How to live in the Third Connected Age

According to Publicis Groupe’s Chief Growth Officer, Rishad Tobaccowala, CES 2017 marked the start of the third connected age. The first age was the link revolution, the mass connection of computers by the worldwide web, lasted from 1996-2006. The second, the social revolution, of mobile phones connected by the social graph, from 2007-2017. We are currently experiencing the early stages of the third revolution in connectivity, focused on the connection of devices by artificial intelligence.

There are two key principles to bear in mind when thinking about the disruption that this new age will cause. Firstly, think of the platforms that emerged from the previous connected ages: Google and Amazon from the first age, underpinning all of the core technologies of the web; and Facebook and Apple from the second, providing the tech and distribution infrastructure upon which platforms like Uber & Airbnb could disrupt categories, but that have also broken the norms of civil and political discourse in the major democracies. The impact of the third age will likely be deeper and more profound.

Secondly however, the pace of technological change itself remains predictable. Ray Kurzweil’s 2001 essay The Law of Accelerating Returns plots the history of technological change back to 1890, and finds a predictable exponential trend. The thing about exponential trends is that they can look very like linear trends, depending on whereabouts you are on the curve.

Now back to the future: it’s widely misunderstood. Our forebears expected the future to be pretty much like their present, which had been pretty much like their past. Although exponential trends did exist a thousand years ago, they were at that very early stage where an exponential trend is so flat that it looks like no trend at all. So their lack of expectations was largely fulfilled. Today, in accordance with the common wisdom, everyone expects continuous technological progress and the social repercussions that follow. But the future will be far more surprising than most observers realize: few have truly internalized the implications of the fact that the rate of change itself is accelerating.

The previous two connected ages began to diverge from the linear. This one, according to the prediction, marks a pronounced acceleration.

https://www.kurzweilai.net/images/chart19.jpg

Change itself is changing. We are faced with significant disruption at an ever increasing pace. As human experience researchers and planners, this creates a challenge. We need to predict how human behaviour will be affected in a world where technological change over a two year period will create opportunities and challenges that humans today wouldn’t even consider.

Going back to CES 2017, the prevalent innovation that led to Rishad’s article was the smart speaker. Just as mobile phones had existed long before the iPhone, smart home technology had been a niche early adopter passion for many years. The Amazon Echo brought it to mass adoption, providing a platform, an operating system, and crucially, an interface. The disparate IoT and AI technologies could settle around an affordable consumer-facing class of product.

Here in Australia of course we didn’t even have Amazon in early 2017. Fast-forward to the launch of Australian Amazon, Echo and Prime from December 2017-July 2018, and the smart speaker market in America had reached some 15% of US households. Amazon’s disruption of many categories of business over many years in the United States and UK has given Australian businesses a broad set of case studies in how to compete with them. However, although the global Smart Speaker category has a head start on us, we found that little research exists into how the voice interface affects decision-making, or how living in a connected home changes the way that we relate to content, commerce and each other.

To some extent, this makes sense. After all, humans’ experience of change is linear, and we are asking them to make predictions about the non-linear. In fact, asking people to make predictions at all seemed like the wrong way to go about understanding how people would live in the future. A far better approach would be to find people who had lived in the future, and ask them what it was like. Better still would be to take people from 2019 into the near future, observe how they lived, and then report back on it.

Graeme Wood
Author

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