2016 / 17 April

The “Connected Age”, Our New Digital Future

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There is no doubt that the Internet of Things is going to have a major impact on the world but it’s just one piece of a bigger revolution that is going to fundamentally change the course of human history.

The digital and social fabric of the world is about to change in a new ” Connected Age”.

In a world of technology, major upheavals are almost always associated with the convergence of ideas – sometimes purposeful but more often than not, they just sort of fall into place of their own accord. Historians and philosophers will probably debate this stuff until the end of time, but one such major convergence from recent history is the intersection of the rise of personal computers and the advent of the Internet. Suddenly huge swaths of people and businesses around the world could communicate and share information nearly instantaneously at little to no cost. There is no doubt that it changed the world forever and made things like e-commerce, social media, and other disruptive changes possible.

The impending changes that I believe are sitting on our doorstep are no less significant and will have an even bigger impact on the world.

The convergence of IoT, global Internet access, and a concept I’m calling “the digital self” are about to transform the world. I’m not an expert on any of these individual technologies but I am handy with the crystal ball when it comes to seeing macro-level trends and their future impacts. So, let’s start by taking a high-level look at each of these areas individually:

(1) The Internet of Things or IoT

If you’re in the business of technology, you can hardly turn around these days without hearing “Internet of Things” or IoT being passed around the breakfast table like someone’s favorite jam. If you’re not familiar with IoT, let me offer you my own laymen’s definition. The zealots out there will probably take exception to my rather basic explanation but I think it will suffice for the moment.

The Internet of Things (IoT) is (will be) a massive interconnected network of everyday devices, sensors, and objects. From your smart phone to your refrigerator to your thermostat, billions of things around the world will be able to communicate, share information, and even be controlled remotely.

According to Gartner, Inc. (a technology research and advisory company), there will be nearly 26 billion devices on the Internet of Things by 2020. There are certainly major technical challenges, including a lack of accepted standards to enable seamless communications between devices, but those are readily solvable problems backed by the tremendous motivation of an industry that sees huge dollar signs. The tremendous benefits and conveniences it will provide consumers means the adoption rate will be very rapid regardless of the privacy and security concerns. I’ll talk more on those concerns in a bit.

(2) Global Internet Access

Today, less than half of the world has regular Internet access. About 4 billion people currently live in digital darkness. That is about to change. Companies like SpaceX, Google, and Internet evangelist Greg Wyler are bound and determined to close the gap. Their solutions mostly involve deploying a broad network of communication satellites. With the costs of doing business in space dropping quickly, it certainly looks to be a viable business model. The interesting thing about satellites is that they can cover huge sections of the Earth – sections with minimal infrastructure or even areas of the world where local governments attempt to restrict Internet access.

Think about the massive upheavals (good and bad) in the world that have been, at least partially, driven by people’s ability to share ideas, culture, and coordinate their activities using the Internet? Now double or triple it. The world is about to get even smaller.

(3) The “digital self”

I’m not talking about hooking up your head to a computer and uploading your consciousness, though that would be an interesting topic for a later discussion! What I am talking about is the continued evolution of social media and people’s willingness to digitally share more and more information about themselves and others online. The privacy advocates should rightfully be waving their arms right about now and shouting “Danger Will Robinson! Danger!” Again, we’ll talk more about those dangers in a moment.

Driven by the benefits, conveniences, and our built-in desire to be part of the social fabric, people are storing an increasing amount of personal information online. While this is mostly public information, they are details of our lives that are generally only known to those in our immediate circle of friends, family, and colleagues. The fact is that the circle we call the “public” is getting much bigger. With social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and many others, all of this information is now accessible to the world. Suddenly, everyone is your neighbor and not just that nosey old lady across the street. The millennial generation is exceptional comfortable with this paradigm and there is no reason to believe it will change with the generations to come. We are rapidly approaching a point where the information about your digital self will be nearly as detailed as the real you – but infinitely more accessible. In a very real sense people are sharing themselves online with other people in new and powerful ways. Combined with IoT, the mechanisms for connecting people and their personal information is growing exponentially.

Here it comes! The Big Convergence

All of these technologies combined with our innate social tendencies, will create a world that is connected in a way that can scarcely be imagined. Picture a tightly woven digital mesh wrapping itself around the Earth with the intersection of each thread tied to billions upon billions of people and devices. It’s simply stunning to think about the implications.

Roughly half of the Earth’s population, essentially isolated from the rest of the digital world, will suddenly become new faces — new neighbors. Sure, some of these areas are in disadvantaged parts of the world just struggling to put food on the table but slowly they will join the rest of us in a newly connected world.

I can hardly describe or even predict all of the changes, but they will be enormous both good and bad. Let’s start with a few unfortunate possibilities – that way we can end on a high note!


The Bad News

Before I bum you out with a bunch of dreary predictions, let me say that I think many of these challenges can be mitigated with a concerted effort. Already big thinkers are talking about the data privacy concerns associated with IoT. In fact, I’ll make a shameless plug for a company that I work for, BluStor PMC, that is trying to solve some of the serious cyber security challenges we are facing today. If interested, you can read more about that in my blog post, Cybercrime: Handing The Keys To The Criminals?

So, here’s some of the bad news if we do nothing:

  • An increase in social upheaval will cause more strife – the eternal conflict between those that don’t want things to change and those that do.
  • The growing gap between the “haves” and “have-nots” in the world will become even more visible than ever before, creating more distrust and discontent.
  • Cyber crimes and related criminal activities will, unfortunately, become a plague of epidemic proportions. I would argue that it’s already an epidemic.
  • Large sections of the population will forgo privacy concerns in favor of the conveniences and benefits that a more connected world brings and, in doing so, will unwittingly give up more personal freedoms.
  • The explosion of data will be misused in ways that are hard to predict but criminals, governments and private institutions will invariably find ways take advantage of those with less knowledge.
  • People will die. For all of the bad reasons above, people are going to die for their beliefs and trying to defend their value systems.

The Good News

The good stuff will be REALLY good. Below are a handful of the things that will reshape the world and the course of human history in a postive way. Despite some of our self-destructive tendencies humans are incredibly resilient, innovative, and self-correcting given enough time. That “enough time” piece is the tricky part. We’re always racing against the clock of technological advancement versus our maturity level as a species to handle our newfound powers. But hey, I’m an optimist! So, here are a few of things that could go fabulously right for us:

  • The exchange of culture and ideas will change all of us and drive a greater understanding between people.
  • The world will become a much richer place as we tap into a new population of ideas, future leaders, and visionaries that were previously hidden from the world.
  • Access to knowledge and information will become more universal, particularly in areas of science, technology, and medicine. Mortality rates will drop, creating it’s own opportunities and challenges.
  • Governments will change for the better, as people demand more of their leaders based on their new insight into the rest of the world.
  • An explosion of data about our environment and the people around us will drive new discoveries and a better understanding of our world. What we call “big data” today will seem naïve in retrospect.
  • Advances in science and technology will accelerate even faster as the world becomes a global resource pool of incredible talent and thought leadership.

 

So, welcome to the new Connected Age. I don’t know if anyone else has coined that phrase yet, but I’m claiming it for the moment! What are your thoughts for the future?

If you valued this article and want more, please hit the ‘like’ button and also share via your Twitter, LinkedIn, Google+ and Facebook social media platforms. I encourage you to join the conversation or ask questions so feel free to add a comment on this post.

You can also find me on twitter at @NewFrontierCIO for more commentary on the frontiers of technology, leadership, space exploration, and science.

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