Through the Looking Glass
July 05 2012

by tmartin on July 4, 2012

THE NAUSET REGIONAL High School graduation ceremony in Eastham appeared to be pretty much the same traditional event it has been for years, reported multiple astute observers, until suddenly the diploma granting process stopped in mid-stride.

A senior arose from his seat. There was a pause and then, with one mouse click, a digital bridge replaced 6,000 miles of separation.

As the ceremony re-commenced the entire Morris family – from Cape Cod to a military base in Afghanistan – proudly watched their son receive his high school diploma via a simple Skype connection … while everyone else got a heartfelt reminder that the world truly is Thomas Friedman flat and digitally interconnected.

Skype (http://www.skype.com), for those of you who might not be familiar with it, uses broadband and the Internet’s framework to let people share voice and video directly with each other. The company launched in 2003; in 2011 Microsoft acquired it. It costs nothing to use, unless you opt into more complex service offerings. Some 700 million people hold registered accounts within the system.

In many circles “to Skype” has become a verb, as in “I’ll Skype you” or “I’ll be on Skype from 9-12 tomorrow – ping me when you get a chance.” Or, as Nauset High School principal Tom Conrad told me, “We Skyped the graduation so his Dad could watch it live in Afghanistan.”

I’ve happily worked with clients in multiple locations where Skype becomes the equivalent of the hall between our offices. We can send a message, talk, or “pop in” via video, with no special equipment other than our basic computer and a broadband connection – and, really, no difference in function than if were literally sitting down a hall from each other.

So Skype – as a tool for real time video, voice, and messaging – hardly constitutes news by itself. The moment at Nauset, though, delivered a take-pause reminder this year’s crop of graduates belongs in a new dimension, a world of changed expectations, habits, an interactions.

It isn’t just that that a tool like Skype lives in mainstream consumer consciousness. Rather, for the class of 2012 and indeed for us all, mainstream consumer consciousness has passed through a collective door to a non-linear world.

If you blinked away the past year, you’d better open your eyes quick because the transition is a done deal. Over. Happened. Past Tense.

Digital, global, anytime, anywhere communication. Ubiquitous access. Multi-source, multi-media, multi-person synthesis. A couple of years ago, they were bleeding edge. Today? Business as Usual.

I don’t know what it was like during the relatively short period when autos changed the dynamics of distance or when the telegraph and telephone changed the notion of communication, but I do know that between today and a mere five years ago stands a doorway. We’ve been headed to that door for decades, but now it lies behind us. We’ve crossed it for good.

In the spirit of Independence Day, I did a way-back machine moment to the US Bicentennial year 1976 … On that US Independence Day, Microsoft was a year-old company finding its way in the world. One of the founders of Skype merrily kicked and screamed in his Copenhagen nursery, a nine-day old baby. Meanwhile his co-founder did what 10-year old boys did in 1976. Hint: it was not using Google.

Speaking of Google, 3-year old Sergy Brin was toddling around the Soviet Union, which still created nuclear nightmares for the world, including, perhaps, scary bedtime tales for his future partner, who was a 3-year-old toddling around his parent’s home in Michigan.

Out on the west coast, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak launched Apple Computer. Bob Metcalf created Ethernet. Data routinely began moving over SATNET, the mutli-country satellite network. The US Department of Defense started experimenting with TCP/IP, moving it to ARAPNET, paving the way to a global network standard.

The Polaroid SX-70 camera was selling like hotcakes – from the camera to your eyes with no wait for film processing! The Concorde took its first flight. In just a few short weeks, Nadia Comaneci would leap into gymnastics gold and global TV fame in Montreal.

Meanwhile, the Bicentennial Train traveled across the US, carrying history from town to town. Trains were almost history themselves. Conrail had just been formed by the government from 13 bankrupt major railroads, titans of the last generation, but most of the tracks still worked. (Confession: I still have my ticket stub from the New London CT stop!)

With gas at 59 cents a gallon and the Ramone’s new (first!) album blasting a decidedly different sound from the cassette player, the car and the open road had a bountiful future. The 60s were well in the rear view mirror behind us and we were on the cusp of … well, something.

I pick this Bicentennial Moment because if you peer extra closely at it (while channeling your Dorothy Hammill wedge hair cut and Diane VonFurstenberg Big Look eyeglasses!) you can spot the beginnings of the world in which the class of 2012 lives as natives and into which the rest of world has largely stepped with gusto.

As recently as 2005 our world remained solidly linear, despite a few cracks in the foundation as the Internet’s roots grew more deeply . In our psyches, we measured distance in time and miles. We moved from one page to the next, from one idea to the next, in a fairly tidy line with clear inputs and outputs.

But, but … the (now retired) Concorde changed the distance across the pond. Microsoft and Apple began the desktop revolution that led to the mobile era. Polaroid changed the way we thought about visual communication. The last generation’s transformative technology chugged down the track and showed that titans don’t dominate forever.

For the next 30 years, all those seeds you can spot in our Bicentennial summer kept on growing. And growing.

Like Jack going up the beanstalk and seeing a little tiny village below, our world view shifted until some place over the past five years, we rolled out into a world that is no longer linear.

In this world, “the page” is a quaint concept. Time and distance no longer constrain or define. Our interactions and expectations overlay, overlap, merge, mash, and meld. The hubs and institutions have changed. Sure, the old players still hang around, but one has to wonder how long until they either reinvent themselves or become re-purposed as bike trails or inky garden mulch.

I’m not talking about wicked-cool-technology, cutting edge applications, or anything at all in the realm of rocket science. Nope, I’m talking about stuff we use every day, the stuff that is just The Way Things Are.

Stuff like, well, Skyping a graduation. Connecting Cape Cod to Afghanistan with the click of mouse — and without a blink of surprise.

Welcome to the class of 2012. Take a nice clear look at the non-linear world of … Today.

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