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Snapshots of a Changing Landscape

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This is the month when U.S. voters are choosing what kind of change they want in the White House and the U.S. Congress; I write this before any votes have been tallied, but the whole notion of “change” is very much top of mind. We’re facing enormous potential changes in the nation’s political and governmental configuration, just as we’re dealing with tectonic shifts in our economic infrastructure, not to mention technological and cultural revolutions that can be alternately dizzying and intimidating.

Rather than looking at major changes, I’d like to offer some quick snapshots that illustrate the small but meaningful ways in which the landscape is evolving. You may recognize some of these from your own life, but the point here is to see them in context, as part of a larger picture.

  • Iwas making a phone call the other day, and heard a strange buzzing sound—not the ringing of a phone, not a voice suggesting that I leave a message. It was, in fact, a busy signal—and it suddenly occurred to me that I could not remember the last time I heard one. Between the emergence of cell phones that we all carry with us and the voice-mail systems that have become ubiquitous, we’re almost always able to reach out and touch someone.

  • Afriend of mine was telling me about how his family had just completed a big move from one house to another, and had finally set up the flat-screen television in the family room, though not all the boxes had been unpacked. His daughter was clearly frustrated at one point, and he asked why. “I want to watch television and I can't find the box with the remote,” she said. He then walked her over to the television and showed her that it, in fact, had an on-off switch and channel/volume controls that could be accessed without a remote—a concept that caught her completely by surprise.

  • Ireceived a call the other day from one of the Yellow Pages companies, asking me if I had received the newest edition. I searched my memory, and realized that indeed there was a stack of big yellow books sitting in the lobby of my building, and that they’d been sitting there untouched for weeks. The company’s representative seemed confused when I said that while the books had indeed arrived, I had no need of one because “I have this newfangled contraption called a computer, which allows me to look up phone numbers on this amazing innovation called the Internet.” (OK, that was a little obnoxious, but I couldn’t help myself. That explains why she hung up.)

  • Idon’t know about you, but I have this machine in my office that was cutting edge a few years ago, but lately has been gathering dust and seems pretty much irrelevant. It’s called a fax machine, and I can’t remember the last time I used it. (You see, there is this newfangled contraption called a computer …) This doesn’t bother me, but it does make me look around the office and wonder what machines or technologies that currently seem critical to the day-to-day conduct of business will be irrelevant in just a few years.

  • The closing of Yankee Stadium back in late September prompted me to tell my kids how I’d gone to my first major league baseball game there back in the ’60s (and saw Mickey Mantle play center field), and was amazed at how green the field was because up until that time I’d only ever seen games played on black-and-white television. They can’t even begin to process the notion of five channels and black-and-white TV—but for that matter, the notion of “must-see TV” is foreign to them, since they have grown up with TiVo and DVR technology that allows them to watch what they want and when they want (not to mention skip the commercials).

  • Every once in a while a retailer will tell me about the ways in which his company is trying to use e-mail to reach out to their shoppers—which amuses me, since my kids have informed me that e-mail is “so yesterday.” They spend all their time text messaging each other, and don't use e-mail that much. (It might as well be a landline telephone, also an obsolete technology in their minds, and in the minds of almost 20% of Americans who don’t even have landlines.)

If retailers are going to be relevant to the new shopper, they have to look forward to things like text messaging. More importantly, we all have to start thinking about what comes after texting—just thinking about this gives me a headache, but I’d be almost willing to bet on two likely scenarios. One is that video will be a component of the next evolution, and the other is that Apple’s Steve Jobs will have a hand in setting the agenda.

What this all suggests, I think, is how fluid the world is these days. There were times when black-and-white televisions seemed like an amazing innovation, when the Yellow Pages were a source of enormous knowledge, when fax machines and remote controls seemed like extraordinary advances. But we can see evidence in our own lives about how minor these evolutions actually were, and how they laid the groundwork for even greater and more remarkable changes.

We have to follow the clues, carefully watch the young people who set the agenda and pioneer the technological frontier, and never, ever allow satisfaction and complacency to set into our mind-sets and organizations. Because whatever we think of the status quo, things will be different tomorrow, maybe in profound ways that we cannot even imagine.

Anybody want a used fax machine?

© 2014