When Thomas Friedman proposed that the World is Flat (2005), we understood the impact of advances in telecommunications that worked in concert with globalization to create a level playing field. He conceptualized the world in this manner, a world in which barriers of culture, history, and social organizing are reduced to the technical rationality of markets.
In this regard, the world is a virtual space in which physical boundaries are overcome with advances in technology. What technology has brought to us is a focus on closing the distance via mediated and virtual means. Decentralization, distributed computing, and mobility continue to change the world in real-time. Most everything is immediate, or close to it.
If in a virtual world we are negating distance and time, then what importance are both of these for human sense-making?
The proliferation of people, their culture, and their histories, has always depended on disseminating technologies. These include systems of measure, systems of written communication, systems of printing, systems to harness natural phenomena for mobility, and systems of telecommunication via light and electricity. With each of these advances, it is possible to further interact with others, further exchange value and ideas, and further propagate ideas of one’s own.
The speed and immediacy of conveyance – of people, of speech, of goods, and of ideas – has witnessed exponential expansion over time. Although Christopher Columbus was certain he was to find a quick route to Asia and India, it took months to cross the central Atlantic in 1492.
Years later Jules Verne brought the shrinking world to fore in the 1873 book “Around the World in 80 Days.” By the early 20th century, the scope of information and physical conveyance brought enough devastation – when the two were combined – to hold in memory the conflict of 1914-1918 as the first “World War.” By the 1960s, communication satellites joined terrestrial wired and wireless communication to bring the world even closer together.
Skip Forward to the 20th Century
By the 1980s, affordable passenger air travel made common to be able to get to any place on earth within 24 hours via commercially-available means. Also at this time, the notion of having personal access to computing was becoming commonplace. With each step, the world was still “shrinking.” The computing component is of particular interest here as the combination of computing and telecommunications greatly accelerated innovation and collaboration.
Today, we are at the precipice of a long 30+ year journey where very specific technologies related to networked communications and computing – TCP, IP, HTML, SMTP, TLS – have shaped daily life profoundly. This is no more evident than in the mobile devices that are now indispensible. I know this personally as I recently deplaned in the Tampa Airport but my phone did not accompany me.
First, I could use my other device (tablet) to find my forgotten device, which after shenanigans and machinations, I was reunited with. I’m not sure if you’ve had this experience, but I realized how “out of water” I felt not being able to connect with information and service resources without my hand-held computer that we commonly refer to as “phones.”
How Far We’ve Come
I can remember what a mysterious event international travel felt like just 20 years ago and how much planning and uncertainty surrounded it. I think back to my last international journey just before the pandemic and how I really just needed my phone, my wallet, my password, and at least some basic personal items. The world is now truly navigable due to the confluence of wireless telecommunications, hand-held computing, and a network of humans and machines contributing to the information ecosystem.
In October 2022, the Paul and Virginia Engler College of Business hosted the 2nd annual Stan Sigman Leadership and Innovation Series event on campus in Canyon, Texas. The event featured AT&T COO Jeff McElfresh in a series of student and community-centered events. As Jeff spoke, he mentioned how it was human leadership, Stan Sigman’s leadership, that pushed the boundaries to facilitate the global information ecosystem that we depend on today.
A Matter Of Course
It was not a matter of course that disparate standards for mobile data communications would become interoperable. It was dedicated leadership that pushed for that innovation. Recent experiences with respect to global health issues, global supply chains, political and social disruption, and even Clausewitz’ classic culmination of politics, are all shaped by what has been called the digital revolution.
I think about the “distances” I can cover with the information and computing available to me and remain grateful to be associated with an academic discipline – Computer Information Systems – whose foundational premises are highly related to the social shaping of technology and the design of technology to support human endeavor. When I think about how must distance has been covered in a short time, I think about how, or even whether, we can keep up.
I am not certain the human species can progress as quickly as the tools we build to shape the world. Whatever distance we have left to cover, I under the impression that innovation and leadership will remain in a configuration not unlike a binary star: gravitationally bound and even in close orbit..