new norm we present them. These new norms lead to new feelings of inadequacy in the biological makeup they are given. So they invent, and build, and adapt new technologies to help them achieve whatever they deem their full potential to be, in that environment, in that time. The more I reflect on this – the more I think that mankind is on an eternal expansion of possibility. As we gain new tools – we expand what it is we can achieve – and this in turn expands what we can conceive of achieving – which in turn drives us to invent the means to achieve it – which starts the cycle again. I’m not sure I can see an end to it.
You told me this was a site for military communicators. What does this have to do with the Army, Navy, Marines, or Air Force?
As was previously mentioned – to truly enable those to whom we provide communications support, we must not only understand the code behind the software, but also the code behind them. It is important that we recognize what is fundamentally driving mankind to develop the next generation of information technologies. Knowing that mankind will forever seek to augment its abilities through technology will lead us to ask the right questions – the tough questions.
- How do we feel about outsourcing sensation and perception to electronics?
- What about outsourcing decision making to artificial intelligence?
- What does it mean to be human in this age of augmented self?
- Are we afraid of the need for prosthetics shifting to the want for prosthetics?
- Should the military lead, follow, or just keep pace with the growth of the trans-human experience?
I do not have an answer to these questions but I do believe the time has come to start thinking about them.
As always – the views in this piece are mine alone and do not represent the U.S. government, Department of Defense, United States Army, or any other organization with which I have had any association.
Questions for you the readers:
- What do YOU believe is driving mankind in its invention of new information technologies?
- What new computational interactive dynamic devices or applications are on your radar that you think will change how we interact with our surroundings and each other?
- Where has this explosion of information technology helped your personal or professional life – where has it hurt it?