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BOOK REVIEW: Disruption has always defined a civilization - and now it will again

May 24 2019 05:00
Ian Mann

From Gutenberg to Google, by Tom Wheeler 

Quick! How many companies can you name that are listed on a major exchange but that did not exist in 2003? Your list probably included Twitter, WhatsApp, Facebook, Instagram, but also companies that have revolutionised the way we think about companies - such as Airbnb and Uber. The latter two are the largest 'hotel' group and the largest 'taxi' group in the world, and yet don’t own a hotel or a taxi.

Fifty two percent of companies listed on the Fortune 500 in 2003 – a list of the largest and best companies in the world - don't exist anymore. Your children, rarely without their cell phones, are interacting with people around the world and with information, in ways unimaginable when you were their age. If you have been following this column, you will know that neither printing an aeroplane on demand, nor printing an implant and installing it on demand, is fiction. 

That we are living through a period of extraordinary change is undeniable. That this change is impacting our lives consistently and relentlessly is blatantly obvious. The disparity between the rich and the poor has never been larger, with far reaching sociological and political consequences. That we have no idea where it is going or how to deal with this state, is bewildering. Mankind has never had to deal with an upheaval of this magnitude and face such terrifying and confusing consequences before!

This is not so, explains the author, Tom Wheeler, categorically.

He has a right to pronounce on this matter having served as the Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, the US regulatory body for cyber affairs. This is the third, not the first time, the world has been upended by a new technological network that radically alters the way we think about our lives. In fact, none of the prior networks were any easier to comprehend, or any less overwhelming. The great networks of the past and their disruptions defined our civilization, as will this one.

Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press was the first of the three networks that caused profound and widespread change. The Reformation was one consequence. Martin Luther was hardly the first priest to have issues with the church, and to let his congregation and the town know about them. Until the printing press, letters were duplicated by being painstakingly rewritten by hand. Luther had access to the network of printers that facilitated the spread of his ideas across Europe with an impact that was unimaginable in the past. 

The Renaissance would have been impossible without the printing press network and its capacity to spread knowledge far and wide. Once knowledge is spread it interacts with other knowledge and in combination, produces greater knowledge that can be even more widely spread. The religious, social, political and scientific changes that Gutenberg’s invention released, profoundly changed the world.

When knowledge cannot be contained, neither can values, ideas or change be contained. Mankind witnessed the death of confined knowledge. Barely 400 years later the railway network had been invented and developed, and once again humanity changed profoundly and irreversibly. Until the advent of the railway, mankind was limited geographically. The limitation was determined by the energy of a man or a beast. The notion that geography was an insurmountable barrier was suddenly overcome. One could move people and goods faster and further than ever before.

Mankind witnessed the death of distance. With this incredible breakthrough came changes to the way we worked, and where we worked. Mankind had never seen a business on the scale of the railroad system, both in the number of people it employed and in geographic spread. Mankind was completely unprepared for the consequences of deploying so many people so fast.

The only group that had ever managed people on a scale so large was the army, and it was their graduates that railroads employed to manage the vast sea of employees. It is little wonder that the management of the railroad business was modelled as a military style hierarchy, with command and control features. Attendant to this second round of social, technological and economic upheaval was the growth of the telegraph, that essential tool for running a railroad that was both vast and fast.

A horse could not outrun a train, so they were useless in delivering vital forewarnings to railroad managers. The telegraph could deliver information virtually instantly. Mankind witnessed the death of time. Fast forward the third major upheaval, the internet. That we can buy books from Amazon and have them delivered instantly or call for an efficient and inexpensive ride, is very nice but hardly life changing. Networks of the past have always had an integrating function that has allowed the movement of ideas, goods or people in and out of its hub. 

The internet’s greatest change is its ability to orchestrate functions in ways that have never been possible before. Your watch monitors your steps, sleep and gym activities and connects to your phone which tells your health insurer that you deserve a cheap flight, who tells the airline… The magnitude of this interconnectivity is best seen from the autonomous car. It deals with more data than 30 000 people do in the same amount of time, to be able to provide you with the perfect, safe ride. The integration possible from the internet is undoubtedly as profound a game changer as the printing press and the railroad were in their time.

To be able to do business requires trust; and when you cannot see or get to know your counterpart, commerce is limited. In the past, banks transacted with each other only because they used the same double entry system. Today, blockchain technology can perform a similar function, but at a magnitude and speed unthinkable in the past, only because it operates within a connected and orchestrated environment. As such, the internet can digitally orchestrate trust beyond anything seen in the past. However, this network orchestration is also its weakness. In previous eras, enemies knew that immobilising the network would disrupt multiple operations at once, which is why train stations were always considered an attack vector. Take out the station, and movement comes to a halt. 

With connectivity of the internet the net itself is an attack vector. The internet connects our world from power generators to aeroplanes, from our cars to our phones, from GPS devices to health implants. We are extremely vulnerable. Are we seeing profound changes to our lives that no previous generation has ever had to deal with? As Wheeler proves in this clever and thorough book the answer is no. Are the changes far reaching, profound and worrying? Absolutely. They affect every part of our lives from our political systems to our homes and require us to think differently about our future. There is much to be learned from this book. 

Readability   Light ---+ Serious

Insights High -+---Low

Practical High  ----+ Low

*Ian Mann of Gateways consults internationally on strategy and implementation and is the author of ‘Strategy that Works’ and ‘The Executive Update.’ Views expressed are his own.



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