This research was compiled with generous funding from NTTi3, the platform IT company.
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The Information Age, and Beyond
Fundamentally, to understand how humans are changing, we have to look not just at how humans relate to other humans, but at how machines relate to other machines—and how humans, machines, purpose and data coalesce and re-coalesce constantly into new kinds of beings.
We can think about our progression in the relationship between humans and tech in terms of overlapping eras or ages. Right now, the Industrial Age is coming to an end, and the Information Age is rising. The future will take us into new ages and we can begin now to forecast those and consider the new problems and opportunities they might present—looking into the distant future (20-100 years) we are beginning to look seriously at the Cyborg Age and even further out to the Singularity which is at the horizon.
We can examine the trends around an Internet of Things (or #IoT) and its progression into what we’ll call a Social Network of Things (or #SNT).
At the apex of the Information Age is the Social Network of Things—a time when devices and people are connected through pervasive internet access, a rich web of sensors, advances in artificial intelligence, deep APIs and cultural changes.
Beyond the Information Age lies what seems like science fiction to most people—the Cyborg Age followed by the Singularity. When we reach the Cyborg Age we’ll be considering not just devices and networks, but changes in the idea of what makes a human a human. For example, what will our bodies be like when implants—including into brain and nerve centers—are not only possible but commonplace? What will happen as robotics advance—how will that change the future of work and labor? What happens if the once far-fetched but now seemingly possible option of ‘uploading’ our consciousness into the cloud arises—should we consider it? How would that change us as a species?
You can think of the progression of these concepts as a journey from our entirely human identities to that of an augmented or even post-human state. It’s important to note that this article is not advocating for a particular endpoint or set of ethics or values here so much as describing changes that are already happening and some of their potential outcomes.
We look at the horizon many years out as a way to pull our minds towards a future which demands technological and cultural shifts which we might want to start working towards with intention and purpose.
Right now, many individuals in the world are participating in (or at least affected by) the peak of the Industrial Age. When we talk about things and devices we are still thinking of made, physical objects or resources. While many people use the Internet and digital devices in their daily lives, the technological experience of most of the world’s citizens does not look anything like the web of cutting-edge, well-connected devices described by the “Internet of Things.” At the same time, the leading edge of the tech industry and tech-assisted devices is somewhere between the Internet of Things and the full possibilities of the Social Network of Things.
We’ll briefly touch upon the almost science-fiction like futures beyond the Social Network of Things, too, as a way to conceive of the infrastructure and architecture we need to be building now—both technologically and societally.
Change Afoot: Six Key Shifts
There are six key paradigm shifts which we can use to create context for the emergence of the Social Network of Things. Mark Bonchek first articulated these shifts in his Harvard Business Review article, “Putting Facebook into Perspective” in 2012. The shifts are driven by—but also require—new kinds of innovation on a cultural, organizational and individual scale as we head to the Information Age. This model is incredibly useful for talking about what businesses and organizations need to do to stay culturally relevant in the 21st century; however, for our purposes here, we’ll list them briefly as indicators of the increasingly networked and system-oriented future which the Social Network of Things is a part of.
- Organizations are moving from hierarchies to networks.
- Leadership is moving from controlling to empowering people.
- Business strategy is moving from making products to building and maintaining platforms.
- Media is moving from the concept of the audience to that of community.
- Individuals are moving from consumers to co-creators.
- Brands are moving from broadcast-style push approaches to conversational pull-based approaches.
Shifting IT from a utility to capability
One very important change which these shifts require is in the way we think about business and organizational models. Traditional information technology skills and infrastructure such as networking, database management and internet access are more important than ever. However, organizations must shift their focus from IT as a utility—basically confined to a single department in a business—to informatics as a capability.
Informatics as a capability is the strategic ability of a company to consider the impact of business decisions on their technology needs, as well as the impact of technology decisions on the entire chain of value from concept to production and maintenance. This means that each person in the company must have at least a conversational ability—if not fluency—in top technologies which impact their business. For example, in many companies marketing and branding departments were the first business units to begin to bring their own technology savvy to bear on their work, sometimes in accidental or intentional conflict with existing IT policy. Whether through third party vendors like agencies, or because they chose to hire their own technologists, marketing and branding departments have shown us that IT cannot be limited to a ‘come and fix it’ utility within the business. For a tangible example of how such thinking needs to be expanded, consider ArchiMate’s great whiteboard animation of the importance of enterprise architecture in a platform-based business.
For platform-centric businesses to be successful, every person involved must be fluent in the technology decision-making process on a strategic level.