Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

Business social networking to meet human needs: Part 4: change as the only constant

I make the observation that change is the only constant in the title of this posting, but immediately qualify that. Change per se is a constantly and continuously recurring process and a reliable theme in our individual and collective lives. But perhaps more to the point, a number of aspects as to how we view change are reliably consistent and of the nature of constants too. One of them is what can loosely and stereotypically be called our ongoing generational shifts, and in both perception and preference and in the underlying assumptions that inform both. These differences may be more apparent in age related shifts in style and taste but even when that is significant in dividing marketplaces according to demographics, seemingly superficial differences can and do mask more fundamental underlying change too. So far this is all very abstract, but I intend to bring it into more specific focus in the content of social networking, and in that I would begin with my own parents and move to younger perspectives from there.

My father was a communications officer in World War II, and used what was then the state of the art in technology and its applications. He knew Morse code and knew and used the latest radio communications technology. He never forgot his Morse code but he did not grow up using or even knowing of computers and he was never comfortable with them. My brothers and I got a simple to use desktop computer for him, and I set it up with an email account and with some web sites he would find of specific interest bookmarked as favorites. Both my parents wanted to keep more actively in contact with their grandchildren, but the computer simply sat there and they never did get to share messages and photos with more geographically distant family.

I was an early adaptor for computers as I first started using them in the 1960’s – with an IBM System/360 mainframe and then an early release PDP-10. As a side note for the later, the Wikipedia article on the PDP-10 says, at least as of the posting of this note that this computer “looms large in hacker folklore because of its adoption in the 1970s by many university computing facilities and research labs.” That is true at least in part but the real reason is that the Digital Equipment Corporation did not even finish its beta testing, and it can be argued they could not have fully finished their still earlier-stage alpha testing on this system before shipping it out the door. As such, these computers crashed and crashed hard and every single day, at least until the people – primarily students running them dug in to clean out the operating system and related bugs. And yes we did add in “special features” in the process that were probably neither anticipated now desired by the manufactures – or by our schools. This was also an incredible learning opportunity for a great many young minds but that is another story (and it began in the late 1960s, not the 1970s.) My point is that unlike my father I came to see computers as a natural part of my environment, if a limited and sometimes very troublesome and challenging part.

I switched to mini-computers and did a bit with them when they came out but for me and for most the big revolutionary change was the switch to the desktop computer. And the next generational shift I would cite here was in people who grew up with desktop computers as a given and a taken-for-granted.

I still have an old desktop computer as a sort of historical curiosity and souvenir but I use a laptop which I connect to the internet through a wireless router. And yes I have not forgotten the internet in this as soon after the advent of those first desktops, the (still pre-World Wide Web) internet started making itself known. This actually traces back to about 1969 with the launch of the early ARPANET and I say about 1969, as that to my knowledge is the year when the first components of this system actively went live. But the internet per se only went significantly public when a threshold of members of the public had ready access to computers and networking technology (e.g. modems, etc.) to be able to go online. And the world changed again and so did expectations and people growing up in this new context and perspective took a very different view of the world and one based on different fundamental assumptions. That really became true with the advent of the World Wide Web and a capacity to tap into an increasingly vast database at any time and from anywhere – at least from anywhere you could plug in a desktop and connect it to the (still fully wired) internet.

Now the technology has changed again and my laptop computer qualifies as “big iron” to use a term that was once applied to mainframe computers, and even notebook computers can be seen as “large format” platforms. Handhelds are coming into their own, and people who have grown up with them as a given and an assumed take a still different view of the world as a result. And we are rapidly seeing the emergence of true ubiquitous computing and communications and the rate and degree of change are about to accelerate yet again.

My father, in his plane in World War II was radio-equivalent of online. I have been online from a fairly early age but that was a different online than that of my father, and the online experience and the basic assumptions that go into it have change and changed again and again and in ways at least as significant as the switch from radio communications to early computer network. Actually, in a way wireless and ubiquitous online can be seen as rediscovering some features from my father’s two way radio that were lost with the switch to wire-tethered internet online. But the differences are vast too. And all of this has been about social networking, and the fact that I have to say that is at least consistent with my point of contention that we come to take the more current state of the art for granted, and certainly the level of technology and connectivity we grew up with.

Friendster did not invent social networking and neither did MySpace or Facebook, or LinkedIn or any of the other online social networking sites, and neither did instant messaging or Twitter or their counterpart variations, with or without video.

Each of these basic technologies did, however, contribute to and support a new worldview and a rapidly changing one that does correlate, if inexactly with age and generation.

A book I have cited a few times so far in this blog is:

• Benkler, Y. (2006) The Wealth of Networks: how social production transforms markets and freedom. Yale University Press.

This work argues eloquently in support of the information commons and of keeping the internet open as a shared public resource and a part of the basic infrastructure of community.

I also cite what for this blog is a new reference here with:

• Helprin, M. (2009) Digital Barbarism: a writer’s manifesto. Harper.

This work offers an equally impassioned argument in support of copyright and the building and maintenance of walls and tariffs, and the denial in a fundamental sense of the legitimacy of a digital commons. That these writers disagree is obvious and so is the fact that they often speak past each other. Benkler, for example, would focus on the way the US courts system has continued to push copyright protection periods back further and longer, adding many decades to copyright protection status before anything content could by default enter the public domain. Helprin, in contrast focuses on the support of or denial of copyright protection at all, and without consideration of duration, reasonable or otherwise – or what that distinction might mean.

The complex web of issues involved here would not and in a fundamental sense could not exist as meaningful areas of discourse or concern if it were not for the internet. The emergence of our increasingly ubiquitous computing and communications environment where an increasing variety of data and knowledge streams can be shared have made these issues of vital importance and in the marketplace and in the courts of law and in our day to day lives as well.

The flood of changes in preferences, assumptions, priorities and concerns that underlie this history affect us in many ways, and on many fronts, including collection, distribution of and use, and by whom of our personal information, our ability to do business, and in real space as well as online and in how we parse our work and leisure time or even define them for that matter. And this is where those generational and related demographics shifts I wrote of above really become important as this is not about the technology, but rather about the people who use that technology, and it is mostly about how our worldview and ways of thinking have changed. And this change continues on.

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