Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

Always connected and the emergence of ubiquitously shared meaning

Posted in business and convergent technologies by Timothy Platt on September 4, 2011

As an intentionally provocative statement, I would propose that civilization is a complex of processes by which we as people shape our environment to better meet our needs – civilization, in effect, is how we rebuild our environment in our own image and in the image that we would want to see in ourselves.

Form and image have always been an important part of this, and the conveying of message. But the message conveyed has in general been static within and certainly from any single item. If humanity is Homo faber – the tool making species, dynamism in what we build, has for the most part been in function. One of the consequences of our rapidly emerging capabilities towards true ubiquitous computing and communications is that our tools, and of all sorts are becoming connected into our information networks too. And we are beginning to see a fundamental paradigm shift in the basic nature of our culturally defined and shaped environment – actively used tools and even our more passive tools such as building walls and road signs are becoming dynamic channels for sharing information too, and the environment we are building is becoming increasingly rich in dynamic information and in meaning.

I find myself thinking about a Corning marketing video that seeks to indicate what may be coming, at least from that company’s efforts: A Day Made of Glass. I have already cited this YouTube video once before (see When People Become Nodes in Largely Automated Information Management Systems) and that type of message can be very dramatic.

But perhaps more than that, I find myself thinking of the more mundane, but collectively more profound message that is carried by the cumulative weight of all of the little changes we see developing around us. Increasingly when I drive on a highway I see a succession of electronic road signs that provide advisories as to road conditions and traffic delays, and that increasingly often also announce details such as the driving time to reach specific exits. Continuing the context of travel, here in New York City and in an increasing number of other urban areas if I enter a subway station or walk up to a bus stop there is a continually updated sign there announcing when the next subway train or bus will arrive and what route it is following. And I don’t have to travel to Times Square anymore to see dynamically changing electronic advertising signs. It is the cumulative weight of the little details of everywhere all the time connected, that carry the real impact – the cumulative weight of all of the little changes that we would not, perhaps really notice on their own.

And reconsidering that Corning video, it is only overtly dramatic because it compresses so much of this change into a single short presentation – and every single detail and instance of ubiquitous connection shown in it is in and of it self quite every-day and mundane. Dynamically updating bill boards and road signs, we tend to take for granted and either note or ignore depending on need – because they come at us as new, one at a time. And they do address mundane every day needs and activities so they are easily taken for granted from that too. The environment we are shaping around ourselves now is increasingly one of emersion in dynamically active meaning. And we have only seen the first few tentative steps in a very profound and ubiquitous change.

I do not claim to have a crystal ball or the ability to see or predict the future – any even slightly detailed predictions as to how this will all take shape would quickly come to be seen as quaint at best. But the basic trend is clear and we are coming to live in a fundamentally new type of context.

I will, of course, be coming back to this in future postings, and you can find this and related notes in Ubiquitous Computing and Communications – everywhere all the time.

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