The Next Decade of Digital Technology

This Friday I am running a workshop entitled “Looking Ahead to the next Decade: Responding to a Range of Future Scenarios in Digital Communication and Coordination”. In preparation I have been trying to do some looking ahead myself, seeking inspiration for some meaningful insights into what I can contribute. In desperation I have turn to my recollection of the past to see if there are any lessons there.
My first encounter with digital technology was a brief mention of transistors at the end of an electronics course in my physics undergraduate program in the early 1960s. In contrast to the analogue valve technologies that could moderate and amplify electrical signals, transistor-based logical circuits were just switches that were either on or off (o or 1). I was not very impressed!
Since that time solid state devices have revolutionised our lives with spectacular breakthroughs each decade. In the 1960s financial institutions began to process customer accounts faster and more reliably on computers. By the 1970’s most large organisations had mainframes that could be programmed in 3rd generation languages through dumb but human-readable terminals. In the 1980s we had the first local networks of computers and other devices supporting corporate emails, printers and client server systems. More significantly, this was the decade of personal computers with end-user applications such as word processors and spreadsheets. The 90s heralded the birth of the Internet, a network of networks that hosted the pervasive but static World-Wide Web. Thanks to Tim Berners-Lee the basic components of the Internet were not patented or copyrighted but a free gift to all. In the 2000’s the web became dynamic with direct access by end users to everyone else on the planet: micro businesses had access to global markets; social media emerged; Internet devices went mobile; functionality expanded and converged.
Looking back there were many past predictions that were way off the mark. At a conference in the 1980s IBM confidently predicted that voice and language recognition software was sufficiently developed that it was ready to support audio as the dominant way people would interact with computers. Nokia was so sure that text would not be used on its mobile phones in favour of the richer media of audio and video that they made SMS a very cheap option that was rapidly taken up.
What has been obvious with respect to the technology have been ongoing trends to greater processing power on smaller, lower cost, more reliable devices with greater capability. I do notice however that screens on mobile phones are now increasing in size with the convergence of more functionality onto these devices. I suspect that these trends will continue but are not the most exciting ones to predict with more of the same.
One of the challenges of mobile devices are their need for energy and reliance batteries that must be charged regularly. So one of my bolder future prediction concern innovations in energy sources for mobile devices. I remember in the days before digital watches we used to have to wind them up. Then we had ones where our arm movement would provide the energy for winderless watches. Maybe some form of biological energy source such as body heat or movement could power small mobile devices.
Another challenge for digital devices that also requires innovative solutions are their need for traces of rare metals that are difficult to recycle and becoming scarce. This may require their radical redesign. There are also conflicting requirements for access and openness balanced against protection of identity and security that require socio-technical innovation.
Moving further into the social sphere I suspect that the greatest changes over the next decade will come in the social end of the social-technical spectrum as societies and nations grapple with the dialectic contrasts of openness and freedom against security and control; work against play; wealth versus wellbeing; corporate versus community. The Web has become a global platform for mobilising change, resistance to traditional authority in the hands of the few, democratisation of knowledge and action; and advocacy for great equality through sustainably development. I imagine a future where these issues are contested through debate on the Web and promoted through collective activity of global movements organised via social media.

Social Learning and Collective Knowledge

Many people argue that learning is something we can only do as individuals; that what we know and remember is an essential part of being human and resides in our individual brains. The traditional model of learning is the transfer of knowledge from an expert to a novice; from teacher to students in a classroom or from master to apprentice on the job.

As we now automate the collection, storage and availability of organisational ‘knowledge’ in databases, online documents and Intranets,  the contemporary business literature is full of metamorphic terms such as ‘Organisational Learning’ ‘Corporate Memory’ and ‘Knowledge Management’.  Some argue that these metaphors are just management hype. For others, they highlight the growing importance of social learning and collective knowledge generation as ways to make sense of the increasingly complex and uncertain business environment.

However, while entrenched computer-based systems make a business more efficient and productive, they can diminishes its scope for flexibility and adaptability.  To succeed in uncertain times, a business needs the creativity and imagination that come through informal social interactions.  In other words, businesses need to re-learn some social skills that many have lost over the years.

While social media on the Internet has broadened the scope of who we can connect to, there has always been the ability for disparate people to develop common identities, understanding and purpose in a societal context. I am a long-time member of what is known as the ‘blue and gold army’, (fans of the Parramatta Eels Rugby League club in Sydney).  I have been at football matches where I feel a connection to 40,000 people whom I have never met but who have a collective knowledge of team history, the player s, their nicknames, the team chants and a common desire to will them to win. Everyone there knows that everyone else has the same knowledge and sense of purpose.  That kind of connection can now be enhanced virtually as evident from all the tweets when Australian hero Sam Stosur played Serena Williams in the final of the US Open tennis this year.

Social media is being used to some effect in the work place.  I have heard of CEOs and other senior managers who blog in order to connect with employees and customers. Many work groups set up an online space in which to collaborate either internally or, more likely, externally if their internal IT is too restrictive.  Such spaces are useful whether the team is co-located or distributed. I work with groups within my own organisation and with colleagues all over the world on LinkedIn, Google, Wikispaces and occasionally Facebook. 

Many freely available online applications readily  support the processes of social learning and collective knowledge management as they are flexible enough to be used in all manner of innovative ways.  They can also be fun allowing members to explore ways of working with audio, images and video  and with tools for sharing of desktops, documents and whiteboards, and allowing co-creation and development of digital products which describe and model new ideas and new knowledge. We are probably only  beginning to understand how learning is essentially social, and best carried out in a hybrid of face-to-face and online settings where the more experienced facilitate the learning of others and in the process continue to learn themselves. Important to this process is the need to periodically acknowledge and celebrate the co-generation of collective knowledge that enables individuals, groups, communities and organisations to grow and do things better to their mutual benefit .

My first blog

In thinking about writing my first blog I tried to imagine the equivalent of a blog in the 1950s when I was at school.  I guess the closest thing would be a letter to a newspaper or radio station. It was not conceivable that private citizens could create, edit, store and publish whatever they chose without pen and paper, and without someone else judging whether the words should be made public or not. So now that I can blog, I cannot resist doing so even though it has taken me a while to get around to it.

My professional worker as a researcher in the field of Information Systems (IS) has studied the evolution of digital technologies and the World Wide Web.  Right now is an exciting time as social media are invading public and private enterprises. I can now ‘follow’ journalists, the police, revolutionaries, most companies and goodness knows whom else on Twitter. I get alerted to all sorts of things, some earth shattering and some trivial, as they happen. My role as an IS researcher is to try to make sense of what is happening and where this will lead us.

When I was a physics undergrad in the early 1960s the electronic switches which made up the 0 and 1 bits of computers were valves (very large and unreliable). Transistors were just coming into the curriculum and integrated circuits barely mentioned. My research grounding as a postgrad in physics, or more accurately bio-physics, involved recording signals from electrodes stuck into nerve and muscles cells.  This was made possible by the advances in field effect transistors with high input impedances. (This meant that the very small electronic signals we were measuring were not shorted out by the measuring device). In any case I learnt to carefully observe and analyse what was really going on, at that time in the natural world but later on it would be in the world of people and organisations.

So when, after stints of backpacking around the world and raising a family, I returned to my academia career and brought the same curiosity about what was really happening to the field of IS.  This is not synonymous with IT. IS involve the creation, operation and impact of whole socio-technical systems where digital tools (i.e. computers and communications networks) basically do the following: collect data to process transactions and produce information that people use as knowledge to make sense of their world, then decide to act (or not as the case may be).

The changes in what we do (and how we do it) from the 1960s to the present day have been phenomenal and fascinating. We now live in a global space where digital technology is everywhere, mobile and often ubiquitous. Time and space no longer restrict what we can do and with whom we do it. However this seems to make our lives much more frenetic, complicated and complex. This gives me plenty to research and I see myself in a professional ecosystem where I revel in complexity, welcome change, take risks and value diversity. Knowing this may help you make sense of what I publish both here and elsewhere.