The second-order effects of wireless

Even though "wireless" is the hot buzzword on the lips of every high-technologist, the effects of the technology hold far more interest than does the technology itself.

Wireless freedom is intriguing: It isn’t hard to imagine a world of perpetually perambulating people with cell phones clamped to their ears and styli firmly gripped in their fingers doing at the cinema or the next table over at Il Fornaio what they could formerly do only at their desks.

But this flexibility to work where you want is just the first order of change wrought by these new tools. Far more interesting are the second-order effects – those unintended consequences of a new technology which often have a more powerful impact on society than the more obvious first-order changes.

For example, the first-order effect of the advent of the automobile was that it made moving from city to city much easier and quicker. The more profound second-order effect can be seen in the ways automobiles have reshaped our cities and spurred the growth of today’s dominant suburban culture. A second-order effect of wireless technology that we’re already seeing today is the increasing backlash against people using cell phones while driving.

Although it is difficult to predict exactly what the other second-order effects of wireless technology will be, it is clear that widespread, high-speed, always-on, wireless connectivity will have enormous cultural impact in the near future. One area that interests me is the concept of "face." When you drive down the street, strangers can see what kind of car you drive, read your license plate, and view your bumper stickers. This is one "face" you display. When you hand a colleague a business card at a conference, this is another "face." We all have many "faces," but they are generally informal, and are rarely constructed digitally.

In the wireless future, you will be able to automatically share a lot of very rich information with others, some of them strangers, some colleagues, and some intimate friends. These will be your "faces." You will have to choose what information you want to give to these individuals. Do you want to offer up a resume, a blank wall, or an autobiography? Photographs of your family? Glimpses into your hobbies or interests? If you want, you could give a twenty-page, copiously illustrated bumper sticker to every person you meet.

On the other side, how will you control the "faces" other people share with you? Do you really want that twenty-page essay? In many cases you probably don’t, but other times you may find it quite useful, at least for reference. How will you be able to tell the difference, and what will be the social implications of accepting or rejecting someone’s "face?"

Speculating about the future social implications of wireless products is important because it gives us a head start on determining what capabilities to design into products and technologies today. It is inevitable that we will learn about second-order effects as they occur, but by applying Goal-Directed® analysis tools today, we can get an early glimpse of what those effects will be. This will not only save us time and money, but can yield significant competitive advantages to those companies willing to get ahead of the raw technology.

Alan Cooper
Alan Cooper

Alan Cooper is the co-founder of Cooper and a pioneer of the modern computing era. He created the programming language Visual Basic and wrote industry-standard books on design practice like “About Face.”

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