The Age of Individual Empowerment


As a wireless industry veteran from the dark ages (circa 1990), I have often mused over the incredible journey I embarked upon during the infancy of the portable cellular telephone experience.

Wil Martindale
The McCaw Era

My co-workers in those days, now a circle of close friends for over 20 years, fondly reminisce from time to time about what we refer to as the “McCaw Era“.

I think this will be looked back upon by future generations as the beginning of an age of technology that forever changed humankind, moreso than the light bulb, the motorcar, or the television set.

But there was something else developing during this era. The personal computer.

It was difficult to distinguish back then which would be more transforming – the personal computer or the portable cellular telephone -because during this time the industry was already predicting a convergence of the two. And we assumed that the broadcast networks would also be a big part of this convergence.

Yes, telephones, televisions and computers would somehow merge into one device – we were sure of that. But though I can clearly remember the industry articles and predictions, I also remember that none of us (and I’m sure my McCaw Alumni will agree) could quite articulate just “how” this would evolve.

As I think back to those days, I remember envisioning a future where content was pushed out to us, the way it always was, through the traditional cable and radio channels. And so in our minds, we were all seeing a future of miniature radios and TVs combined into our cell phones.

And yet, we somehow couldn’t seem to get too excited about that, because frankly there really wasn’t anything “cool” or compelling about that idea which matched the hype of the industry’s (somewhat inarticulate) vision of the coming convergence.

If only we had understood the what the term “personal” computer would truly come to mean.

I’ve told this part of the story several times over the years, but it’s only recently dawned on me what was missing in our vision back then – because it’s taken more than 20 years to actually realize what that vision is today.

In essence, the big difference between the future we imagined and the future that became today’s reality is the element of personal empowerment, or the empowerment of the individual.

Little did we imagine back then that it wouldn’t be the broadcast networks pushing out their content to us, but rather, WE would be the authors of rich content, sharing it with each other.

Who among us could imagine back then, that we could capture an incredibly personal moment in time: our newborn baby’s first giggle, a puppy’s funny mishap, an incredible moment in a trip to a foreign land, and instantly share it as a high definition image or video to our circle of friends?

It’s the individual empowerment of personal technologies such as these through our social networks that drove the vision of a future which we couldn’t imagine back then, yet we take for granted today.

For those of you old enough to remember, and not young enough to have “never known” what the future would bring, I hope I’ve shared as much of an “ah hah” moment for you as it was for me.

It is an incredible time to be an individual, in this age of individual empowerment.

Can Relevance Become “The Box”?

As a marketing professional, my LinkedIn account serves up lots of relevant information about topics of interest to me on LinkedIn Pulse, which is home to lots of well written and informative articles on the subject matter pertinent to my profession.

The emails I receive (from HubSpot and others) and the various news feeds served up to me on digital media platforms are very customized and relevant to me. The information comes from people like me, with interests like mine, on topics we all have in common.

Relevance SquaredIt almost seems as if my entire online world is about nothing but (1) digital marketing, (2) leadershp and innovation, and (3) social media.  And it seems like everyone else  in the world is highly interested in these same three topics, above any and every other topic of interest in the entire universe.

Of course, this is all just a byproduct of choosing to follow those three topics (and spending a lot of time on LinkedIn). But it’s not just LinkedIn. There are information gathering robots among the various social and search networks that analyze my online actions, the sites I visit, the articles I like and the people I connect with.

From this activity, network intelligence creates a profile for me, and serves me the content it thinks I’m interested in, based on what I’ve shown it I’m interested in.

In a single digital age buzzword, we call this “relevance”.

Two aspects of the relevance “feedback loop” I am  somewhat apprehensive about are information overload, and groupthink.  And we could group these two together, since they are so closely related.

I love PULSE for example, however the trend toward groupthink  for a hot topic like “culture” or “innovation” is palpable. Once an insightful article is written,  it starts trending and we have three or four more articles per day trying to compete with some new spin on corporate culture or innovation –  until it finally just wears itself out.

It seems as if  many authors and commenters are looking more for affirmation and self promotion than constructive contribution. So by adding to a trending topic, I suspect they feel they’ll have better success with that. This isn’t exactly new. We are all “trend hopping” in a sense for “likes”,  and have been ever since online affirmation became the new currency of our monetized digital  world.

This is not to say that counterpoint doesn’t emerge,  only that it is often in the form of mean spirited and confrontational comments, as opposed to disruptive, yet constructive ones – unconventional and truly creative thinking (while remaining civil) which clears a path for new ideas and true innovation.

Yes, the relevance of the content I have unintentionally immersed myself in is definately on point. And if relentless repetition were the key to understanding it all, I’d be well on my way.

But the dangers of normalcy bias, groupthink and social norming are increasing, and the inspiration for new ideas is on the decline.

We shouldn’t underestimate the value of disruptive thinking, even in today’s “digitally transparent”  age (which of course governs the conversation through “social correctness”). We don’t have to be confrontational, just innovative.  

Disruptive thinking has been the basis for so many great inventions and new ideas in our modern age, we’d be foolish to abandon it just for the sake of relevance.

It is the unepxected, outside our comfortable world of preferences, that helps us to learn and grow, and, to use a somewhat over-used term these days, “think outside the box”.

The digital world we create for ourselves by teaching A.I. to serve us only what we prefer becomes the box of our digital age, when we let the trending groupthink build walls around our own sense of discovery and  innovation..