Monday, July 14, 2008

Phoning it in

In response to some of the contributions to this month's Big Question (Lead the Charge?) on the Learning Circuits blog, I don't see this as a question of technology itself or even technology literacy. It's more a question of cultural shift.

When, more than a century ago, there were only a few telephones around, most people wondered how those damn things worked and some even wondered out loud whether they could serve any useful purpose. When I settled in France straight out of university in the 70s, telephones were few and far between. My wife had never had a telephone in her home! While she had no problem with the technology itself - thanks to pay phones! - she and her circle of friends definitely didn't have a telephone culture (in contrast to my own, acquired instinctively throughout my childhood in California). On the other hand, as soon as France modernized (very quickly), the whole population adopted a strong telephone culture. Nobody analyzed; nobody "organized" the cultural shift; nobody pro-actively developed telephone literacy. It just happened, though it took a few years. (I did, however, a decade later, work on an interactive video training program called “Make the Telephone Work for You” in the UK and “Le Téléphone à Votre Service” in France, which focused on telephone etiquette with clients).

Does the example of the telephone sound trivial? Perhaps it does to baby boomer nerds who have invested so heavily in building their own cutting-edge knowledge of all things digital that they are unwilling to admit that those who don't spend their days and nights meditating technological innovation are condemned to living in analogue un-networked hell. For them (i.e. us, or at least some of us), yes, it's complex, otherwise it wouldn't be worthwhile. But as Professor Mitra's "hole in the wall" experiments have shown, you don't need to be initiated into an exclusive club to use it... and to use it creatively and collaboratively!

The social Web has started off in a predictable way within the consumer society, with an emphasis on narcissism and self-indulgence. This puts it clearly at odds with corporate culture. That could be considered a more serious problem than complexity. But that reminds me of the work I did in the 80s when I was saddled with the task of trying to kickstart a PC culture in companies. My analysis of the Mac-MS-DOS war, ultimately won by Microsoft, was that enterprises chose IBM/Dos over Mac because it was LESS attractive than the Mac. You weren't likely to have fun with it, so it was less of a threat to the command and control culture of the corporate world. Senior management and IT departments were worried sick about the dispersal of authority that might occur if everyone was managing their own data and free to use such flexible tools. So what happened? Two things:
  1. Client-server applications took over, creating a whole new culture for almost the entire workforce, a culture which is with us to this day.
  2. Dos was replaced by Windows and PCs evolved, culturally speaking, into carbon copies of the Mac, with more and more multimedia frills (for a while Apple was even left behind as the much more democratic Windows concept produced more significant innovation).
Then of course came the Web, peer-to-peer technology and an emerging netcentric culture with the Web 2.0. The model hasn't changed yet, and there are numerous concerns and worries on the part of those who feel their authority may be threatened, but there's little doubt that it will happen. Pushing it through official channels may be the worst thing to do, because it will provoke resistance. I would put my effort into making it work from the bottom up and demonstrate how it can achieve other things than self-promotion.

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