Comms Vision Convention (Gleneagles, 8th-10th November) Chair Andy Lippman, Associate Director and co-founder of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab (MIT), delves deep into the underlying trends behind this year's conference theme - the rise of the workplace and customer experience.
Communications is going through fundamental changes as the old silos that segregate people continue to dissolve. People today move fluidly between voice, text, audio and video, and between devices and communication situations. At the same time, the cloud has gone viral as new ideas and grassroots innovations emerge. True virality scales without bounds, entails small start-up costs and grows in power with adoption. Our Viral Spaces research is about places where people communicate (both at a distance and locally) with each other. We develop technologies of connection.
Our goal is to demonstrate ideas that facilitate discourse and collaboration between real people in real places where networks and computing enhance the workplace and customer experience. Here, technology and workplaces follow society. We technologists think we create new ideas and possibilities, but in reality we enable them. Shifts in style and activity are led by the populace, predominantly the young. In IT today, anything you can think of we can invent in less than six months.
Businesses that open up their discussions, networks, and involve their people will evolve more flexibly and in cultural sync. That's what we mean by ‘experience'. It's not about technology alone, or just IT. It's a method of operating and communicating that opens doors rather than builds intellectual firewalls.
This trend reflects the general shift towards a growing faith in distributed networks as opposed to centralised systems. Cloud is part of the picture but the deeper impact is more subtle. We now perceive large institutions as concentrated entities that represent the old ‘centralised' way of doing things. The population is leading this charge, reacting against former ‘hierarchies' both socially and in the workplace, liberated by technology driven trends that are defining the digital age as a ‘distributed' one. In some parts of the world there is no governmental or centralised structure for many businesses. Rather than install a new structure and assume public trust, technology companies are adding the word ‘blockchain' to many distributed system designs to legitimise them in the mind of the customer.
Networks between people
Also consider the rise of Uber, AirBnB and the like. While they are not as distributed as bitcoin, which really has no central organising entity at all, they are perceived as networks between people. Somehow it feels different to rent a room from AirBnB than from the Hilton. Uber is more like calling a driver than hailing a company. This is the new experience that is filtering across society and the networks that have come to underpin our lives at work, at home, and in between.
Years ago we used to characterise networks in three ways - broadcast, telephonic and group-forming. A broadcast network grows in value directly with its size - more viewers equates to more value. A telephone network grows as the square of its size, since anyone can connect to anyone else. We have been familiar with this for years. But group-forming networks are a newer concept. Here the network grows in value faster because of groups that are like mailing lists. In these networks, you can connect to other participants as well as each list or group, extending and enhancing the collaborative experience. We now see this communications trend reaching into media and entertainment. Television programming is moving away from targeting larger audiences and towards giving new experiences to audience members. That makes it a group experience rather than the mere reception of a signal. And there are now radio technologies that are also starting to open new doors. For example, it has been shown that a group of Wi-Fi access points working in coordinated ways can act as a small radar and ‘see' people and their movements through walls. In other words, it is a sensor as well as a communicator.
Using better radios, these signals can remotely read your heartbeat and breathing. This is far from a novelty example, it is already making inroads into neonatal clinics to monitor at-risk babies without burdening them with chafing clip-ons. The key point is that comms technology is not just about comms any more, it is sensing, and it is group-forming. That has implications for how we define communications and how we view the Internet of Things (IoT). It's not a separate or new Internet, it is a new dimension to the existing one. It's a new world of experience-based communications that will grow exponentially in power with almost viral adoption across collaborative networks.
At Comms Vision this year we will explore how the communications industry is starting to reflect the underlying trends discussed in this article, and the longer-term implications of these developments on the channel and wider business community.
About Andrew Lippman
Comms Vision Chair Andrew Lippman is Associate Director and co-founder of the globally renowned Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Media Lab and one of the world's foremost researchers on the evolution of digital technology. He is also a Senior Research Scientist and co-Director for Digital Life.
He has 35-plus years experience at MIT. His work ranges from wearable computers to global digital television. Currently, he heads the Lab's Viral Communications research group which examines scalable real-time networks whose capacity increases with the number of members. This new approach to telephony transfers mainframe communications technology to distributed, personally defined, cooperative communicators.
Lippman also co-directs MIT's interdisciplinary Communications Futures programme.
His highly animated and engaging approach to trends in technology and research will give conferees clear insights into how the ‘experience' has become a dimension of technology and our lives.