1.16 A gradual embedding
Nicholas Negroponte, a founder of Wired magazine, wrote in the 1990’s about how technology’s ultimate success would be the point at which it would be invisible and embedded into human life. ‘Computers as we know them today’, he said in 1998, ‘will a) be boring, and b) disappear into things that are, first and foremost, something else’. Their increasing invisibility, he said, would be a mark of their success.
Sensors are now part of the digital landscape. Digital sensory perception is also, increasingly, a part of who we are. Streaming audio, video and ‘always-on’ media constitute a large part of how we consume content. Our ears and eyeballs are ever more conditioned by coded stimuli being transmitted to us, whether we consciously recognise it or not.
But this story was never going to be just about the equipment. As the Gutenberg press was to books, technology is, still, only as powerful as the ideas of the people who use it.
In the networked digital age, connecting people is one of digital technology’s great advantages, and from the late 1970’s C.E. to the year 2000 C.E., early online communities and commercial businesses harnessing networks began to emerge.
These were the early forays into peer-to-peer networks, the distributed sharing of information, and what we might call the first digital colonies.
Hand in hand with these appeared the first commercial online businesses, Amazon, Ebay, Google, Yahoo, Netscape and AOL, to name just some of them. They all utilized this technology and sprang into digital life in the early to mid 1990’s C.E.. They were the first businesses to cross over the threshold from the industrial age to the digital one.
AOL’s founder, Steve Case, has written recently about his perspective on AOL’s part in internet history and what he sees as the next chapters unfolding.
Digital media was creating substantial economic disruption by the 1990’s. It was able to lower costs, offer immediacy, provide seamless browsing experiences and added value via a lack of friction.
With rapidly growing ‘first mover’ businesses and their attendant advantages gaining a foothold in this new commercial world order, Silicon Valley, as it was now becoming known, was alive with hype and excitement.
The inevitable blip came at the end of the 1990’s and the new millennium opened its account with the dot.com crash in early 2001.
In the few years running up to the new millennium, the valuation of any business with an ‘e’ at the front of its name had been inflated by fevered speculation. This was a new wild west, klondike territory and the digital world was producing virtual gold.
The hype bubble burst however when it became clear a friction-free model took at least as much economic value out of the equation as it added to it. What had been links in the chain of value creation had melted away. With disintermediation, opportunities to broker and leverage customer interest were disappearing. We had on our hands an economic conundrum.
In September 2001, the hideous spectre of 9/11 was a political atrocity that was also to some extent symbolic of how the foundations of an old order and its thinking were being razed to the ground.
The dot.com collapse can be counted as starting bell that opened up more connected economies. And when the mists cleared from the financial and political debris that year, what became apparent was that, alongside the technology, there existed an obvious yet overlooked ingredient in the digital technology value chain, and it was people.
People relaying information to other people was being recognized as a source of immense value, potency and power, just as it had been when the Chapar-Khaneh had been in existence 2,500 years ago.
‘The Cluetrain Manifesto’, published in 1999 C.E. influenced a generation of internet entrepreneurs to come. It encapsulated the thought that ‘markets are conversations’, and with that the digital world, powered by people, had the makings of a new motherlode.
The net worth is in the network
Riding in on the first wave of the idea of markets as conversations, Blogger was launched in 1999 as the world’s first blogging platform. It created a means of recording and sharing thoughts online, and producing digital content easily. Now, anyone could become a publisher. Gradually, the means to connect and have a voice through the web was becoming more accessible.
Hot on its heels, Stumble Upon arrived in 2001. Stumble Upon let people explore and share content and create peer-based recommendations. It, in turn, was followed by Friendster, Friends Reunited, MySpace and in 2004, came Facebook.
People potential, in the form of social networking connections, was taking hold.