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The late Douglas Engelbart, a Silicon Valley pioneer who not only invented and prototyped much of the technology we now routinely use, but was also the theorist who conceived that augmenting individuals and groups with accessible, easy to use technology tools could raise the human collective intelligence to solve big problems. However, just as Alexander Graham Bell, who invented the telephone in the hope that humanity would use it to listen to lectures and concerts, was disappointed that people just wanted to talk to each other, Doug was disappointed that much of what he had hoped for in the potential of the Internet and the tools that enabled universal access to information and knowledge creation was wasted in entertainment activity. Nevertheless, what Engelbart and his team in Xerox Park conceived and demonstrated almost fifty years ago is now apparent reality in our time.
Engelbart also described categories of information workers as A, B and C types: A types did the work, B types supported them in doing the work, and C types raised the level of all work through developing models, tools and processes and helping us to frame how to co-evolve our activities that could elevate work to higher levels. Robert Scoble and Shel Israel are what Doug Engelbart may have had in mind as the C type exemplars to show us where we should be going.
Scoble and Israel have given us a cogent look at the most significant augmentation tools to accelerate both raising and accessing intelligence. The Age of Context identifies the prism of contextual computing (intelligent application of information) --- mobile devices, social media, big data (made available to us as just the right small amount of data), sensors, and location based businesses, to create Smart Systems that will change how we experience, and as importantly, can commercialize this next tsunami wave of enterprise enabling technology.
These guys are no armchair scholars. Scoble is a major player in trend-spotting technology and is the consummate maven of what’s hot and what’s not in new technologies. Israel is an accomplished business author and marketing professional who can take the geeky stuff and make it intelligible for the rest of us, for example: Robert is the consummate Facebook aficionado, Shel is the slightly above average user, and Shel’s wife Paula hardly touches the stuff. Few technology authors give us these kinds of empathic anecdotes that draw us in to relate to actual attitudes and behavior. Many of us may both embrace and abhor the tsunami waves of overwhelming change technology wrought that never stop. Who except Scoble can really keep up?
And Scoble’s perspective, insights, and character are what make this book really shine. I have seen Robert up close and personal. First time was in 2006 after he and Shel wrote Naked Conversations (blowing apart the traditional marketing communications model) and he gave a talk as the Microsoft Evangelist on how blogging would change the future. Subsequently, I traveled to Israel and London/Cambridge with Robert and a group of other well-known bloggers to report on emergent technologies in those regions. I was in the adult role organizing the trips with the respective governments; I am not a Geek and not a peer among our selected luminaries who were blogging to their worldwide audiences.
Scoble is to technology what the late Roger Ebert was to movies. Like Ebert did for films, Scoble has an infectious passion about all things tech, and he raises our awareness of what to look for in emergent companies and innovations—the book is illuminated with examples that illustrate each major trend. Like Ebert did, he champions the risk takers who do big things to serve the rest of us. What you may not see clearly in the book is that the man is amazingly generous in his advice, praise and support for the start-up entrepreneurs who risk everything they have to make their stuff change the world. A shout out from Scoble can result in lots of venture and angel funding or multi-national corporate acquisition to the few who rate his praise. He does not abuse that power, and also is unafraid to call out the big guys when they are slacking. He points to the example of Apple’s failed launch of Apple GPS as an example of corporate over-reach and failure when they should have known better and been more considerate of their customers’ experience.
By design, the book focuses on market opportunities to commercialize the new technologies. It is a great read for anyone who wants to see how these technologies can provide platforms to accelerate innovation.
For those of us in the university and regional economic development fields, we have different concerns: How do we prepare people to participate in the emergent economy by improving their abstract thinking capabilities in using technologies? How can we improve inefficient healthcare, education, and transportation systems? How do we enable the everyman innovators who may not be the next Sergei Brin and Larry Paige, but could use such platforms as Google Glasses (one of Scoble’s favorite examples) to build innovative apps that address gaps in these systems with new approaches?
To pursue these questions, two important books complement The Age of Context:
Erik Brynjoifsson, Andrew McAfee, “Race Against the Machine: How the Digital Revolution is Accelerating Innovation, Driving Productivity, and Irreversibly Transforming Employment and the Economy”, Digital Frontier Press, (2012)
Clive Thompson, “Smarter Than You Think: How Technology Is Changing Our Minds for the Better”, The Penguin Press, (2013)
We still may not be fulfilling Doug Engelbart’s vision of using augmented tools to enable us to most effectively address important problems, but Scoble and Israel are part of a vanguard of enablers to help the rest of us get there.
Jeff Saperstein is a consultant, university teacher, and author and is co-founder of CVC Group and co-author with Hunter Hastings of Service Thinking: The Seven Principles to Discover Innovative Opportunities, Business Expert Press, (2014).
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