In visible silence
How some of the biggest transformations ahead of us are happening quietly. Right in front of our eyes.
Which transformations have you experienced in your lifetime?
When we see our everyday lives from a day to day perspective, it is difficult to capture, what is changing around us and which changes are important. What are just hypes and fads, which will come and go, and what will transform the way we live and work? The future is hard to predict and we are bound to get many things wrong (flying cars, anyone?), but that doesn’t imply we shouldn’t think about it.
We are most likely as bad at predicting the future as people have always been. We are used to linear, incremental changes, which makes it easy to miss leaps in capabilities driven by advances in technology. We tend to focus too much on the actual things instead of the implications of the things. When we see a robot making backflips, we know we have seen the future. The robots are super fascinating, but it is the technology behind and inside them, that will be transformative. Not necessarily the backflipping robot itself. We are also notoriously bad at seeing the dynamics of big systems. We tend to look at their parts and miss the impact of all parts working together.
The future is already here.
Kevin Kelly famously once said: “The future is already here. It is just unevenly distributed.” It implies that many exciting new things are already in development and moving out into the world, but in most places change moves very, very slowly. In the summer of 1994, I was an intern in the engineering department of a large company. We were talking about the Intel Pentium chips, which only the senior managers had installed in their computers, and were anticipating the new Microsoft Windows 95, when we received a memo from IT. In short, it said, that “over the next 5 years we will upgrade all PCs from DOS to Windows 3.1”.
This is not to make fun of that IT department. They had a huge task ahead of them with manual upgrades and to keep everything running at the same time. But the discrepancy between what we hear about of exciting new technology and what we see happening in companies is huge. It still is.
Nonetheless, change is happening in companies, but the incremental and slow steps often mean that a different time scale is useful to perceive the changes and to see their implications. The following two examples from my own experience serve to illustrate the principle. They cannot, of course, explain all the changes that have happened in the last decades.
Example 1: the laser printer
In 1985 I visited a major printing company in Turin, Italy. They were state of the art in printing technology. For some of their smaller printing jobs, they had a laser printer the size of a living room. As a demonstration of its powers, they printed out several entire books on Pascal programming, while we were watching. We had just seen the future.
A few years later, laser printers were desktop size, then they printed in colour. Today I rarely print anything and if I do, I use print-as-a-service.
Example 2: email
In 1993 while writing my thesis at a university in Marseille, France, I was able to communicate with my supervisor in Denmark via email if I went to the room with the terminals. We were still discussing what the @-symbol was actually called. It was pretty neat, but honestly it was easier to just make a phone call.
A few years later, I got my first personal email and email soon became available everywhere, also in companies. Virtually unchanged until this day.
The enduring technologies
Going through our lives we have all experienced the impact of these changes. Some of them we noticed. Others were somehow just there. Some new technologies were only there for a short while, no matter how mind blowing they seemed (Segway, Tamagotchi come to mind). Others endured, no matter how mundane they may have seemed (email, servers, networks, clouds, to name a few).
While we are not going to work on our Segways or in our flying cars, the way we work has been deeply impacted by the technologies, which endured. Today, nobody can imagine not having an email at work, shared network drives, cloud services. It is difficult to overestimate the impact of spreadsheets and word processing on jobs, both the jobs, which disappeared completely, and the jobs which transformed. It seems obvious and inevitable, when looking back. It was neither.
How can this help us think about the future?
The technologies, which have endured in companies to the point, where we all take them for granted, have some shared characteristics. We might call them some underlying principles.
They are built on data moving in networks and stored in shared facilities. They facilitate collaboration and leverage the ever-increasing power of computers to do more tasks more efficiently and effectively. They enable people to work together in more ways and be less dependent on time and location. The digital technologies are favoured because they keep processes running and keep information flowing. The digital technologies reinforce each other. Each time an element improves (faster networks for instance) it opens new capabilities throughout the system. This is the digital transformation.
Technologies like the laser printers (or fax machines as another example) followed technological upgrades for some years, but ultimately they both represented a break in the flow of information. Once information was printed on paper it was out of the system and you needed a separate process to get information back into the system (for a while printers and fax machines kept each other alive, using manpower I might add, because it was necessary to print a document to be able to put it into the fax machine). The gaps in the workflow became the undoing of these technologies.
Turning our heads towards the future, what can this tell us?
The future is still unpredictable and we will see new-to-the-world technologies, which we couldn’t imagine until someone did. Maybe we will get the flying cars or we skip that step entirely. Some of the things we see now will be today’s Tamagotchis and will be gone tomorrow. It is not so easy to know which (perhaps chatbots?).
The transformation will come from a multitude of algorithms running in software, which may look and feel familiar, but will come with powerful new capabilities.
But if recent history can teach us anything, we should look for the seemingly mundane new technologies, because they are most likely to impact how most of us will work in the future and with what. AI-technologies are too often visualized as intelligent humanoid robots, which is fascinating stuff (like a backflipping robot or printing an entire Pascal manual in 1985), but the transformation will come from a multitude of algorithms running in software, which may look and feel familiar, but will come with powerful new capabilities. The networks and the clouds, which already allowed us to collaborate better will jump to unprecedented levels when we connect all our things to the network. These changes are already happening and will accelerate.
The only thing to be seen, was the impact of the laser.
I once had the opportunity to visit a shipyard, where they used an industrial laser to cut steel to shape. It was a pretty impressive machine, which would move the laser head over the steel in the pre-programmed shape and when it stopped moving the steel had been cut as easily as a hot knife cuts through butter. And yet most people were disappointed, because the laser itself was invisible. The only thing to be seen, was the impact of the laser.
AI-technologies, Internet of Things, cloud-technology, networks etc. all share this characteristic of being near invisible and yet their impact will be tremendous and is probably rightfully called the 4th industrial revolution. For most people the revolution is a distant sound of thunder. For many it is dead silent. But wondering if AI will have an impact, maybe even with a slight disappointment about progress so far, is like watching the laser head move the invisible laser, but not noticing the steel being cut.
The future is already here. Digital transformation is not an event. It is an underlying principle, which piece by piece adds new capabilities to organisations, networks of organisations and societies. The big picture is difficult to see in real-time and most of us only get to work with a piece or two of the big puzzle. It is a revolution with the power to change everything. It moves silently, yet in full visibility. Enjoy the silence!
PS: The inspiration for the title of this article comes from the album “In visible silence” by The Art of Noise from April 1986. The music video of the song “Paranoimia” from the album featured Max Headroom, the first (self-proclaimed) AI media host in TV.