With all the real trouble in the world these days, it seems small-minded to ponder the impact of the latest wave of technologies on our lives. After all, TechCrunch is a blog about startups and the Valley, with only a tangential relationship to the struggles in Japan and the Middle East. But the larger theme of the role and limits of technology in solving our problems still resonates across this divide.
The reactor crisis in Japan may have its roots in a cascading series of events, but the most intractable parts stem from decisions, or lack of them, about what to do with the spent fuel rods. Not a technology problem but a failure of leadership, a buck-stops-not-here that if we’re not incredibly lucky will have an impact on generations to come. We won’t soon forget the images of tsunami, smoke, and explosions, but the video of helicopters and fire trucks trying to save us from a catastrophic meltdown will last even longer. They look like tinker toys arrayed against the terror of the real adult world.
The way the media consumes these crises adds to the feeling of helplessness. Armchair experts line up with snap analysis in hopes of locking down the three or four slots needed to keep the cable networks happy. In the age of social, credentials are less important than fitting easily into the ping pong nature of point counterpoint orchestrated by weekend anchors barely out of the Weather Channel. It’s the Battle of the Colonels, with retired military commentators second guessing the Joint Chiefs of Staff as Qaddafi jousts with kings and presidents.
We keep switching back and forth between the networks as they recycle the lack of news across a day’s worth of timezones. For all the hype about realtime, the newspapers shine through with the context and investment in years of sources and back-room deal-making that ultimately drive the way forward. It’s ironic that the New York Times, so reviled in the techsphere for its paywall, is providing the very value it needs to sell whatever morphing model is in the cards.
Mad Men shows us history may repeat itself, but on television it goes into an endless loop, battering our emotions into a dull numbness that calls out for soothing. Here the social services are beginning to surface. Facebook provides day-to-day glue from family and friends, Twitter the drumbeat of alerts, a realtime pointer into the cable streams aggregated by a follower network of cloud reporters. And then there’s FaceTime, which with the iPad 2 is now turning the iPhone 4 and iPod Touches into a deeper more emotional network. As television brings a world of danger and uncertainty, FaceTime brings connection.
I’ve spent the weekend battening down the hatches for this new, more turbulent phase. Hours of time on the phone and net comparing prices and contracts, early upgrades or terminations, automatic porting from one carrier to another. My daughter had her iPhone stolen right out of her backpack on a bus field trip, triggering a reassessment in light of the competition opened up by Verizon’s entry into the iPhone/iPad market. It may seem over the top, but maintaining a FaceTime connection with my children seems ever more important.
When technology and media intersect with the emotional underpinnings of our lives, the result is the kind of tsunami we’re experiencing with the iPad. It may seem petty to many to cheerlead a company and a technology so geared toward the pursuit of the next shiny object, the next Tweet, or whatever. But learning the language of this next generation of empowerment certainly is on our minds for reasons other than immediate gratification. The messages of social media and mobility are not lost on the people of the world, as they try and forge freedoms they can see beaming around the world over the lingua Franca of WiFi.
The tools of this new trade are AirPlay, Personal Hotspot, direct messages, @mentions, automated number porting, GarageBand, iMovie, push notification. These tools give us the context of history, the connection of family, the aspiration of mobility, of seeing the change and fighting for it. It’s not about technology, it’s with it. The revolution is in our understanding that we are the experts and the agents of change we’re looking for.