Executive Privilege: Gutenberg would have loved Google

Somewhere between 40,000 and 2 million years ago, humans began using verbal communication that consisted of more than meaningless grunts. The world changed.

Six thousand years ago in what is now Iraq, Sumerians developed the first known system of writing. The world changed again.

Just over 560 years ago, Johannes Gutenberg popularized the movable type printing press — Bi Sheng invented movable type in China, 400 years earlier — allowing ideas to move between people, places and times, with more speed and accuracy than ever before. The world changed yet again.

Imagine what it would be like to bear witness to the utterance of the first word, the carving of the first ideograph, the first test-run of Gutenberg’s press.

It’s easy to point to a moment that represents a paradigm shift in the way we communicate, but it’s clear that innovations transform human society slowly over tens, hundreds, or even thousands of years. While the appearance of a new technology is instant, and we can point to that time as the beginning of a revolution, finding the way that technology blends into society takes time. It’s slow enough that the lucky witnesses might not even notice the gravity of what lies before them. (I can imagine a lighthearted Gutenberg overlooking the dramatic importance of his new machine as he printed his day’s equivalent of a “your mom” joke for one of his coworkers, long before they ever began work on the now-revered Gutenberg Bible.)

Similarly, as more and more people around the world communicate through today’s revolutionary technology — the Internet — we’re largely unfocused on how our lives will change in the next few decades. We have witnessed the birth of e-mail, the search engine, live chats, online news, the blog, and more. Yet, it’s the AIM chat or casual e-mail on our screen that occupies most of our thoughts about the Internet, even if we occasionally laud these new technologies in passing. Without understating what the Internet does for us today, the Internet’s contribution to the way we live has really just begun. We are the lucky few who naively bear witness.

On a global scale, we still lag at the beginning of the paradigm. Only 14 percent of people worldwide over the age of 15 use the internet, and many of them have only limited access. As the infrastructure becomes more broadly available and the technology and services become more affordable, the World Wide Web will truly earns its name and its place in the history of communication.

Not only are we spectators of this process, we have the unique chance to participate, whether that means joining the Facebook group protesting the “News Feed” or using detailed research of human-computer interaction to design the next great web application.

New concepts of how people can interact though the internet are sprouting up in every shape, from college projects to corporate attempts to increase the bottom line. Google made a smarter search engine and Facebook helped bring online social networks into the mainstream. On the other end of the spectrum, consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton developed software that looks for statistical patterns in the documents their consultants read and write to connect people working on similar projects.

As individuals, organizations, and corporations continue to develop and implement these innovations, the
online landscape will undergo a dramatic change. We’ll see that the Internet itself was not the invention that changed the world. It’s the way the Internet is applied that will change the way we live.