The Secret to Transform the Next 500 Years
by Keith Bellamy
Imagine, if you can, that you are a fly on the wall of a meeting that was taking place in the city of Aachen in 1439. In this equivalent of the mid 20th Century “smoke filled room” (remember Sir Walter Raleigh hasn’t brought tobacco back from the New World to England or Europe yet) temperatures are rising. The planned exhibition of relics from Emperor Charlemagne had already been delayed by over a year, and the investors and merchants in the town were getting restless, if not downright hostile, towards a technologist that they had hired who was going to turn Aachen into the medieval equivalent of Disneyland.
This former Goldsmith had discovered a new technique for creating polished metal mirrors imbued with the capacity to “capture the holy light that emanated from religious relics.” This discovery was going to put Aachen on the map; pilgrims from across Europe would come to visit the shrine that they were creating and pay handsomely for the mirrors that they could take back to their home villages and allow Charlemagne’s energy to reflect into their community and raise them to inordinately high levels of spiritual ecstasy. The venture capitalists of the day had put up the money to “spruce” up the town. Merchants had invested in upgrading their inns and other facilities. Everybody was waiting with baited breath for the good times to roll…
…but, surprise surprise, the technology failed to deliver its promise. All they had were some fancy pieces of polished metal that reflected beautifully, but capturing holy light—not in a month of Sundays. The technologist, with his back against the wall was experiencing a fact that Winston Churchill was to capture most succinctly 500 years later. He was discovering that he had managed to fool all of the citizens of Aachen some of the time; most of them some of the time; but he couldn’t fool all of them all of the time. His time was up. The mood was getting ugly and he needed to extricate himself from the situation.
Our hero, for that is how history would rate him, did what his ilk had always done before and continues to do until this day—he spun them a line. In return for his backers forgiveness he promised to share a secret with them; a secret that had the potential to radically change the world as they knew it and bring unimaginable riches to those capable of grasping the implications of what he was about to share with them. This secret had come to him “like a ray of light” and was, he believed, divinely inspired. His investors, creditors and other interested parties decided they had nothing to lose, and took the deal.
The Technologist? Johannes Gensfliesch zur Laden zum Gutenberg, or just Gutenberg, as we know him today. His secret? The concept of printing using Movable Type. The rest, as they say is history!
When Time Magazine declared Gutenberg the man of the 2nd Millennium they were reflecting upon not just his invention, which had possibly been invented in China a good 500 years earlier, but the recognition of the causality chains that it had sparked throughout the second half of the millennium. They were recognizing how almost everything that impacts our lives today owes its existence to the radical potential of Gutenber’s secret. I would not be writing this column and you would not be reading it had Gutenberg not released his secret to the world. Without movable type, William Caxton would not have created the first printing press designed to make stories more accessible and create the concept of literature. Without Caxton there would have been no standardization in the English language, making it possible for us to share our experiences in a user-friendly format, the book. From the book stemmed all sorts of developments including entertainment, business, the promulgation of science and technology, the list goes on and on. If you have a few moments to spare (pause for a chuckle!) exercise your mind on building the causality chain of something you either enjoy or despise in your life and try to avoid not passing back through the implications and consequences of Guttenber’s Secret.
Of course I am not suggesting that Movable Type was either good or bad in and of itself, just that it was a concept that radically changed the world and that there was no way of reversing the arrow of time once it was released. Sure there was great resistance to it from many quarters, especially the armies of monks employed to copy bibles and write prayer lists for Sunday morning services. The promulgation of bibles for all, allowed us to read texts for ourselves and not just take what our teachers espoused for granted, leading to both individuation and fundamentalism. The emergence of the free press gives rise to access to information and the gutter antics of tabloid journalism. There will always be good and bad manifestations that emerge from change as radical as Guttenberg, our challenge is to recognize the potential and attempt to guide it forward.
My good friend, the futurist Watts Wacker, believes that there is a 500-year cycle for radical innovation. Some might argue that the emergence of the computer and the Internet over the past 60 years is on a par with Guttenber’s secret. I disagree, these were necessary precursors to the latest secret that is I believe going to have as great an impact on how the next 500 years pan out for the human race (assuming global warming, nuclear or biological holocaust, or the sun deciding to become a Red Giant 4.5 billion years too early, do not intervene). The development of computers and networking have drastically changed our potential to create and disseminate information; yet we have not even scratched the surface as to our potential to consume the information we are creating let alone apply this abundant resource to change the world.
Yet as you read this column, a device will be slipping into general circulation that might just be the genesis of the latest 500-year delta. The device I am talking about is the Apple i-Pad, the first attempt to transform not our ability to create information, but our potential to consume and apply that information. We are, I believe, seeing the introduction of a technology that has the potential to rewire our neuro-cortex in ways that are almost unimaginable and act as the catalyst for the next wave of transformation of human potential.
Before I continue, I have to make the following disclaimer. I am not employed by Apple, nor have I ever been employed by them. I have no investments in the company and will not benefit in any way from any action that you the reader might take as a consequence of this column. I have been a user of their products and services for the better part of the past decade and do believe that the premium they charge is ultimately recouped through easier usability and reliability. I do not believe that Steve Jobs is the new Messiah, nor do I believe that they are infallible in their creation of products and services. There are many aspects of how they operate their business that I find distasteful and in conflict with my own sense of values.
However, I really believe that in Jonathan Ives Apple has a designer who operates from several stages of development higher than anybody else in the world of computer technology (and yes that includes Brin & Page from Google) and brings not just an integral perspective but a fully holistic perspective into everything that Apple does these days. Apple has been slammed by the Technorati for such things as the new device’s name sounding like an electronic feminine hygiene product, and the fact that it is neither a computer nor a phone. The first comment is risible and hardly worth a response; the second is absolutely to the point and the reason why this development is so important.
The i-Pad is radically different from Amazon’s Kindle. It is not an attempt to redefine the nature of the book, although of course it will do that. It has an intentionality that is far greater. Information has been predominantly defined through the document and was transferred to the computer by Microsoft almost 30 years ago. Our approach and attitude to information is still very much document-centric. With this first in what I believe will be an evolutionary chain information consumer-centric devices, we have the potential to break the shackles as to how we perceive information just as much as Guttenberg vanquished the need for monks to produce bibles. The only constraint that we have at the moment is in our imagination as to the potential that comes from real information consumption rather than the old tired mechanisms that have hardly changed in over 500 years.
We are on the brink of something that is likely to affect every facet of our lives both personally and professionally. As leaders, we have a choice to make as to whether we are going to go with the flow or try to turn the tide. Whether we like it or not, our brains are going to be rewired. Our approach to educating our children is going to be turned on its head, converting them from information creators to a transcended state of information processors and consumers. Just as studies are showing that surgeons who play computer games for 2 hours a week make 60% less mistakes than those that do not, those who learn to become real consumers of information are going to be the trailblazers and pioneers for the future.
We are at a crossroads, and there is no turning back. The new secret is out, and the world ahead is likely to be a very different place to that which we have experienced even in the last 50 years. The nature of the change that is upon us may appear subtle at first, but anybody who aspires to be at the cutting edge of evolution and transformation ignores the introduction of this latest secret at their peril.