Do you Yahoo? Skype me! Search, don’t sort. There’s an app for that. These slogans have become so pervasive you might not even notice them anymore. Every one of them is connected with a service or a product you might use for day-to-day communications. And every day there seems to be more of them.
It wasn’t always like this. A mere hundred years ago people used to communicate face to face — in person. The telephone had already been invented, but far from commonplace. That’s practically unimaginable today, and a hundred years is not that much in the grand scheme of things.
Yet there’s no stopping progress. Ray Kurzweil and others have analyzed the ever increasing pace of technological change and termed it The law of accelerating returns1. We stand on the shoulders of giants and have access to everything they have learned, invented and created; our successors will stand on our shoulders, and so on. In a sense, it’s giants all the way down.
Accelerating change (source: Wikipedia)
As the inevitable has happened and the cost of developing a communication system — a thing that once required decades and billions of dollars — has plummeted down to nearly zero, we are suddenly overwhelmed. We are experimenting and trying to find out what works. Facebook, Twitter and Skype are just the tip of the iceberg. Look at what’s below the surface: List of social networking websites and a List of instant messaging protocols/networks on Wikipedia.
The actual problem lies in the Metcalfe’s law: the value of any network is proportional to the square of its users. So the larger the network, the more value it will provide to you. If all your friends use Skype, you literally must use Skype too, or you will be missing out on all the cool discussions that happen there. If you’re stranded alone on a dying communication channel, you’d better switch to something more modern, or you won’t have anyone to talk to. The conclusion of all this is: your friends choose your communication channels, not you. And the collective brain rarely chooses exactly what you want.
Regardless of the availability of thousands of communication channels, even a single channel like e-mail can become a problem: getting thousands of messages a day requires immense discipline and some mad filtering skills to separate the wheat from the chaff. Many people have devised clever schemes for dealing with it, such as practicing information diet by checking email twice a day only2.
Now multiply the plain-and-simple e-mail overload by fifty and get what awaits every single one of us in a matter of years. We can hardly imagine life without a mobile phone and texting, without e-mail, instant messaging and Facebook, and in the years to come, we won’t be able to imagine our lives without some uber-smart communication helper, which will unify all the channels and apply to them some smart filtering and prioritizing.
And if here at Obelisk we can help make just one small step in that direction, we will consider our mission a success.