Any discussion of the "impact" of technology should measure tech by whether it's enabled better human experiences. During the last two decades, the combination of hardware, software and Internet connectivity have done just that, delivering quantum changes to how we interact with the world.
The way we communicate with each other and how we access content and information have changed so drastically that we don't even think about it anymore.
First came the changes in how we interact with each other. Critics may say that technology has degraded human interaction; that screen time erodes personal contact at the peril of our relationships. I disagree. In fact, the opposite is true.
I was recently on a business trip in South Korea and wanted to check in with my children. The wireless networks there are among the fastest in the world, so instead of a call or text from my mobile phone (both of which would have been mind-boggling 20 years ago), I initiated a video chat. Not only was I halfway around the world, but I was also a passenger in a car moving 60 miles an hour, and I was having a seamless video conversation from a handheld device.
The fact is, people are closer and better-connected than ever before. We can take photos, even old snapshots that have been digitized, and upload them to a folder in the cloud that can be shared with others. Friends and family thousands of miles apart can stay in almost constant contact through messaging and social updates. These are human connections bringing people closer together, enabled by technologies that were not commonplace even 10 years ago.
Next came changes to our interaction with content -- entertainment, education and information. When I was at NBC back in the late '90s, we were dreaming up ways to create original content in a 28.8 kilobit per second modem world. There was no real video, let alone high-definition streaming, but we realized then that emerging technologies could enhance our ability to entertain and inform.
Fast-forward 10 years later, and it was video content creation and distribution itself that became democratized to the masses through YouTube. Content creators could succeed based on the appeal of their work rather than the power of their distribution partner. The proverbial kid writing a song in her bedroom or shooting a video in his backyard could capture as large an audience as the biggest record label or TV network. When I was there, we made up the term "YouTube Stars" to describe these people, and they've since morphed into hybrid content networks of their own.
It's not just in the spheres of human interaction and content that we've seen remarkable changes fueled by advances in technology. The process of innovation itself has accelerated, as the path from good idea to market-ready product or service has gotten shorter. The smallest of startups can now disrupt the largest of industries. Just look at how fast Airbnb and Uber have grown to challenge traditional notions of the lodging and taxi industries. What's more, technology has provided the foundation for these disruptive ideas to succeed through new platforms to get the word out (blogs, social marketing), raise money (Kickstarter), and distribute product (the app ecosystem). Capital costs to compete are much lower, and the opportunity is much higher.
The technological advances of these last 20 years have set the stage for a far greater change in how we interact with the world. Ubiquitous connectivity, the democratic broadening of access to content and services, and an entrepreneurial ecosystem disrupting traditional business models have created a foundation for interacting with our environment in new ways that will eventually make the technology behind it just "disappear."
Over the last two decades, we've seen individual services delivered through an increasing number of standalone devices with Internet-connected displays. In the future, these devices will proliferate and will range in size from nanosensors to entire walls substituting for today's TVs -- all connected to each other through large but flexible "Internet of Things" platforms. These platforms will seamlessly integrate not just devices, but also the apps, services and data that run on them.
When this happens, devices won't just be connected. They'll be truly "smart," sharing our preferences seamlessly across all devices and touchpoints. They'll know what we want before we do, and automatically deliver it, from the right song to the right temperature to the right movie, and more. Most importantly, the technology driving this will eventually recede into the background and we'll give it as little thought as we do making a video call today. We'll just live our lives with more ease and convenience.
After all, isn't that really the end game -- to personalize our world? The fact that we're still discussing the "impact" of technology means we still have a ways to go. Rather than focus on the technology itself, we should look to its impact in our lives. Ultimately, this is not about technology. It's about the transformation of the human condition.
Photo via LinkedIn