Living Through a Technology Seismic Shift

Years ago I was a very early advocate of a technology known as local area networks (LANs). In fact, people called me “Stan, the LAN man.” The problem was that most “normal” people didn’t have a clue what a LAN was. When someone at a party asked what I did and I started to explain, I’d see their eyes glaze over as they desperately looked for ways to escape me. Now trust me, I wasn’t like the Ancient Mariner. I didn’t grab people by the lapel and force technology down their throats. I was excited, though, about what I saw as a technology that would change the world.

Similarly, I managed a computer store when PCs first became available commercially. Once again, as a very early adopter, I heard the same questions over and over again: “Why would I want one in my house? What could I do with it?” The answers were so obvious to me that I had a hard time understanding why people even hesitated. That was true even though there was very little software available.

The computer revolution changed our lives. Young people have trouble understanding how there ever was a time when people didn’t have computers. As far as LANs, people now have them in their homes and routinely talk about technology such as routers. When you go through a technology revolution, it seems like one minute only early adopters embrace the technology; suddenly everyone seems to embrace it. The only people out of step are the Luddites or very late technology adopters.

The same process repeats itself over and over again. My son is an expert in mobile payment technology. Many non-technology oriented people shake their heads when he tries to explain the future’s promise for a technology where people can walk in stores, purchase items by flashing their phones, and leave with the items without ever talking to a salesperson or cashier.

Think of how the ways people use their phones have changed in a very short period of time. One of my friends had a garage sale and decided to get rid of some old AT&T black handsets with rotary dialing. Teenagers stared at the phones, trying to figure out how people dialed. Remember when people used to laugh at the idea that someone would spend a couple of hundred dollars for a “smart” phone? “Who needs one when I have a computer?” they said. Now, some people spend a lot of time typing email notes on their phone’s very small keyboard and think nothing of it.

My point is that when you are in a time period when technology is rapidly changing, you don’t really notice because models change gradually as they add more sophisticated features. It’s only when we look back over several years that we’re struck by how much things have changed.

So, some far out technology such as Google Glass may seem completely ridiculous and unnecessary at a price point approaching $2000 and limited features. Imagine, though, what could happen in five years if the price dropped to a few hundred dollars and the features multiplied.

If you want a good laugh, watch the old Jetsons’ cartoons or a number of old science fiction movies. The technology that is supposed to be so advanced is really laughable. Why? It’s because people have a hard time breaking free of existing models of how things work. Take personal airplanes, for example. Why do they have to look like cars? Take weapons. Why do they have to look like guns that resemble what cowboys used in the old west?

Take the future phone. Why does it have to resemble a phone? It’s just as likely that people will wear their phones and computers instead of staring at a handheld device with a tiny screen. It’s entirely possible that people will live in a virtual reality world where they blink and see a display the size of their entire viewing area. When they need to type rather than simply speak or think their words, a virtual keyboard will be a much more efficient way to work.

One of my friends is a scientist. He tells me that his company now is selling a mechanism that allows paralyzed people to think their commands and have their body respond. In other words, a paraplegic could think a command for his arms to move, and they will do so with the help of a mechanical device. Scientists have learned how to identify brain wave patterns for certain commands and convert those patterns into wireless commands to a device that lifts the arm. Think a few years ahead. Why not simply think your message and have your brain’s wireless connection to the Internet transmit it?

There’s no privacy today. Imagine a world where what you think could be instantly sent digitally. We’ll have to develop efficient filters to avoid today’s equivalent mistake of accidentally pressing “reply all.” Now, imagine the future hacker focused on identifying brain wave patterns of specific people. The very idea opens up the possibility of commercial espionage as well as governmental espionage. It also offers the possibility of several new growth industries to help our economy,

One day we worry about domestic spying while the next day we suddenly realize we have to worry about our naked thoughts exposed to any hacker with the ability to read brain waves. What we didn’t notice was that we were living through a major technology shift.