If you’re in the UK and able to use BBC iPlayer, I’d encourage you to watch the first episode of “The Virtual Revolution”, Dr Aleks Krotoski’s exploration into how the world wide web “is reshaping every aspect of our lives”.
I began working in information technology in 1992, in ICL, a kind of British version of IBM that didn’t really survive the death of the mainframe. It was full of people trying to preserve the way IT had been sold and delivered in the 1980s. Big expensive deals with big companies and governments, involving armies of advisors and complicated computers and networks, for people who had fond memories of the typing pool. Most people I met sat around discussing company car scales, and plans for golf. I used to sit at my desk in Old Windsor, a Windows 286 PC whirring away, waiting for 5pm, when the afternoon Concorde flight from New York would roar past my window, on finals into Heathrow. No doubt carrying Joan Collins, or Phil Collins. Somebody else’s world, that I could only watch.
I then worked at Apple, in Poland, right after the fall of the iron curtain. From our (Cupertino-style) vantage point above a hat factory in the Warsaw suburbs, Eastern Europe was an exciting but impenetrable market. Poland didn’t need Apple’s technology of the early ’90s – it needed cheap PCs and lots of them. Remember, the world wide web was only just being invented. It was a turbulent time for Apple, too. Globally it was losing market share and grappling with expensive products that were underpowered, too early for mainstream adoption, or that it didn’t know how to bring to market. In 1993, we’d be playing with Quicktime in the office on a Quadra 660AV – videos on a computer – little postage stamp videos. And we’d be going “Wow!”. But the Polish buyers couldn’t use those features – they were just fun stuff. Then there was the Apple QuickTake digital camera. For about $400 it would hold 16 digital photographs. “Why do I need digital photographs, when the cameras are expensive and I can’t do anything useful with the photos?” people rightly asked. Warsaw at the time was filling rapidly with Kodak and Fuji logos, as film camera sales boomed. It wasn’t the right time.
Like most companies, these firms were grappling with the future – each unsure how things would evolve. ICL eventually disappeared, its lucrative government contracts being absorbed into Fujitsu. Apple spent another five years in the doldrums, while Microsoft, Compaq and others brought personal computing to the masses. Until it got Steve Jobs back and launched the iMac.
It’s easy for outsiders to believe everyone who works in information technology actually understands the changes going on in the world, and builds computers, software and businesses that are in tune with them. They’d be wrong. There are many that don’t – the world is full of rubbish technology, or good technology, that’s badly timed. Stuff designed in a bubble, that doesn’t have a purpose, that doesn’t change how you do things with other people.
But something extraordinary has happened in information technology over the past five years, something that I still struggle to put my finger on. Krotoski’s programme is in tune with our time and gets under the skin of this change – gets more closely to the heart of what’s changing right now – than most other TV programmes about computing.
The heart of this change in computing is essentially political. Computing is now much more open than it was and knowledge flows around much better than before. Software is often free, people can publish freely, they can change things and republish improved versions. Mistakes are no longer disasters – you can change things. The devices are now much better, too and they’re not just great for people who type – they’re for people who see images, who can express ideas simply, rather than in great tomes. They work in more places, too, and simply allow you to do more things. And they’re much cheaper.
It’s making the people who used to control things – who hoarded information, or resource, who held a lid on people’s talents – well, it’s showing those people up as out of touch, as no better, and often worse, than those with the guts and imagination to go out and make things happen. The people who share, who adapt, who listen – the people committed to develop their understanding of problems, and committed to helping others do the same.
The rash of analysis and “Meh” commentary from people last week after the launch of Apple’s splendid new iPad seems so banal in comparison to the fact that fifteen years ago, almost nobody instinctively felt the power of IT to change how we live.
Today almost all of you feel it a little bit. From my friends this morning in Dhaka in India, Cork in Ireland, in The Hague and in New York, watching my “Twitpics” – yes digital photos that bounce around the world instantaneously via Twitter. People who feel part of my day, as I do theirs. It’s about how people I know in America can follow and build upon the work of people I know in London, in completely new ways, whenever I pick up my phone or a cheap video camera. It’s felt by people who guiltily use Facebook at the office – who understand that all these tiny insights into people, these tiny opportunities to interact, are much more powerful than typing long group emails, that noone reads. Or writing reports that only one person will ever receive, and probably won’t read. They *know* something’s changing. They just can’t quite put their finger on it.
The thing that now holds us back is not the technology. It’s our ability to break out of long-established assumptions about how to work, and how quickly you can make good things happen. It’s about whether those we work for – those we work with – have the wisdom and courage to give others permission to do what is now possible. It’s the greatest of times.
Mark Charmer is a co-founder of Akvo. He’s talking at this Thursday’s Media140 conference, part of Social Media Week, in London.