What is the smart shift?

We live in genuinely exciting times. Just in the past five years, we have arrived in a place where it is seen as normal for grandmothers and infants to leaf through ‘pages’ in a virtual book on the screen of a tablet computer, even as tribesmen manage their personal finances using mobile phones. As a species we pass messages, access services and share experiences using a phenomenal variety of online tools, from social networking to in-car navigation, from travel cash cards to video on demand. We can (and we do) broadcast our every movement, every purchase and every interaction. Our individual behaviours, the actions of corporations and collectives, and even of of nations and international bodies are fundamentally and dramatically changing. To paraphrase Sir Paul McCartney, you’d have to be blindfolded and riding a camel backwards through the desert not to have noticed the profound changes that are sweeping through.

All the same, and despite the stratospheric success of Susan Boyle or the sudden arrival of unicorn companies such as Uber and AirBnB, nobody has a crystal ball. While many would love to be the next big thing, neither they, nor the ability to has a monopoly on the future. Whatever we know about the so-called digital revolution, equally sure is that nobody planned it — its twists, turns and quite sudden revelations have taken entire nations by surprise. As was once suggested1, “Prediction is hard, especially about the future.” And it continues, unplanned, like outbreaks of some quickly mutating virus, itself feeding on a series of accidental mutations. As Bob Cringely explained in his 1986 history of Silicon Valley, ‘Accidental Empires2’ :

“1. It all happened more or less by accident.
2. The people who made it happen were amateurs.
3. And for the most part they still are.”

The digital revolution is not happening because a few smart people are making it so; in some cases, it is happening despite such efforts. The brainstorming phase is essentially a series of consequences which happen to have humans attached — Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg for example, who was in the right place at the right time. For every Steve Jobs there is an example of someone who, with very similar resources, technical expertise and financial backing, failed to achieve anything worth mentioning (and indeed, even Jobs had his fair share of failures). And neither Alan Turing and his cohorts, nor Gordon Moore, nor Tim Berners-Lee had a clear idea of where their creations would take us.

One way or another, the digital revolution continues regardless — if ever we had control of the many-headed beast we call technology, we lost it some time ago. As a consequence the immediate future is anything but predictable; even creating a snapshot of these phenomena (which is, disconcertingly, the intention of this book) is nigh impossible. Indeed, it is tantamount to describing a termite mound by looking at the activities of individual termites — distressingly fast, almost immediately out of date and completely missing the bigger picture. And then, of course, the termites gain superpowers, telepathy and the ability to clone themselves at will…

So, as the transcontinental train of change hurtles on, is there any handrail that we can grab? The answer, and indeed the premise for this book, is yes. For despite the speed of change, the scope of change is reaching its limits. As profoundly affecting as they are, current events reflect the first time that the digital revolution has circumnavigated the whole globe. The geographic limits of technology have been reached, and so, therefore, have the majority of human boundaries3: while an Amazonian tribesman may choose not to communicate with a city dweller in Manila, that is through choice, not due to a technological barrier. Until we colonise Mars we can only go deeper in terms of how we use technology, not wider. 

The stage is set, but for what? We have been subjected to factors outside our control several times in our existence — from the earliest days of farming (and our first dabbling into genetic engineering), through the smelting of metals through the bronze and iron ages, and right up to the age of enlightenment, which itself spawned the industrial revolution. Just as this caused populations to move from rural areas into cities, drove fundamental advances in sanitation and catalysed the growth of the middle classes, so today’s technology-laced existence is changing the way we, as a race, live, think and feel. This book focuses on this complete shift of human behaviour and thinking, which (for want of a better term) we shall call the ‘smart shift’. And shift it is — not forward or back but sideways, stepping across to a sometimes subtly, yet altogether different way of being.

The smart shift has had a long gestation, with its roots at the discovery of electricity and hence both electronic calculation engines and long-distance communication. These are the starting buffers of the track we career along today. But if we cannot predict, are we also doomed to continue without a plan? Map it out we must, or face the continued challenge of individuals, companies and even nations acting in their own interests without any constraints, simply because our legal and governance configurations are insufficient to keep up.

The evolutionary process of mutation is both positive and negative. With every up there has been a down — as Kranzberg’s first law4 of technology states, “Technology is neither good nor bad; nor is it neutral.” It is worth recalling Richard Gatling, who was so keen5 to demonstrate the futility of war that, in 1861, he created a weapon which showed no regard for human life (if any weapon ever did). Gatling was, let us say, a complex character - at the same time as selling his weapon to the US Army, he sided6 with the Confederates. No doubt he would have fitted in well with many modern captains of the technology industry. While the Gatling Gun and its many copies may not have changed the nature of society, it most certainly did change the nature, tactics and psychology of war and indeed, played a crucial, role in the first, ‘Great’ War, the war to end all wars, in which so many soldiers perished due to a failure to understand the shift taking place.

The Gatling Gun changed the nature of war as profoundly as Jethro Tull’s threshing machine changed the nature of agriculture, the latter for the better in many ways but at the same time, taking away the livelihoods of thousands and driving them into factories. In this anniversary period of the First World War, let us neither fool ourselves into thinking all advances are by their nature a good thing, nor that we can be smart enough to change our behaviours quickly even as the causes of change are right in front of our noses.

On the upside, we have sufficient knowledge of the tracks upon which technology has been laid, and of human, corporate and national behaviour, to have a fair stab at what needs to be in place to help us deal with what we are experiencing. The early days of the industrial revolution were more about discovery than invention: the consequence was decades of change as first the machines took over. Eventually such diversification subsided, then humanity started to get back into control. Some of the most important figures in this period were politicians who grasped where it was all leading, and who were then able to drive the legislation required to counter it. Innovation without policy leads to chaos and vested interests winning short-term gains over the greater good.

Throughout the past few hundred years we have seen some quite profound changes in how we think and act, driven by what we can loosely call ‘innovations’. It is difficult to imagine one more profound as what is happening currently: perhaps quantum mechanics will yield another such shift, at some point in the future. Even so, historians will look back in a few hundred years and recognise just what a watershed moment the digital age is for the human race and, indeed, the planet. Meanwhile, from the perspective of living within these turbulent times, the bottom line is that those individuals and entities that shift faster — through luck or judgement — will have an advantage over those who move less fast. This is not a prediction; as innumerable examples illustrate, it is happening right now.

All the same and with some optimism, let’s consider how on earth we got into this turbulent phase of our existence in the first place. To do so, we need first to get a handle on the raw materials of the digital revolution, which is being powered by a capability unheard of in history — the ability to store, manipulate and transmit astonishingly large quantities of information, anywhere on (and indeed, off) the planet. To understand how this became possible, let’s go back to where this latest phase began — the end of the Second World War.