People who work in the technology field can at times suffer from a collective amnesia. A thought that the challenges caused by the information technology du jour are completely unique to our time. As an international scholar for the society for the history of technology, David Lavenda is here to offer some perspective. Take information overload as an example, a topic near and dear to David's heart. He shared a story from shortly after Gutenberg invented the printing press, a scholar at the time suggested the influx of information it would unleash would cause damage akin to the fall of the Roman Empire.
Having said that, David's monthly column is deeply rooted in the challenges and questions of the day. Can asynchronous collaboration survive in an always-on work culture? Are we going back to the office or not? Are collaboration platforms the future desktop? These are just a few of the questions David tackled this year.
'There Is Nothing New Under the Sun'
What excites you about your field today?
Information overload, especially understanding how people deal with too much information, has fascinated me for years. With people now moving to a completely new ways of working, old communication patterns have broken down and new ones are emerging, using digital technology. At the same time, interactions with remote people increasingly occur at less convenient times, heightening the perception of information overload. Making sense of this evolving trend is a great new opportunity to learn about how we as humans process and use information.
What's one lesson that we collectively can't seem to learn?
“There is nothing new under the sun.” We need to internalize this sentence for every wail of “it’s different this time” from technophiles and technophobes alike whenever a new product or technology is launched. As we experience an accelerated pace of technology development, it seems like we never had to deal with some of the issues that new tech brings, but that’s rarely true. What IS different is the velocity and volume of change, but rarely the core of the "innovation." Some may say that makes all the different, but I say, let’s not lose perspective. “What has been will be again, and what has been done will be done again.”
What work-related trend will you be watching in the year(s) ahead?
The discussion around remote work/working from home has gone from niche to cliché in under two years. The shift from office to work from home has transpired at a pace unmatched by any prior business transformation. Yet we are only beginning to understand the implications of this new way of working (and living). Our lives remain in flux as announced return to office dates continue to slide. Observing how this plays out will be fascinating — the prospect of playing an active role in influencing how this develops is exciting.
What's one work-related trend that surprised you? (could be from any point in your career)
It’s not a single trend, but a pattern. I am repeatedly surprised by how fast business transitions from one generation to the next. It wasn’t that long ago that Nokia, Blackberry and Motorola ruled the mobile phone handset market. And Sears, Kmart and JC Penney were all Fortune 40 companies just 20 years ago. Where are they today? It’s a message for any company not to get complacent in a rapidly moving world. Intel’s Andy Grove was famous for saying “only the paranoid survive.”
What's the best piece of advice you ever received?
When I was a physics undergrad, I asked one of my professors about grad school and he bluntly told me to pursue another career direction. While devastated at the time, that piece of advice eliminated years of frustration and eventually put me on a career path more appropriate for my skills and temperament. Not sure that was the ‘best piece of advice I ever received,’ but it was one of those ‘wake up’ moments that are perhaps the most impactful, in a good way.