Disruption of the mass media is a big subject. But here’s an even bigger one: the incredible amount of good this same disruption is bringing to humanity worldwide.
So this time out, let’s forget about the mass media for a few minutes. Let’s take a look at the massive and mostly positive impact this digital revolution is having and will continue to have on humanity.
To begin, let’s look again at the “infinite pipe” graphic I’ve used several times before in this blog.
This chart illustrates how the flow of information among humans has expanded from almost nothing during most of our 200,000-year history to near infinity in just the last decade or so. A few weeks ago, I wrote about this from the perspective of the media. Now let’s look at it from the perspective of humanity.
From that viewpoint, we must first acknowledge this is not an equal-opportunity planet. Humans live in a wide range of information conditions. In fact, every information condition on the graphic above still exists in some places on the globe.
In the industrialised — or informationised — parts of the world, we live at the right end of the chart, with nearly infinite access virtually all the time. But several billion people around the globe live in much less advanced conditions.
There are people living in information environments equivalent to the 1990s, the 1950s, the early 1900s, the 1600s, and even before. That is, there are people who have no access to the Internet, people who have no access to radio and television, and even people who have little or no access to print — and couldn’t read if they did.
Now to the heart of the matter: What does information mean to a human being?
The human mind is, fundamentally, a choice-making engine. It processes information received through the five senses and makes choices and decisions that result in actions. And those actions are calculated to give us better results — more happiness, more enjoyment, better living, etc., in ways large and small.
Noticing that it’s cold in here, you might put on a sweater. Reading the labels in the supermarket aisle, you might decide to buy the breakfast cereal that’s lower in calories. Assessing your prospects in your job, you might decide it’s time to look for a new one.
We’re not just computers, of course — our choices and decisions are influenced by individual feelings, values, personalities, and a host of other individual influences. But the fact is, incoming information is the fuel that drives human thought and action.
And here’s another key fact: New information is the only thing that changes a person’s behaviour. A person will go on doing what he/she is doing right now, until — based on new information — he/she decides it’s time to do something different.
OK, back to the graphic. As we go from left to right, through the course of human history, what’s happening? Individuals are gaining access to more and more information. And, as that happens, they make more choices and decisions — and change their behaviour more often.
Hence the incredible acceleration of change in all aspects of society as we move from left to right on the graphic. At the left end of the chart, for millennia, human society changed only very gradually. Then the advent of printing resulted in the rise of literacy, which drove increasingly rapid political, economic, and technological change.
From the Dark Ages through the Renaissance, from mercantilism to the free market, from feudal systems to representative democracy, from the industrial era to the information era, the engine of change was the same: more information moving more people to new choices, new decisions, and changes in behaviour.
At the left end of the graphic, when word of mouth was the only information technology, only a few people (e.g., rulers, nobility, and priests) had access to more information than the rest of humanity. And they didn’t have much. At the right end of the graphic, with full mass media and universal digital technologies, we are moving rapidly toward the ultimate condition, in which everyone has access to all information.
The 21st century is the hinge point. During this century, we will see an incredible advance toward the ultimate condition. That’s why the smartphone is the most radical revolutionary technology ever devised. It is enabling and will enable huge segments of humanity to leapfrog hundreds of years, from near-zero access to near-full access to humanity’s expanding trove of information.
What happens when a human mind goes from near-zero access to near-infinite access? From knowing only the life around them to the ability to know about the lives, achievements, potentials, and possibilities across the whole human race?
First, shock and awe. Then dissatisfaction. Then action.
In this century, billions of people will, for the first time, have access to enough information to see and understand the opportunities that others enjoy, and to strive to maximise their own abilities and opportunities. The increase in human capacity, productivity, and fulfillment will be monumental.
And so goatherders — and certainly many of their children and grandchildren — will become technologists, doctors, lawyers, scientists, business people, etc. Corrupt and restrictive political systems will come under unstoppable pressure, as happened in the Soviet Union, Poland, and the Arab Spring. Jobs will continue to flow from the information-privileged to the formerly information-starved.
Wealth will tend to equalise around the globe over many coming generations, as more people come closer to maximising their potential.
All of this, just because human minds are gaining new access to information.
Individually, of course, people will make good choices and bad ones. Access to information does not guarantee wise decisions. But in the main, across the whole of humanity, people will do what they are wired to do: They will mostly make choices that produce better outcomes for themselves, their families and, in aggregate, society.
We’re seeing it in India and China. As information reaches all the dark corners of the planet, we’ll see it everywhere.
Exactly what will happen is impossible to predict. But we can be sure that the general result will be more freedom, more equality, more economic advancement, more rapid development of technology, and more global interconnectedness than ever before.
At the same time, those who benefited from the old, barricaded information systems of the past are in for hard times. Repressive governments, autocratic institutions, and monopolistic businesses will find life more and more difficult.
So, too, will businesses built around the former difficulties of getting information. That includes the traditional media.
In the 20th century, we used the best available technologies to give people information that was almost impossible to get any other way. Now people can use much easier, cheaper, more handily available technologies to get far more information than print or broadcast could ever provide — and information that’s far more centered on their own needs, wants and possibilities than our time-honoured definitions of “news.”
What should we do now?
For starters, we should realise that, in the broadest view, this is the best of times for our customers, even if it is the worst of times for us. And in those best of times, with old information problems solved, our customers are now dealing with a completely different set of information needs and wants.
It’s our job to figure out what those are, and how to best to meet them.