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Everyone's an expert in information technology

IT has been shifting from a back-room domain guarded by specialists toward an everyday, everyone experience for decades. We've now arrived. Seemingly everyone's a casual expert--and that further raises the bar.

Over the past decade, we've heard a lot about the coming consumerization of information technology. Well, it's here. The Web, e-mail, mobile phones, automated teller machines, GPS navigators, supermarket self-checkouts, online banking, digital cameras, instant messaging, chat rooms, online shopping, airline e-tickets, iTunes, YouTube, Facebook--you name it. Every one of them puts large swaths of the population in direct, frequent contact with sophisticated IT systems and interfaces. And this is just the short list.

It's an overstatement to say "everyone's on Facebook" or "everyone has a smartphone"--but not by much. Something like 50 percent of the U.S. population is on Facebook and we're rapidly approaching the day when half the U.S. population of mobile-phone users has a smartphone. The U.S. isn't even the most techno-savvy country around. A similar "everyone has this" or "everyone knows how to do this" situation exists for many other technologies.

Cartoon of girl sitting casually with laptop and mobile phone
Licensed from VectorStock

It's not just raw numbers. Several recent interactions I've observed convince me that we've passed the "tipping point" at which everyone has a pretty good chance of being, if not an expert at implementing IT, certainly an expert user. For example:

I was in a Comcast office this weekend, ordering a new Internet link. The connections now available are comparable to magic to anyone who grew up in the modem age. Forget a few megabits-per-second, which was the old "if only!" fairytale dream. Now, if you're standing in the right spot, you can get those wirelessly, even on a mobile phones. If you're connecting a fixed location, you can get 20, 50, or 100 Mbps. Such performance levels were, until very recently, available exclusively to commercial facilities--and were exceedingly expensive even for enterprise customers. Now they're in average homes and apartments, and don't cost more than a lot of cable TV bills. Multicore systems, HD displays, high-bandwidth networks, cloud computing--just about whatever it is, the very best IT has to offer is routinely available to individual consumers. Indeed, consumers now often get the latest innovations before enterprises, completely upsetting expectations established over multiple decades.

But technical capability isn't the truly astounding thing. Even more impressive are the changes I've witnessed in attitudes and expectations. The tech-savvy among us used to be a small group, of mainly younger folks, often themselves in some way involved in a technical field. Everyone else seemed at least vaguely anti-technology. But on Saturday I watched a number of customer service interactions in which Comcast offered a choice between sending a technician out or having the customer walk through a self-install process. Customers uniformly chose the self-install--even those well past retirement age. The retail interactions showed a moderate to high degree of technical familiarity from just about every customer. I chose the self-install process myself, and it couldn't have been easier. Everything is aligning toward a tech-savvy populace, and the populace is becoming routinely tech-savvy.

The Comcast experience mirrors other interactions I've witnessed over the past few years. For example, at truck stops I've watched truckers negotiating for wireless Internet and mobile-phone services, including discussions of how to set them up and troubleshoot them when they aren't working right. Or take our housekeeper--someone with no technical education and who knew essentially nothing about computers a decade ago. She now knows a staggering amount about online video and Internet telephony. She regularly gives me advice about what works, what doesn't, what's a good value or not. It's not the "how audio and video codecs work, and how to build them" kind of understanding for which I studied computer science, but she has excellent practical insights--comparable to those of people "in the industry."

When truckers, housekeepers, retirees, and other ordinary folk with no specialty training feel comfortable choosing, installing, and using the latest computing and communications systems, everything has changed. The majority of the population is, or soon will be, almost constantly connected. The old expectation that IT was something arcane, special, and hard no longer applies. That's especially true for young people. Anyone graduating from high school this year has never even experienced the pre-Web, pre-mobile-phone world.

That we've reached "critical mass" in the Metcalfe's Law or network effect sense changes what users expect, what levels of performance they'll accept, and how good the human factors have to be for every IT system. You thought users wanted more, more, more! back when IT was a specialty back-room function, didn't you? Well, you haven't seen anything yet. We've evolved to a world where consumer tech like Facebook and the iPhone set the bar for what all IT should look like--and in which essentially everyone has become a casual expert and power user.