Say goodbye to the Information Age. It’s already over.
Ok, not over, completely. These things take time. You don’t just end an “Age” in an instant. But take a look around you and you’ll start to see the beginnings of the end, just about everywhere.
The last Great Age, the Industrial Age, started sometime around the invention of the steam engine, rallied with the internal combustion engine, and soared into its zenith with the jet engines.
We briefly flirted with an Atomic Age, which lasted about ten years before perhaps morphing into the Nuclear Age. You might have thought we got post nuclear when we stopped worrying about the Bomb and won the cold war, but there appears to be a nuclear renaissance ahead, thanks to both proliferation and the resurgence of nuclear energy (no green house gases, just glowing green waste…). Somewhere overlapping the Nuclear Age was about a decade we call the Space Age–thanks to Kennedy’s push to put a man on the moon by the end of the 60’s.
But the Atomic Age, the Nuclear Age, even the Space Age, they don’t mark profound changes in the average human life.
I won’t get into the uneven distribution of “progress” in today’s world, but let me make a brief signpost to point out that when I say “we”, I mean those of us blessed enough to participate generally in the first world.
When we figured out how to create factories, how to industrialize production, we profoundly changed the way we live and work. The Atomic age didn’t do that. It mostly affected the political and international landscape leaving the rest of us to continue our modern industrial lifestyle. So, not a Great Age. Just an age. Similarly, the Space Age may have inspired TV shows and science fiction, complete with new global heroes both real and imagined, but other than Tang and Teflon, it had minimal impact on our daily lives.
In contrast, the Information Age has radically changed the modern lifestyle. Computers and networks and telecommunications have profoundly disrupted and re-invented some of the most important elements of our society. How we buy and sell. How we communicate. How we socialize. How we commit crimes and how we enforce our laws. Even how we sin and how we fall in love. Without doubt the Information Age is one of the Great Ages, affecting the lives of almost everyone fortunate enough to be living in the first world.
So, how can I say it is over? What about the iPhone? Google? Web 2.0? Second Life and World of Warcraft? Or even one of my own favorite initiatives, Vendor Relationship Management (VRM)? Aren’t we still in the thick of it?
It is true that the machinery of the Information Age is here to stay, both in terms of infrastructure and social structure. After all, we didn’t give up factories or unions at the end of the Industrial Age. Nor did we abandon farming when we moved from the Agrarian Age to the Industrial–although we have lost “barn raising” as a social activity. Farms and factories became less important in the modern context as more people found ways to live without them as a major part of their life. Instead, we reinvented both in the image of the new age. We industrialized our farms and re-engineered our factories around information.
We move from one great age to another when, as a Society, we let go of the trappings of the previous age and begin to define ourselves in new terms, absent the defining elements of yesteryear. We no longer think of ourselves as farmers or factory workers… the Information Age has knowledge workers, and we largely define ourselves by the information accessories in our lifestyle: our iPod, our MySpace page, our blog, when in previous ages it may have been our car, our company, or our home town, livestock or crop.
But aren’t these defining accessories Information Age artifacts? Yep. And while they may seem hot today, their days are already numbered. I don’t know how to see the future to what the next Great Age is going to be… any of a number of developments could come to define it: nanotechnology, genetic engineering, even a return to global religious militarism, God forbid (pun intended, folks).
What I can see is that many of the most engaging and compelling conversations in our society today are decidedly post-Information Age.
Consider this. The Industrial Age was an age of STUFF. The amazing material wealth generated by modern industrial engines was staggering, and as Sears Robuck and Henry Ford brought that material wealth to the people, we came to define ourselves by how much stuff we had. “Keeping up with the Joneses,” we rallied. The accumulation of stuff became the calling card of America. “He who dies with the most toys wins.” We luxuriated in our newfound wealth as a huge middle class was born from workers who began to earn enough to actually buy the things they were making. When it comes down to it, the Industrial Age was all about MORE STUFF. Making it. Selling it. Buying it. Consuming it.
So it is fitting that the end of the Industrial Age began not so much with the invention of computers (in the 1950s) or the Internet (1969)–these were merely the instruments of what came to replace it. Rather, the end of the Industrial Age began with the realization by many people that perhaps we don’t need all that STUFF. It started to end when we started to question, in significant numbers, the defining foundation of the age: do we really need more stuff? The Great Gatsby (1925) by F. Scott Fitzgerald was a post-industrial tirade against the American Dream, but it wasn’t until mainstream America caught up with the concept after World War II that we began to think about and define ourselves en masse as something more than the sum of the bounty of our industrial might.
The late Anita Roddick, who passed away this month, tapped into this with The Body Shop‘s line of products that weren’t about more stuff, but rather about a different kind of better stuff, about products that were both good for you and good for the world. In fact, the entire movement towards sustainability has, in its roots, the necessary realization that we must move to a post-industrial world, a world that isn’t defined by our stuff. As cable television and the Internet invaded our homes, we began to find that we could satisfy many of our wants and desires through Information rather than physical goods. It was liberating, intoxicating, and led to one of the most outrageous economic bubbles since the heyday of the Industrial Age triggered the Great Depression.
Similarly, the Information Age is, (surpise!), defined by MORE information. More channels. More telephones. More email. More websites. More advertising. More media.
And in a (perhaps) surprisingly short period, we now find ourselves echoing a new version of the mantra that ended the Industrial Age: “Enough! We don’t need so much Information!”
Consider the evidence:
Perhaps the most light-hearted evidence is the oft-used phrase “Too much information” or the blithely concise “TMI” when someone divulges more details than the listener really wants to hear… typically about things you don’t even want me to mention in this article.
We also see it in embodied in the most powerful brand of the Age. Google has always stood for making the overwhelming complexity of the Internet, simple. Hence, the clean look, the great results, the fast response. Google knew that you didn’t want everything that’s out there on the Internet–if you wanted that you might try the cacophonous Yahoo! What you want, is just what you want, nothing more, nothing less. Give me what I’m looking for, and leave the rest of that stuff out there. (And kudos, btw, to Google for pulling back recently from productmania to refocus on their core value proposition.)
How about Blink by Malcom Gladwell? Gladwell outlines just how powerful it can be to think less, evaluate less information, and “thinslice” complex problems, in an instant. Less information: better results. Here’s a quote that is crystal clear about the frustration of the Information Age:
We live in a world saturated with information. We have virtually unlimited amounts of data at our fingertips at all times, and we’re well versed in the arguments about the dangers of not knowing enough and not doing our homework. But what I have sensed is an enormous frustration with the unexpected costs of knowing too much, of being inundated with information. We have come to confuse information with understanding. (p264 in the April 2007 paperback edition)
Gladwell goes on to illustrate through uncanny stories, both anecdotal and scientific, of how we can and do make split-second decisions on the most minute sets of data. Sometimes our bias in those moments can steer us astray, but when managed correctly, those “instant” decisions are not just as good, they can be better than those made in full conscious analysis of all available data. The message is clear. If you can distill your decision making to just the right subset of the data and you prime yourself correctly, you can make better decisions with less information.
The Zero Inbox
Clearly, the problem of email overload is taking a toll on all our time, productivity, and sanity, mainly because most of us lack a cohesive system for processing our messages and converting them into appropriate actions as quickly as possible.
Too much email! Nicely written and well worth the plunge. You’ll appreciate it. And as a post-email junky, you’ll find yourself liberated from one of the Information Age’s most consuming behemoths.
Have you heard of Burning Man? Arguably the most happening annual ritual qua week-long party on the planet. Not the largest, but certainly an indulgence of the hippest order, where the many of the most adventurous, most “out there”, and most creative head to the Nevada desert to unplug and reinvent themselves in a microcosmic society, disjoint from the “real world.” It is a ritual in unplugging from our information drenched reality to celebrate the physicality of life in the brutal extremes of desert heat, sandstorms, dust, and frigid cold nights, with only ice, coffee, and porta-potties provided as basic civic services (the first two for a fee). The rest you provide for yourself in a form of “Radical Self Reliance” that is a core principle of the event. Why would anyone endure such extremes? In large part because it is incredibly, primally, satisfying to extract yourself from the world of information overload and engage with real people in an real–albeit redefined–world. Whether you like it or not, Burning Man is a undeniably relevant celebration of the post-Information Age human experience.
In its small way, VRM is also contributing to this trend to reduce information overload. VRM redefines customer relationships with vendors by focusing on what individuals have and need, rather than what vendors have to offer. Rather than trying to index and analyze everything, just capture what’s near the user, and give people tools to leverage what they do know to have smarter, more rewarding engagements with vendors. The result will be a system focused on the individual and his or her relationship to vendors, rather than an aggregated, centralized knowledge base, index, or repository of all the world’s information.
These are but a few examples of how we, as a society, are starting to realize that perhaps we have too much information at hand. That instead, what we need is better, more meaningful information. As more and more of us define ourselves as something more than the information we consume and create, we are accelerating the end of the Information Age and clearing the ground for something new.
Of course, the end of the Information Age isn’t a particularly new or original concept. Just as Fitzgerald pre-dated, yet ultimately helped catalyze, society’s transition from the Industrial Age, so too have others observed and written about the post-Information Age.
Here are a few of note:
From Being Digital (chapter 13) by Nicholas Negroponte, quoted at http://archives.obs-us.com/obs/english/books/nn/ch13c01.htm
“The transition from an industrial age to a post-industrial or information age has been discussed so much and for so long that we may not have noticed that we are passing into a post- information age…
In the post-information age, we often have an audience the size of one. Everything is made to order, and information is extremely personalized. A widely held assumption is that individualization is the extrapolation of narrowcasting–you go from a large to a small to a smaller group, ultimately to the individual. By the time you have my address, my marital status, my age, my income, my car brand, my purchases, my drinking habits, and my taxes, you have me–a demographic unit of one.
And from Andy Orem “What comes after the information age” published just this last week at O’Reilly Radar:
But the Information Age was surprisingly short. In an age of Wikipedia, powerful search engines, and forums loaded with insights from volunteers, information is truly becoming free (economically), and thus worth even less than agriculture or manufacturing. So what has replaced information as the source of value?
The answer is expertise. Because most activities offering a good return on investment require some rule-breaking–some challenge to assumptions, some paradigm shift–everyone looks for experts who can manipulate current practice nimbly and see beyond current practice. We are all seeking guides and mentors.
What’s fun is actually seeing the transition with your own eyes, rather than hearing or reading about it as an intellectual exercise.
Take a look around you, in your own life and work. You might be surprised how often you find yourself craving less information and culling the dead bits from your data (can you say “Spam Filter?” I knew you could.). As you do, savor the end of the Information Age and the beginning of something new…