In recent years, social media has played a key role in bringing about dramatic changes in business, consumer cultures, and even whole societies. Businesses are becoming more transparent and are also held accountable for their actions as citizens are empowered with more real-time and unbiased information. Consumers are (perhaps reluctantly) accepting a reduced amount of privacy as a price they are willing to pay as they feel the urge to share their day-to-day lives with a wider set of “friends”. Societies undergo revolutionary transformations as social media serves as the communication platform needed for collective action to be mobilized against oppressive regimes such as in the case of the 2011 revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt.
Some have observed these exciting developments with amazement hardly believing the enormous significance of social media and supporting Internet technologies. Yet, the late Paul Baran could just sit idly by and watch his script play out just the way he saw it coming 42 years ago. After having invented the foundational Internet technology of packet switching at Rand Corporation in Santa Monica during the Cold War, he later founded “The Institute of the Future.” There he concerned himself not only with technologies per se, but also on the likely impact of those technologies on the societies involved. Here are some golden nuggets from what he wrote in 1969*:
- On social networks 1: “In this new world, individuals with common interests but who are geographically separated can ‘come together’ to discuss or share topics of mutual interest. Everyone, no matter how small his physical community, will be potentially a part of an audience having a more specialized interest than any that can be assembled in any large city today.”
- On social networks 2: “Excessive communications could mean a world of too many acquaintances, too few friends, an absence of tranquility, and a life of motion, frantic even by today's standards.”
- On information overload: “Just as the nation is becoming intolerant of air, water, and noise pollution, the next generation may regard information overload not as a God-given process but as a controllable price of civilization.”
- On privacy concerns: “Some believe that a desire exists for filtering and protective devices to cope with the deluge of requests for attention. For example, selectable telephone ringing signals could allow a caller to say that his call is not urgent, in the event the called party is in the tub, or otherwise occupied.”
- On the death of the salesman: “Many of today's jobs are concerned with distorting information presented to the consumer… the new electrical capability could allow precise price, specification, and delivery information to be given directly to the consumer by the computer, thus eliminating the need for some of today's salesmen. If so, the salesmanship of the future will have to be much more subtle-as puffing will be more readily subject to checking.”
- On the information-empowered consumer: “In the future we will have the technical capability-whether or not it is used is another matter-to obtain the facts needed for better product comparison than today.”
- On channel disintermediation: “We may even anticipate that manufacturing organizations will choose to sell products directly to the individual consumer, utilizing two-way TV connections and reducing the role of the army of intermediaries. New product comparison services, which can be addressed at the time of the selection decision, can be made economically viable with the new communications.”
- On mobile phones: “Yes, we will, if we wish, have the completely portable wrist watch telephone always with us, even in our most private retreats, for those among us whose time is so important that none can be wasted in doing only one thing at a time.”
- On video chats: “Yes, we probably will have person-to-person, large-screen TV in every home.”
- On Internet pornography: “We may have small groups around the country using electrical communications of the future to share a common interest in some particularly novel form of pornography. Don't dismiss the idea completely. Nature abhors an empty communications channel.”
Hard to argue with Mr Baran. Only regret is to not have the opportunity to ask him about technology and its impact on society in 2050. Paul Baran passed away in his home in Palo Alto in March this year, 84 years old.
* “On the Impact of the New Communications Media Upon Social Values” (Law and Contemporary Problems, Vol. 34, No. 2, Communications: Part 1 (Spring 1969), pp. 244-254)