“What has happened in terms of technology in the last few decades will indeed drive us to a great period. And our challenge is to step up and deal with it rather than to run away from it. Because if you want to ask what made America great, it was the fact that we stepped up and confronted the challenges.” ~ Tom Wheeler
There’s a tweet that goes around occasionally that lists all the tech (mostly mobile-first) services that didn’t exist 10 or 15 years ago. Here’s an example.
The list is a marvelous snapshot of how products can scale like never before. But while in one way it’s an unprecedented time in history, the past 15 years are far from the only time disruptive technologies have reshaped society.
Moreover, that tweet, like most tellings of history, tends to look only at the glory of inventions. Every great sea change also brings upheaval. Displaced are old systems, old ways of thinking and the livelihoods of people and communities. There is short-term pain, new and acute problems and a lot of opposition.
The same is happening today and will continue. Moreover, there’s evidence that much of today’s technology can be traced back to earlier technologies. The disruptions we see today even run parallel to past upheavals. Knowing all that, what can businesses and governments learn to survive and thrive through the next era? Will our society rise to the challenge?
This is where Tom Wheeler comes in. He’s the author of “From Gutenberg to Google,” out Feb. 26, in which he argues that we’re actually on the cusp of the “third era of network-driven change” after the world-altering disruptions caused by the printing press in the 15th century and the railroad and telegraph in the 19th century. (Read an excerpt from the book.)
Wheeler was chairman of the Federal Communications Commission from 2013-17 under President Barack Obama and is a former head of two industry associations that intersect with technology: the National Cable Television Association (1979-84) and the Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association (1992-2004). He’s also a co-founder of this company, SmartBrief, and is a visiting fellow at The Brookings Institution.
In late January, I sat down with Wheeler to discuss his new book. We talked about history, what “networks” mean to him and why they’re central to his thesis, and the roles industries and regulators can play in helping society through this latest era of rapid change.
Disruption as seen through history
Wheeler is a student of history and has written about technology’s effects at key moments, notably in a book about President Abraham Lincoln’s use of the telegraph during the Civil War. But writing about events spanning half a millennia is a different story. Why take on that much history, that much research?
“I’ve always been a history junkie and a technology junkie,” he told me. “And it dawned on me that the kinds of economic and social disruptions that we’re seeing today that are technology-based — we like to think, ‘Oh, nothing like this has ever happened before.’ But history tells us otherwise.”
As mentioned earlier, Wheeler looked at two significant technological advances. One, Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press — “the original information revolution.” Two, “the railroad, the first high-speed network, and the telegraph, the first electronic network, which happened … over a couple of decades in the middle of the 19th century.”
So far, so good. But as Wheeler notes, these advances caused upheaval, destruction and strife.
“Gutenberg suddenly made it possible to inexpensively create and distribute knowledge,” Wheeler says. “It resulted in the Reformation. Luther was the first mass media evangelist. He used the printing press. And that resulted in decades of war!”
The railroad and the telegraph helped bring about the Industrial Revolution, which was great, except that it also “destroyed local economies and created urban centers that then had huge problems — cholera outbreaks because there was no such thing as sanitation, a need for public safety, police and fire, need for education, need for health care.”
We all know about the way technology is disrupting the way we live today. But there’s much more change to come, Wheeler argues.
“What I tried to do in ‘From Gutenberg to Google,’ is, ‘How do we put the experience we’re having today in perspective?’ And then talk about, ‘Where do we go from here?’ The belief is that we are not yet into the third great era of network revolution, but we’re on the cusp of it,” he says.
Networks and parallels
Before we can talk about what this third era of network changes will do to our world and how we should respond, we should pause to ask, “What do we mean by ‘network’”?
The word has become a term for any computer-enabled gathering place, as well as an extremely transactional verb (what sounds less generous than “we should network sometime”?).
Wheeler chose this word because of a more traditional definition, that of physical infrastructure. And that choice is intriguing — infrastructure is vital, but without everything that supports and amplifies it, it’s just a bunch of stuff.
“It is never the network that is transformational, but the secondary effects of the network,” he says. Those effects are what change economies and societies.
“The railroad was the death of distance. From the beginning of time, geography ruled. How far you could go on the muscle of man or beast circumscribed how far you could go, period.”
That range of travel defined markets — until the railroad changed that. Again, that sounds great. And it was for people such as Gustavus Swift, who developed a practical refrigerated cattle car, enabling the easy shipment of dressed meat to markets far beyond local borders. Great for him, but not everyone, Wheeler notes.
“He began to do to local butchers the same thing Google is doing to local media outlets today. He destroyed this cornerstone of the local economy — the butcher — who couldn’t possibly compete on a one-off basis. Doing the same thing, in the same model, that Google is doing today. It is that kind of parallelism that runs through [my] whole book and is an important underpinning of us being able to recognize what’s happening today.”
Resistance to change is human. What happens next?
“It’s a pretty binary situation. You’re either going to embrace the change and make it work for you, or it’s going to run you over,” Wheeler says.
That might be the case, but it’s also true, as the book documents, that there is a natural resistance to technological progress, especially from people and communities thrown into turmoil by the changes.
“If you were to map the peaks and valleys of world economic growth, they match perfectly these phases of network growth. Because the networks created new economic activity, which in and of itself was destabilizing. So, point No. 1: The people who get destabilized don’t like it, and they fight back!”
What’s different today, Wheeler argues in his book, is that change is occurring faster and not allowing enough time for us to absorb the effects. Information moved faster after the printing press was invented, and that pace of change was accelerated by later changes like the telegraph, the railroad, the internet and so on.
What should businesses and trade groups do? In associations, “you spend 80% of your time trying to figure out what a common position is that you can advocate in the other 20% of your time.”
This type of consensus-searching was a challenge during the eras of the printing press and the telegraph, Wheeler argues. Today’s status quo is ending, and leaders need to find new “commonly acceptable solutions to the challenges you face.”
What about government? Government is not necessarily well-positioned, Wheeler says, because it’s still structured on a bureaucratic, rules-based system that developed in an earlier industrial era.
The big question, he says, is, “How do you respect the speed of change and reflect that in how you oversee the marketplace?”
The speed of change requires less rigidity, faster thinking and faster action. “We need to move the concept of agile software development into government.”
How do we help those left behind by technology?
Industry and government have clear choices facing them about how to handle disruptive technological change, but what about individuals who are displaced?
I was particularly concerned with how people are supposed to adapt, especially, say, middle or later-career people whose jobs are made obsolete. Yes, they can retrain and learn new things, but can they keep up? How can society aid them in that effort when change is relentless?
One story Wheeler shared in response was about his travels as FCC chairman to coal country, where job losses in coal had a cascading effect. By the time he visited, there were former coal miners who were learning coding, with business being generated off of that work.
“You think that it was the railroad that enabled the coal economy in the first place because it hauled the coal out. If you couldn’t have hauled it inexpensively over great distances, it would have stayed in the ground. So, it was that network that built that economy. And when that economy fell apart, it was another new network that comes in — a fiber-optic network.”
And in that seems to me to be a key takeaway from “From Gutenberg to Google”: Technology disrupts; it destroys while creating opportunities and huge challenges. The only thing we can be sure of is that societies must accept the challenge if they hope to solve it.
James daSilva is the longtime editor of SmartBrief’s leadership newsletter and blog content, as well as newsletters for distributors, manufacturers and other fields. Before SmartBrief, he was a copy desk chief at a small daily New York newspaper. Contact him @James_daSilva or by email.