Technology Turning Points

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Opinions vary whether the Internet is the most significant change in communications since the invention of the printing press. Certainly that latter event had its impacts: books ceased being extremely expensive and uniquely produced family heirlooms only for the very rich. Printed books would come to play a key transformational role in the political, religious and academic fields, and in business,  generating new enterprises not even imagined before that time. 

The impact of printed bibles on the established church in Europe was one of inciting and supporting change in language, religious practices and in the emerging schism between the religious and political orders of the day.  Much of this change was real empowerment – the moving of authorities, power and responsibilities down to the rank and file from officers and officials. 

The Internet is of this ilk.  And possibly yet more again. While the printing presses put books into the hands of the common person, “central authorities” decided just which books would be “suitable” for reproduction. In the generations to follow, editors and publishers assumed  governorship of the print media. Their successors in audio and video now play a like role. Struggling at the fringe are a ragtag band of underground papers, movies and sound tracks some of which make it big, moving from “off Broadway” to centre stage. 

But the Internet seems to represent a greater leveling in the information power structure.  While all persons are not equal in the electronic world, there are certainly more authors, more commentators, more contributors to the growing information pool, and  access is available to an ever widening circle of participants. The significance of the new technologies is growing. In recent weeks it has become near standard practice by newspapers to reference volume of traffic on the Internet as an indicator of public interest in an issue. 

Let us return for a moment to the “equality’ issue. Not all are “equal on-line”? No, because not all are equally on-line. Access varies according to social and economic stature. Participation, and value gained, relate to information understanding and communication skills. Nations vary in  their support for (indeed allowance of) access to the Internet and other “unapproved” information sources. Some parents (and schools) do not allow their children to surf with abandon on a vehicle that has, for them, questionable moral fortitude. 

What could be occurring here then is significant social change, driven in part by an instrument which may impact most immediately and powerfully on certain segments of society, though the effects will in time be widespread.  What are the consequences of this? One can speculate that, as others have pointed out, we are entering an age of the information rich and the information poor. But are there significances that go beyond this? Does being an “information magnate”  convey any special privileges? Opportunities? 

It has long been a truism that “knowledge is power” though yours truly does not know if this has ever been scientifically tested. If there is a relationship, then there could indeed be material benefit for individuals and organizations by having both electronic hardware and talent. 

But profit from technology and its use is not the thesis of this essay, which is concerned with turning points in the administrative sphere. And in this sphere, the fundamental issue may be empowerment.  I suspect the “demise of the editor” in the on-line world can be read as a signal of the org model to come. A contributor to an Internet newsgroup may into electronic combat mode if his submission is refused or modified by a moderator (the tech age equivalent of the newspaper editor).  Even more likely, he or she will simply go around the moderator and post the views in question on competing newsgroups or find other means of reaching the denied audience. 

It comes as a surprise to national legislators when they attempt to block “inappropriate” Internet transmissions. Information consumers, and providers in these countries simply Telnet out to a less hostile host and continue on as before. Such are fun challenges to Internet surfers. 

Work organizations though, still have well institutionalized structures and frameworks. Information generators and managers will, in the name of the need for cohesive, managed activity, allow and disallow transmissions based on criteria which may have been handed down from generations past, or is being created “on the fly” as the information explosion continues.   In either event, the employee of  the future will have some difficulty with the notion of another’s absolute control over his or her contributions to the growth and development of the enterprise. 

There will be, some day, a confrontation between those who have grown up without editors, and those whose work is to be the editorial manager of others. At that time, or shortly after, it’s my guess that the day will be won not necessarily by weight of argument, but by weight of numbers. Culture change is something awesome to behold when that momentum gets rolling.

 [This essay appeared in a 1998 edition of the Journal of the Financial Management Institute of Canada]

David G. Jones B.A., M.A.

Principal – Shibumi Management Canada

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