Finding the Future in Little Things

Wally Bock "History does not repeat, but it does rhyme."

Mark Twain is supposed to have said that and even if he didn't say that, it's the kind of thing he would say and it's pretty accurate. There have been two big socio-technical revolutions in the last five hundred years and they've both followed the same pattern.

In both the Printing Revolution and the Industrial Revolution the first fifty years were full of changes, but they almost all just took things we'd already been doing and did them faster and cheaper. In the second fifty years, though, the really big changes began to happen.

In the Printing Revolution, the new availability of books fueled the Reformation and the Enlightenment and laid the groundwork for today's information-based society. In the Industrial Revolution the railroad changed the way business was done and even helped create such things as "Standard Time." Now we're at that stage of the Digital Revolution.

My date for the start of the Digital Revolution is March 31, 1951. That's when the first UNIVAC, the first programmable computer designed for business use, was delivered to the US Census Bureau.

It's a bit over fifty years later now and, if history does indeed rhyme, we should start to experience fundamental changes in ways that we live and do business. Well, we have.

While you were busy doing other things, like paying attention to your family and career, those changes have begun. You can get an idea of what the big changes may be by watching small changes in the life and business that goes on around you.

You can figure out a lot by watching how we use telephones. A couple of weeks ago I was chatting with my daughters who were out on a camping trip to celebrate Diana's birthday.

We were having our conversation in the middle of the day on a weekday, but the price was right. I've got a flat rate calling plan that lets me make local and long distance calls in the United States for less than I pay on my wired phone and way less than we used to pay.

Back in the 1950s it would cost almost four bucks, in current dollars, for a three minute call from New York, where we lived, down to Philly, where my grandmother lived. And that was if you called after 6 PM or on Sunday. It was far more expensive during a weekday.

Watch for the phone companies to change billing so that most basic phone service is at a flat rate. Once they do that, they'll have to start charging for other things. Many of them will be things you used to get for free, like directory assistance.

My wireless phone has all kinds of features. There's a calendar and an address book and an alarm. I can even send and receive short text messages.

My kids were using their phones for more than voice calls. When they wanted to go into town and shop, they used their phones to log on to the Internet and get locations, hours and directions for the places they wanted to go.

Without much fanfare, wireless phones have become the comm center for a whole lot of people because they handle the broadest range of communication possibilities and they can fit in your pocket or purse.

Expect this trend to continue. Face it, it's easier to add the features of a Personal Digital Assistant to a phone than it is to turn a PDA into an easy and comfortable to use communications device.

Watch how folks around you use their phones and how their lives change and you can get lots of ideas about what the future holds. Some of those ideas won't have a thing to do with phones per se. Here's an example.

You may have noticed that you're hearing more wireless phones ring with a catchy song. Mine plays "The Entertainer." Just about half of us with wireless phones have the capability of downloading ring tones and more and more of us are doing just that.

Yep, you can buy a digital bit of your current favorite hit and download it to your cell phone. That's turning out to be a new way for musical artists to make money. Recently a reggae artist named Sean Paul sold more of the ring tone version of one of his songs than he did of the CD single.

The headlines about the music business tell about big lawsuits, brave new music business Websites and Universal's reduction in music prices. Those may be headlines, but they're not the big news.

The big news is about lots of artists trying lots of ways to use the Net to build their reputations and sell their stuff. The big news is about the ways careers may develop in new/old ways.

The Grateful Dead and the E Street band both made their reputations and built a fan base in live performance and small clubs. In a way, the Net is taking on the role that small clubs used to have as a place to find and support newer acts.

This is change that bubbles up from below and it's a whole lot more interesting than watching the Recording Industry Association slinging hot pitch from the battlements of their old business model.

The second half-century of the Digital Revolution is shaping up to rhyme with the Printing Revolution and the Industrial Revolution as a period of many significant changes in the ways we live and do business. But you don't need a crystal ball to figure out what those significant changes might be.

Watch how people you know are changing the ways they choose and use technology. Those are the best clues to the Digital Future.

Wally has an extensive collection of articles and other resources on his Resource Web Site.

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