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18/01/2008

The Fog of Revolution: how to get perspective while living through the genesis of the online age

Bit of a ramble this one: but it might make sense in places...

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When I was a boy I used to talk to my Nan about her childhood and youth in Cork, Ireland.

And about her father, who was invalided out of the First World War after a mustard gas attack, how when he was a tram driver he was hijacked at gunpoint by the Black & Tans. I think she could remember the burning of Cork when those bully boys with guns and leftover uniforms torched the city in reprisal for IRA attacks.

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One story she told me was about her Dad, who didn't live long after that, sowing her a crystal radio set he had built. She told me how amazed she was to hear the voices and music through it.

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One day, he told her, you will be able to see pictures in the same way. Like cinema films travelling through the air to wherever you are. It made me marvel at all of the 20th Century's changes that she'd seen in her life. I used to think that the changes in my lifetime would not be so dramatic - but Iw as wrong. 

It was s1982 when she told me that story. At home at the time there was a ZX Spectrum that my Dad had won the money to buy in a competition where his IT department. I took it to school one day because no one else had one and the teacher wanted to show it to everyone.

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We didn't do much with it. I was only eight or nine. We played some games.

During class story time the teacher talked about the computer and the world we would grow up into. She said we would live in the computer age, but that there were limits to what computers could do.

She said that one of the kids, Gary, had asked if the computer - all mighty 48k of it - could tell us who the best football player in the world was. No, she said, and no computer in our lifetimes ever would. We would have to enter all the available data about football players and set criteria for the computer

Nowawdays I can ask the computer. Through Google. A sponsored result at the top (the natural results are a spammers' playground)  takes me to Rankopedia which says that - surprise surprise - PelĂ© is the best player in the world ever.

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She was right. It wasn't the computer that would tell us. The network would.

Anyhow, if you've read this far, I should really reward you by getting to the point. Or at least a point.

The point is this... when we are living though revolutions it is hard to understand them. I talked about this last night at Social Media Club London.

Revolutions are sudden changes, but they are also things which take place over time and the effect of which increase as time passes. The web is a revolution that will continue to bring incredible undreamt of changes to our lives for as long as we live and for some time afterwards, I expect.

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We know little about where this will take us in ten years time, let alone fifty. What the historian of 500 years time, if such a thing exists, will make of what happened between the creation of Arpanet in 1963 and the end of the 21st century we can only guess at.

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At least we can only guess at the details, enveloped as we in the fog of revolution, without, perhaps, even the mental models or the language to describe the full implications and outcomes of the web, of every person and every piece of available knowledge and data being connected, instantly accessible.