Peter used to wake up daily and greet us with a cry of, “I’m in sunny California”. The other people in the house would laugh as he repeated it over and over again at random moments. I’m sure that if I spent time with him now over 20 years later, he’d probably still say it. Only now he has a piece of land and a house in a rural area of the state where he can lead his highly organised life – a result of growing up in a small, crowded apartment. Peter comes from the Czech Republic. It was called Czechoslovakia when he left a tourist flight in the 80’s, found an immigration official and said ‘azil’ – Czech for asylum.
After the downtrodden weather in Cumbria, I, too, find myself thinking “I’m in sunny California!” – almost daily, in fact. It feels as though I’ve emerged from under a dark looming cloud of never ending Cumbrian gloom to find myself in the brilliant sunshine. But this part of California not only has a physical shine, but also a shiny light on new tech businesses. I met someone for coffee this morning in Palo Alto. About half of the shops on the street were coffee shops. And I found out why. Everyone was meeting, talking, looking at computer screens and basically building the next tech reality in front of my eyes. I thought if you really wanted to create something new, just hanging around this one street long enough would introduce you to most of the people that you’d need to know to get it going. Richard Feynman with his habit of learning about new things by hanging around for a couple of days would have loved it there.
Dot com, SEO these words are the distant past. ‘Growth hacker’, ‘social media’ and ‘Cloud’ are today’s mantras. Since I’ve arrived I’ve tried to build a new map of this technological framework and it starts with the idea that the computer issues of the past – servers, IT guys – have disappeared into – well – the ether. And my initial understanding was that these services were being sold to companies. Big ones. However, the same fragmentation and externalising of roles that has allowed start ups to shrink and shrink has also allowed non-tech businesses to shrink.
I had this vision of the Cloud with data and then it reaching into this multiplicity of small entities each networking into each other – a fractal view of interlinking entities. The HPs, Ciscos, Best Buys and IBMs are fading into insignificance as other newer entrants ignore big computers and simply build an experience for their customers by speaking to them directly. The only link needed is an internet connection.
When Bruce Togazzini spoke about human interface, it put this concept of the human being at the centre of any communication between people and technology. I believe that the most exciting place to be right now would be where the understanding of how people and these technologies interact. What is real – and what is so unhuman as to be unworkable.
With a human centric view, the fact that JCPenney has changed their pricing model to one where the pricing isn’t discounted probably won’t work. Last number I saw was a loss of $55 million. Humans are hunter gatherers at heart and so look for the best deal, for the most information that is acquired in an easily digestible way, but they still need to hunt the deal out – to be engaged by it.
So the technology needs to work with us so seamlessly that we become addicts despite our best intentions. Crack purchasing – making it inevitable that you will say yes – and like it – and pay for it monthly.
Maybe California isn’t really so sunny after all. It may, instead, be the tech addiction capital of the world where techies learn to enslave their customers through a very clear focus on how to abuse the human in us to make us simply unable to stop engaging with technology. Maybe the truth is really back in not-so-sunny Cumbria where people miss their families so much they move 2 hours away – and then move right back. Cumbria may be the antithesis of this new generation where technology and its addictive interaction which takes over your time, your heart and your soul. Who knows: Clouds may come back into fashion if we are to regain or even retain our human connections.