As most of us attend to the daily business of our personal, family, and work lives, we probably don’t spend a lot of time thinking about how the rapid acceleration of technological innovation will affect us. But it could change virtually every facet of our lives when dealing with the outside world.
This rapid change covers many areas of science, health and nutrition, economics and, of course, technology.
That nifty little device you carry in your pocket or purse is becoming increasingly powerful and, to many of us, indispensable. We understand that our cell phones these days are fully capable computers that just happen to have a phone app (among many others). The access, control, diversion, and what-all-else they give us is incredibly seductive.
Smartphones are increasingly ubiquitous. They’re commonplace now, and almost everyone has one. If you don’t have one now, you almost certainly will.
Which brings us to the aforementioned paradigm shift. Smartphones are the tip of the iceberg. They are the tail that wags the dog. They are the stick that stirs the fire. Well, more precisely, we users of smartphones are all those things. The smartphone is just the medium.
Technologists, futurists, visionaries—whatever you want to call them—are talking these days about a third platform on which our collective future will be based for decades to come.
A third platform, you say, err, what’s a platform? Bear with me here. I’m talking about computer platforms in a sense, but even more so, about the eras they create.
The first platform was the mainframe computer: enormous machines that took up whole floors and were so expensive that only big business, universities and governments could afford them. The mainframe era spawned white-collar workers, automation, and big data processing.
Today we think of mainframes as relics, but there is still a mainframe industry, and mainframe computers are still being used for things they are good for, including financial transactions, customer order processing, production and inventory control, payroll, and other redundant mission-critical applications where large and complex programs are required. If you listen to IBM commercials, “they’re helping us build a better planet.”
In the mainframe era, computers affected our lives in one way or another. Most of us just didn’t give it much thought.
The second platform is the personal computer. It is robust, if aging, and still the platform most people and businesses rely on the most. The personal computer era brought computing to the masses. It has also spawned many industries in which embedded processors played major roles. Remember when calculators were expensive? Now we take for granted that virtually everything—our cars, microwaves, TVs, stereos, mobile phones—have embedded computers.
In the personal computer era, many of us got a firsthand introduction to computers. We used one at work, and eventually most of us had one at home. We conducted the business of our lives in one fashion or another on our personal computers, and exercised our creativity in many new ways. The PC era is not going away anytime soon, but it is evolving.
Which brings us to the third era that is unfolding now, and will reach farther and wider, happen more quickly, and have more impact on our lives, than the previous two eras combined. Underlying this new era is what some are calling the third platform. It is referred to by many names—mobile, big data, the cloud, social, and so on. It is all of these things and more.
I wonder how many of us are pondering the implications of the third platform as we kill time playing Angry Birds or Candy Crush.
Not to get too Orwellian, but we simply must pay attention as this new era unfolds. While the third platform seems a quite natural playground to our kids and their friends, for many of us, it is daunting, unfamiliar, perhaps a bit scary.
We are seeing some alarming things going on around us—NSA spying, the hacking of government and industrial secrets by China, Iran, and Syria, credit card breaches, identity theft, personal information gathering (Google, Facebook), and so on—with the end of privacy staring us squarely in the face. The genie is out of the bottle, and it’s not going back in.
For better or worse, industry and governments are embracing the new paradigm and moving toward the third platform as the basis on which all business and personal transactions with the outside world will occur. Certainly the popularity of smartphones has driven, and will accelerate, this process.
What might it all lead to? There are infinite possibilities. Perhaps everyone will require a mobile device to serve as their proof of identity, their mobile wallet, their ticket repository. And this device will be connected to the cloud 24/7, where all of your important data will be stored. Paper transactions will disappear. Protecting your identity will become critical (it is already).
There will undoubtedly be some benefits to this. Transactions will be faster and less painful. We’ll be able to get and share important documents quickly. We’ll be able to get the information we need, pay our taxes or get our refunds online, and find more time to rest, learn, exercise, and play.
Implemented correctly, the ubiquity of information could lead to a more democratic planet, to medical and technological advances coming from all corners of the world, to better informed and better educated, healthier and happier people. We’ll be citizens of Earth, not just our individual countries.
Implemented incorrectly, there could be enormous downsides, governmental oppression, dwindling freedoms, and a world of other unforeseen problems that affect us at an individual, national, and international level. Orwellian, indeed.
What can we do? Keep our eyes wide open, stay informed, get involved, be vocal, and hold on. It should be quite a ride.