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25th Anniversary blog series: 1995 – Industries changed by IT – role of infrastructure

February 4, 2015

Nicholas Negroponte said in “Being Digital” (Negroponte, 1995) “Early in the next millennium your telephone won’t ring indiscriminately; it will receive, sort, and perhaps respond to your incoming calls like a well-trained English butler. Mass media will be redefined by systems for transmitting and receiving personalized information and entertainment. Schools will change to become more like museums and playgrounds for children to assemble ideas and socialize with children from all over the world. The digital planet will look and feel like the head of a pin.

As we interconnect ourselves, many of the values of the nation-state will give way to those of both larger and smaller electronic communities. We will socialize in digital neighbourhoods in which physical space will be irrelevant and time will play a different role. Twenty years from now, when you look out of a window, what you see may be five thousand miles and six time zones away. When you watch an hour of television it may have been delivered to your home in less than a second. Reading about Patagonia can include the sensory experience of going there. A book by William Buckley can be a conversation with him. “

It was clear that the growth of new economies based on digital information will not be uniform, nor will the effects which follow from the changes.

The Figure “Industries Change due to ICT” was used as a framework for arguing that industries based on information should have less infrastructure and so be able to change faster than those which required the transport of “stuff” – concrete, wood pulp, oil, etc. What has actually happened is that the private sector industries across the spectrum have changed faster than public sector or NGO sectors like public admin or education.

ICT Industry changes

For instance, it was estimated that 20% of the publishing sector could be handled electronically with the decade, which would mean the creation of a new industry with a turnover of about 50 billion euros in Europe alone by 2005. The dislocation of jobs in all steps of the publishing chain raises practical problems: the skills needed are different, and the jobs may be in a different place. The potential benefit is that all can have greater access to information, but access to the new world will, in all probability be patchy.

The effects of technology on Financial Services were very visible in the 90’s. Less visible changes were in some unexpected industries eg

  • pulp mills for making paper from wood used to be in the forest, and the customers were a few large publishers buying a few qualities of paper. The changing demand for paper due in part to the changes in printing technology has turned some forestry companies from being rooted in the forest into companies with pulp mills near good sources of waste paper, and from companies dominated by growing and processing pulp to companies led by a sales force selling many varieties of paper to a multiplicity of customers;
  • in construction and concrete supply, the globalization of regulations and the use of IT to transmit working drawings changed the quantity and quality of the skill-base needed on the site.

The conclusion we draw from this is that social structures are slower to change than individuals, and any attempts to predict the future are likely to under-estimate this.

Written by Gill Ringland.

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