Transformational Technologies – Update

I have argued elsewhere that changes in technology contribute significantly to changes in patterns of dominance and deference. (See my most recent book, The End of Leadership.) Every week provides new evidence that confirms the proposition.

Four recent examples:

— We now know that in August of this year the world’s most valuable company, Saudi Aramco, was brought to its knees by a hacker. According to a recent report in the New York Times, “a person with privileged access to the Saudi state-owned oil company’s computers, unleashed a computer virus to initiate what is regarded as among the most destructive acts of computer sabotage on a company to date.” My point of course is a general one: the degree to which in the 21st century a single individual, or even a small group, can wreak havoc on a group or organization that appears on the surface to be impermeable. Technology has changed the balance of power: the most apparently powerful are newly vulnerable to the most apparently powerless.

— Also in Saudi Arabia … the advent of Twitter. In this case technology is empowering not the few, but the many. Twitter is enabling Saudis – who up to were stifled – to express themselves in ways they never dared before. Women are taking on men, including clerics who limit their freedoms. Men, for example judges and lawyers, are taking on the government, accusing it of corruption. And both tend to use their real names – as opposed to hiding themselves in the cloak of anonymity. In fact, Saudi Arabia is the world’s fastest growing Twitter zone. What will be the real world implication of all this fussing and fuming remains of course to be seen. I would venture in the short term, not much. But over the longer term, it’s hard to imagine this new found freedom of expression will be devoid of social, political, and even economic impact.

— You keeping up with changes in learning? With the ways in which technologies are revolutionizing education, especially higher education? Suffice it for the moment to say that Professor Edward Hess, of the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business, had in the past in his class some 120 students. Beginning this January, his class on how to help private business grow, will enroll more than 26,000! As usual the medium is the message. In this case the medium is on line learning – and the message is hugely greater global access to education and educators, including some of the best in the world. This foretells democratization in the extreme – a far greater distribution of power and influence than ever before.

— In 2008 Barack Obama used Facebook in his presidential campaign, but only in a limited way, primarily to raise money and mobilize volunteers. But this time around social media are ubiquitous. They are allowing ordinary people to express themselves in unprecedented fashion, and they are obliging both Democrats and Republicans to re-frame their messages in ways that permit persuasion on-line rather than in-person.

Whoever said, “The more things change, the more they stay the same”? Don’t bet on it!

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