According to some estimates, more than 90% of the world’s data has been generated in the last 5 years. Of course, this is a difficult to define measure that calls to question the nature of recorded knowledge. However, the point remains that in just a few short years, humanity (and machines) have started to generate unfathomable amounts of data about everything from our health to our shipping preferences, travel habits, schedules, and our love life! Throughout Too Big to Know, Weinberger (2011) stresses the abundance of knowledge available in a networked world. I believe that the exponential trajectory of technology and data growth will continue for many years to come. Our generations will exist entirely in technological and social flux; change will become a fundamental aspect of our epistemology.
As leaders, teachers, and innovators, it is important that we understand how media and technology evolve indistinguishable from the social/cultural incubators in which they develop. This semester, I’m teaching one of my favorite classes, “Mass Media Communications” in which a constant recurring theme is the media economic cycle (Vivian, 2008). We’ve used this throughout the semester as a framework for investigating how various media works, and why it impacts society in the ways that it does. Vivian suggests that there are 6 broad steps that each medium goes through (if it’s successful): invention, entrepreneurship, industry, maturation, and the defense of infrastructures. I believe that we can apply this framing to the future of digital technology so that we can be aware of all the ways in which it can/will impact our organizations or students.
Invention and Entrepreneurship
For example, invention and entrepreneurship continue to disrupt the ways in which we do business. As the “tool assessment” assignment demonstrated, there are hundreds, if not thousands of new tools and technologies emerging every day. Many of these will not make it past the entrepreneurship stage for a variety of reasons. We must develop a refined sense of digital literacy so that we can effectively filter forward (Weinberger, 2011) the valuable tools from the junk. Effectively handling the barrage of innovation will (has already) become a duty of the responsible contemporary leader.
Growth of Industry
When a technology reaches significant enough adoption, you can see the supportive cocoon of industry grow up around it.
After Gutenberg invented the printing press, the demand for ink, paper, metals, and skilled pressmen increased (and in the case of the press operator, came into existence!). As the industrial revolution mechanized printing, those demands continued to grow into a complex network of professionals, materials, production methods, and consumption habits. As leaders create and implement strategy for organizations, thinking should include analyzing the opportunities present in the emerging industry. What are places in which you can expand market share or increase the competence of your team? Of course, technology – specifically networked systems – are filled with links (and few “stopping points”) which are permission free and always available to the public (Weinberger, 2011). In this way, leaders can become facilitators of knowledge, helping to build the right networks, fostering optimal cultures and posing good questions.
I do not believe that the digital age has matured yet. I feel like we are digital teenagers, racing down the “information superhighway.” Sure, we follow most of the rules, but still make some rash, irresponsible decisions. Weinberger’s (2011) suggests that the net is (and may forever be) unresolved (p. 174). Organizations are adopting technology for the sake of keeping up, or creating a Frankenstein’s monster of new systems in old infrastructures. Commercial banking, for the most part, still operates on foundational systems from the 60s and 70s while at the same time, trying to disrupt business models with innovations like blockchain. This video from Corning shows off some of the ways in which technology will eventually become more naturalized. The ways that we use technology today still feel foreign. UX is getting better, but many systems still have a learning curve, parlance, and set of knowledge needed to use them. I think a hallmark of media maturation is its total normalization (and ubiquity) to a point where the technology disappears. Leaders can continue facilitating systems design and digital literacy in order to make using technology less of a novelty and more of an extension of ourselves.
Finally, leaders must be keenly aware of the ways in which the “next big thing” will disrupt our operations. As noted above, by staying aware of changes in surrounding/supporting industries, leaders can try to predict where innovation will appear. With strategy and some luck, we might be able to put ourselves and our organizations in a strong position to defend the infrastructures that support us. At the same time, I believe that a good leader also knows when to let go.
Vivian, J. (2011). The media of mass communication. (10th ed.). Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon.
Weinberger, D. (2011). Too big to know: Rethinking knowledge now that the facts aren’t the facts, experts are everywhere, and the smartest person in the room is the room. New York: Basic Books.