A new era of living data is coming

FRAMINGHAM (10/02/2003) - Research being conducted in conjunction with the Managing the Information Resource Program at UCLA indicates that we are a mere 10 years away from the day when every molecule on this planet could be assigned an IP address. Such a possibility underscores our need to intellectually grasp the massive changes afoot in the evolution of information and its management.

I wonder if we're prepared for the upheaval ahead. In his 1934 seminal work, Technics and Civilization, Lewis Mumford, the premier technology historian of the early 20th century, described the first three eras of modern technology as follows:

- The Eotechnic Epoch: Machines are made of wood and are driven by water or wind.

- The Paleotechnic Epoch: Machines are made of iron and are driven by steam.

- The Neotechnic Epoch: Machines are made of engineered materials and are driven by electricity.

The early days of technology were primarily focused on the physical movement of things. And we haven't altered our views much since then. That's about to change.

In the not-so-distant future, in the everything-is-a-sensor world of ubiquitous IP addresses, the most successful companies will be those that are adept at a new kind of alchemy -- smoothly and efficiently managing the following triple transformation:

1. Data to information.

2. Information to knowledge.

3. Knowledge to dollars or actionable executive behavior.

Contemporary futurists and trend watchers concur that the technology era we're about to enter will feature intelligent, semiaware, always-on devices made by other intelligent, semiaware devices driven by ubiquitous, nano-scale, data-collecting sensors.

The next economy will be all about giving meaning to the reams of data being collected by the infinite array of sensors.

The winners will see first, understand first and act first. These happen to be central tenets of the U.S. military's transformed war-fighting concepts, which in turn are extrapolations of aerial combat tactics stressing the importance of having a more accelerated OODA loop (the ability to observe, orient, decide and act) than an enemy pilot.

The radio frequency identification technologies currently transforming retailing and payment systems are just the tip of this iceberg. The previewed but as yet unreleased "Nixon-in-a-Tablet-PC" feature (i.e., the ability to unobtrusively record the audio and then machine-transcribe all face-to-face interactions) of Microsoft's new product line is a taste of the panoptic infolandscape we're heading for.

Unfortunately, most organizations aren't currently set up to prosper in a truly "infomated" economy. For the longest time, IT management has treated the following not as a phrase but as a single word, with emphasis on the last four syllables: informationtechnology.

Historically significant practitioners of the information arts (librarians, archivists, content managers, content creators, intellectual property advocates and taxonomy creators) have been nudged further aside in the Napster-swapped/Google-searched early stages of the Information Age. The skills associated with managing knowledge (what we know and being able to discern what is worth knowing) still aren't given their due.

But they will have to be elevated in the corporate hierarchy as the infomated economy accelerates. The situation brings to mind Star Trek: The Next Generation's most memorable character, the sentient android, Data. The Trekkies succeeded in making data come alive. Now it's our turn.

Thornton A. May is a longtime industry observer, management consultant and commentator. Contact him at thorntonamay@aol.com.

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