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How Technology Moves

This post was first published by Sarah Hurley on March Communications’ blog PR Nonsense.

Working in high-tech PR gives us a unique perspective into the technology that is quickly becoming the lifeblood of the corporate world. It’s certainly an exciting time for us brand storytellers to be bringing to light important topics, like why U.S. cloud computing adoption rates far outpace Europe’s, for example, or how application performance management can improve a patient’s healthcare experience.

But because we are entrenched in the technology phenomena, it’s sometimes difficult to escape our granular view when trying to acquaint our family, friends and peers with our world and really make it resonate. How can we explain that technology isn’t just a product but a catalyst going around and improving society at large?

I came a step closer to painting this bigger picture after attending a presentation by Thomas Goetz, formerly executive editor of Wired. Goetz’s simple but powerful presentation aptly named “How Technology Moves”, chronicled technological innovations over the years and put in layman’s terms how we’ve achieved this rapid pace of innovation and why it will continue. A few things in particular stood out from his presentation.

First, Goetz explained that technology is all a result of A/B testing and within the cycle of constant, iterative improvements, powerful new innovations are born. The feedback loop, as it’s called, consists of gathering information, putting that information to the test, understanding reactions and then gathering new data to make the idea put forward better. One way that helped me understand this was considering the fundamentals of improvisation acting, as the performers can only make a successful skit if they adopt the “yes, and” approach- there’s no room for “no” in innovation! In this way, it has shaped a world of constant feedback in which we are all now not only living but taking an active role.

As a result of this constant feedback, Goetz explained that the HiPPO, or “highest-paid person’s opinion” problem that once stunted many companies’ growth no longer has a place in society. Instead, companies must emphasize data-driven interrogation across all professional levels to make the smartest decisions, since questions are active, whereas answers are passive (and so passé). For instance, Valves Software, which did away with managers and bosses, uses its non-hierarchical approach to foster innovation and is today one of the videogaming industry’s most prominent and successful companies.

Goetz highlighted a few other breakthroughs, like comparing a simple telephone cord to the complexity of an Ethernet cord, to demonstrate the microcosm of the world in which we’re headed. But the one that was most compelling to me was learning about the inception of social networks- sure, today we have Facebook, Foursquare and Instagram to meet the demands of our always-on world. But, even in simpler times, humans also sought the connectivity that is burgeoning today. In fact, the term “social network” was coined as far back as 1954, when anthropologist J.A. Barnes coined the phrase to describe the unique knowledge-sharing that was going on between fishermen in a Norwegian fishing village.

Obviously, the technology wasn’t yet invented to facilitate better communication between the fishermen, but the success and proliferation of digital social networks today demonstrates a key truth- that technology and its constant improvement is all about serving very basic human needs. So if you’re still a bit lost in the weeds when deciphering what big data actually means, or if you’ve veered off course trying to organize your life in the cloud, look at the bigger picture. Think first about the problem it might be solving- and then, wait a few minutes, because chances are they’ll be a new disruption coming soon, and you’ll be all the better for it.

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