When too much perspective can be a bad thing

An article by my former colleague and TEDx Leeds speaker Norman Lewis reminds me of an ingenious device imagined by Douglas Adams in the Restaurant at the End of the Universe. Yes, I know you all like a good Douglas Adams quote.

First, though, listen to Norman, writing about ‘Millennials’ and Enterprise2.0 on his Futures Diagnosis blog:

The Millennial issue in the workplace has become symptomatic of the uncertainty of the ‘information age’ which exaggerates the novelty of the present at the expense of the past. This generational shift is regarded as unprecedented and a unique feature of our times. The workplace (and indeed, the world) is now divided into two periods: the past where everything remained the same with little change and the current moment with its constant change where change and disruption are incessant.

This rhetoric of unprecedented change is precisely that, rhetoric. What about the generational shift that occurred in the 1960s? The rise of the teenager in the post-War period was indeed unprecedented and had a huge impact on Western society. But did this result in the end of the enterprise as we know it? No, the exact opposite. It helped to forge the enterprise as we know it.

This is spot on. As I’ve argued before, what has changed in the last decade is the enterprise’s level awareness of stuff that has previously gone on behind its back.

Throughout the so-called “mass media” era, managers were encouraged to delude themselves that they had the attention of their employees and customers, who were in reality talking amongst themselves all along.

The web puts an end to the delusion. It acts like Douglas Adams’ Total Perspective Vortex:

… allegedly the most horrible torture device to which a sentient being can be subjected.

When you are put into the Vortex you are given just one momentary glimpse of the entire unimaginable infinity of creation, and somewhere in it a tiny little mark, a microscopic dot on a microscopic dot, which says, “You are here.”

Why is the web like this? Because of the convergence of communications, entertainment and commerce into a single seamless mass.

Once upon a time, television appeared to be an uncontested safe harbour for entertainment and commerce, the corporate-networked desktop PC a clearly bounded productivity tool. Sociability and communication happened out of sight and out of mind.

Now those things are collapsing in on each other. When commercial messages have to compete with pictures of your kids, cute kittens and plans for nights out, there is no contest. When employees openly use the same tools to converse with their peers as to conduct business it becomes clear at once that bonds of friendship are stronger than those of salaried fealty. When even the biggest brand is reduced to a fraction of one percent of searches on the web, it becomes just another microscopic dot on a microscopic dot.

These truths are not new, but the tools to discover them are.

Executives stepping out of the Vortex for the first time are understandably mind-blown. Realising quite how insignificant their businesses and products are in the lives of their consumers, they become easy prey to social media’s snake-oil salesforce, who promise to swell the ranks of their Twitter followers and guarantee instant Google gratification.

Maybe they’d do better to remember that they were young once, and that, as Adams wrote: “In an infinite universe, the one thing sentient life cannot afford to have is a sense of proportion.”

Ten years on, can we stop worrying now?

Ten years ago this month the Sunday Times published an article by Douglas Adams called “How to Stop Worrying and Learn to Love the Internet”. You can read it here.

Some starting observations:

  1. It’s a tragedy that Adams died, aged 49, in 2001, depriving us of more great literature in the vein of the Hitchhiker’s Guide, of genuinely innovative new media projects such as H2G2, and of the witty, insightful commentary we find in the Sunday Times column.
  2. Adams’ insights have stood the test of time.  Everything he wrote at the end of the Nineties stands true as we near the start of the Tens.
  3. We still haven’t stopped worrying.

Adams from 1999:

… there’s the peculiar way in which certain BBC presenters and journalists (yes, Humphrys Snr., I’m looking at you) pronounce internet addresses. It goes ‘wwwDOT … bbc DOT… co DOT… uk SLASH… today SLASH…’ etc., and carries the implication that they have no idea what any of this new-fangled stuff is about, but that you lot out there will probably know what it means.

I suppose earlier generations had to sit through all this huffing and puffing with the invention of television, the phone, cinema, radio, the car, the bicycle, printing, the wheel and so on…

2009: John Humphrys is still huffing and puffing [Update 3/9/09 – further proof provided!], and…

you would think we would learn the way these things work, which is this:

1) everything that’s already in the world when you’re born is just normal;

2) anything that gets invented between then and before you turn thirty is incredibly exciting and creative and with any luck you can make a career out of it;

3) anything that gets invented after you’re thirty is against the natural order of things and the beginning of the end of civilisation as we know it until it’s been around for about ten years when it gradually turns out to be alright really.

Apply this list to movies, rock music, word processors and mobile phones to work out how old you are.

The moral panic continues, now transferred to social networking and camera phones.

And Douglas Adams hit the nail of the head in his taking to task of the term “interactive”:

the reason we suddenly need such a word is that during this century we have for the first time been dominated by non-interactive forms of entertainment: cinema, radio, recorded music and television. Before they came along all entertainment was interactive: theatre, music, sport – the performers and audience were there together, and even a respectfully silent audience exerted a powerful shaping presence on the unfolding of whatever drama they were there for. We didn’t need a special word for interactivity in the same way that we don’t (yet) need a special word for people with only one head.

The same fallacy persists, now transferred from the term “interactive” to “social“.

Ten years ago, Douglas Adams identifed a few problems.

  • “Only a minute proportion of the world’s population is so far connected” – this one’s well on the way to being fixed, as much by the spread of internet-capable mobile devices as by desktop or laptop PCs.
  • It was still “technology,” defined as “‘stuff that doesn’t work yet.’ We no longer think of chairs as technology, we just think of them as chairs.” – has the internet in 2009 reached the same level of  everyday acceptance as chairs? Almost, I think, though the legs still fall off with disappointing regularity.

The biggest problem, wrote Adams, is that “we are still the first generation of users, and for all that we may have invented the net, we still don’t really get it”. Invoking Steve Pinker’s The Language Instinct (read this too, if you haven’t already), he argued that it would take the next generation of children born into the world of the web to become really fluent. And for me that’s been the most amazing part. Reflecting the other day on Tom Armitage’s augmented reality post to the Schulze and Webb blog, I realised that I see that development in my own children’s engagement with technology.

  • At birth a child may assume that anything is possible: a handheld projector holds no special amazement for my three-year-old.
  • Through childhood we are trained, with toys among other things, to limit our expectations about how objects should behave. My six-year-old, who has been trained by the Wii, waves other remote controls about in a vain attempt to use gestures.
  • My nine-year-old, more worldliwise, mocks him for it.

We arrive in the world Internet-enabled and AR-ready, it’s just that present-day technology beats it out of us. I work for the day when this is no longer the case.

Last words to Douglas Adams, as true today as in 1999:

Interactivity. Many-to-many communications. Pervasive networking. These are cumbersome new terms for elements in our lives so fundamental that, before we lost them, we didn’t even know to have names for them.

Update 3/9/09: Debate about Twitter on the Today programme, and Kevin Anderson takes up the theme.