The most recent edition of ON Magazine contains a fascinating series of articles and interviews from an impressive array of industry luminaries reflecting on the 20th anniversary of the Web and ruminating on its potential over the next 20 years. Interviewees were posed three questions by EMC:
○ How has the Web changed your life?
○ How has the Web changed business and society?
○ What will the Web look like in 20 years?
The breadth and depth of responses has inspired fellow bloggers inside EMC and out to contemplate the same questions from their own unique perspectives. Fellow EMCer Edward Newman has tagged me to consider them in the context of my role in Corporate Sustainability.
How has the Web changed my life?
I actually resisted being tagged because of this very question. The Web is so ingrained in how my life has played out the past 20 years that the question feels akin to the imponderable "Who would you be if you'd been born to different parents?" Not me, for sure. The Web has not so much changed my life as shaped it; it is part of the context in which most of my career has played out. (Note the deft avoidance of dates…).
The Web plays many roles in my life from being my primary locus of commerce to rebuilding long-lost social connections from high school, summer camp, and other stages of my life. For today, I'll focus on a couple that most influenced my landing in this job.
Library: When we were growing up, our parents took great pains for us tto have supper together as a family (no mean feat for a surgeon and a pediatrician!). It wasn't a stodgy affair by any means, but we were expected to sit through the meal. One exception: if a question arose (or more likely a debate over fact), it was acceptable to leap up and run upstairs to reference the encyclopedia. My subsequent need for instantaneous intellectual gratification has been both fueled and fulfilled by the constant expansion of information on the Web. I recently mentioned to my brother that "I have been spoiled by the Web!" His comment? "If you aren't, you're not using it right."
Classroom: Some people come into roles such as mine from the sustainability side and learn about the business. I came at it from the business side, but not totally unschooled in sustainability. While I have been to courses and conferences, a huge portion of my lessons are what we presumptuously call "self-taught" - when in fact they were self-learned from teachings found and taught via the Web.
Town Square: (Or, in New England, the Town Dump). Environmental and social sustainability is the subject of unprecedented sharing. We are sharing ideas, brainstorming, and benchmarking with people in peer companies, in vastly different industries, and in companies we've never heard of before. We are part of a community and encounter each other on a regular basis in different virtual venues. I've developed nothing short of friendship and trust with several amazing people that I have yet to meet in person. These folks help vet my logic, share their ideas, talk through what did and didn't work, and make introductions to others who have relevant experience.
At a panel session last week in Santa Clara, one audience member asked "Is there a secret cabal of sustainability professionals out there so that you can learn from each other?". Yup, there is. But not so secret - and there for the finding on the Web.
Experience accelerator: There's probably a better term for this. But the point is that while we often discuss the challenges of identifying authoritative information on the Web, the wealth of pure opinion can have real value in helping me develop my own opinion. Take Climate Change. I try to read blogs with diverse (not to say divergent) perspectives. For example, contrast Climate Progress with Climate Audit. By reading both, I'm privy to the debate. And that helps me clarify my own positions, acting as an accelerator to experiential learning.
Stressor: I wouldn't be honest if I didn't admit the stress induced by the availability of more information, ideas, and opinion than I can possibly read (let alone absorb) and more opportunities to contribute, participate, and engage than clock or calendar allow. No matter how many hours I put in, I'm left feeling like a slug who is missing the one really relevant piece of information that would enable me to transform the company, the industry, or the world.
How has the Web changed business and society?
Making it personal: Poverty, education, tyranny, climate change, human rights. These are big concepts. But the Web is just starting to make them real by making them personal. Whether it's tweets from Haiti or microfinancing sites such as Kiva - we're getting opportunities to glimpse, and to reach out to, individual people who are impacted by global events.
Transparency: The Web is both enabling and demanding corporate transparency, a principle that is key to the sustainability ethos. Institutions are publishing information on their performance, on their challenges, and on their decision-making processes. Meanwhile, transgressions - public or private - are increasingly brought to light with the fast dissemination of multi-media information. Some particularly poignant examples of this have come from cell phone snapshots of the protests in Iran and of downer cows in meat-packing plants.
Collaboration: "Stakeholder engagement" is what we call it - listening to and working with the people and organizations that are impacted by your company decisions. We do have formal stakeholder meetings, but with the Web, stakeholder engagement is a full-time affair. We employ social media for internal employee conversations. We get insight from customers, partners, and analysts on the EMC Community Network . Investors are invited on EMC.com to provide input and submit questions. We work with our peers on The Green Grid, the World Economic Forum, and other industry consortia and non-profits via internet conferencing. We talk about this being an era of unprecedented collaboration - especially between public and private interests - and some of the credit belongs to the tools and technology that enable it to happen.
Acceleration of Implementation: We can do more, faster. We're using tools we find and share on the Web to evaluate our performance, benchmark ourselves, develop a common lingo, communicate, align our efforts, evaluate choices, repurpose and combine information, and get help from supporters and "the crowd".
What will the Web look like in 20 years?
As many others have said before me, we are in a period of non-linear change. The world, and the Web, will change far more in the next 20 years than it did in the last 20. Looking back 20 years from now (one can only hope), I fully expect to laugh at how little I could have envisioned of what will have happened. (Wow - what tense was that?).
And we have to remember that the Web is a tool. Some of the surprises that it delivers will be nasty, as they are today. But here are a few things that I hope it will help us achieve:
Accountability where transparency is increased to an extent that institutions - government, business, non-profit - can be seen to be living up to commitments - or not. And perhaps some trust can be restored from the historical lows of today.
Access.Access to education, to healthcare, to economic opportunity, to personal safety. For everyone.
Traceability - The ability to know the source of your food and the destination of your tax dollars.
Efficiency - The SmartGrid and more, managing resource consumption, reclamation, and nurturing to eliminate waste and avoid resource depletion.
Acceleration of Development: Connecting people, projects, and ideas that enable emerging and failing societies to build sustainable and stable economies.
What do you say we reconvene in 20 years and see who was closest?
I'm tagging EMC colleague Yo Delmar to pick it up from here.