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The Information Revolution Is on Its Way

Is the information revolution having its Thermidor? (Thermidor was a month in the French revolutionary calendar; in Thermidor of the Year II—July 1794 for the reactionaries—the fever of the Reign of Terror broke and the revolution began to settle down.) There are times when it seems so; social media seems to be hogging all the attention, but while Facebook and Twitter have their uses, they are hardly on a par with, say, the railroad or the car as world-changing technologies. Yet even as Facebook and other social media sites deal with the fallout from poor IPOs, behind the scenes there are more interesting changes are happening that will have far-reaching effects that will be felt far outside the tech world.

A piece in the Financial Times spotlights one of the most important of these changes: the growth of cloud computing. Disproving the naysayers who claim that tech innovation is dead, programs like Dropbox, ServiceNow, and Splunk that take advantage of the cloud to share files and data remotely are making waves both in Silicon Valley and on Wall Street, where stocks are rising and sales are up.

If anything, the impact of technological innovation on workplaces seems to be growing. The cloud isn’t just adding a few features and conveniences that help businesses here and there. It is changing the way organizations work:

Two interdependent forces have served to open up the market that Mr Ellison declared to be closed a decade ago. One is the cloud. Accessing a service online, rather than having to install software on a company’s own computer, not only changes the economics of owning software, it also opens a new route to customers.

The resistance of many in the corporate world to entrusting their data to cloud services is fast eroding. One sign of how much attitudes have already changed among traditionally conversative chief information officers: the person representing General Atlantic on its Box investment is Gary Reiner, a former chief investment officer at General Electric.

The second force is consumerisation. Individual workers are choosing what to use rather than taking what their IT departments decide to give them. This is doing to the enterprise software business what smartphones and tablets are doing to hardware: Box, Dropbox and Yammer are all companies that have bypassed the IT department to reach workers directly.

Technological innovation seems to be alive and well—at least in one sector of the IT industry.

Don’t misunderstand: We think social media are fun. But innovation that changes the way business works is far more important. Better use of the cloud offers both big business and small business new opportunities, and now new multibillion dollar companies are rising up to capitalize on this fact.

Another important aspect of this new information revolution will be in the expansion of bandwidth. The Wall Street Journal discusses the rise of new projects like Google Fiber that aim to radically increase the amount of bandwidth available to regular consumers—which in turn should make bandwidth-heavy operations more feasible for businesses of all sizes.

This program still has a long way to go before it becomes the new national standard for connectivity, but already it is clear that there are all kinds of products and services that would be available online if only we had the bandwidth for it. Programs that involve massive transfers of data or frequent two-way video communications would be two obvious examples.

What’s interesting is how many of these new products and services involve healthcare:

But that isn’t deterring the entrepreneurs from hatching plans. Jeff Pfaff of Overland Park, Kan., says he hopes to use the service to “push the limits” of a health-monitoring system he’s building. It would enable at-home patients to teleconference with doctors and family members via a camera hooked up to a TV set and a remote control.

The business, Caregiv, is based on the premise that some elderly patients aren’t facile with computers and a TV set is thus a better way to monitor them at home.

With a Google Fiber connection, Mr. Pfaff believes he will be able to stream multiple high-definition videos to provide nutrition training and therapy sessions in online groups.

The monitoring system would also collect information, such as picking up tremors or patient coughing patterns, he says. The plan is to provide two remotes, one for the living room and one for the bedroom. Mr. Pfaff expects to start testing the products in residences hooked up to Fiber later this fall.

Using IT to improve productivity and lower costs for services like healthcare and education remains the frontier for economic progress today. The use of information to raise the productivity of service industries is the most important single avenue toward a significantly more prosperous future. The bandwidth explosion will have other important consequences beyond that, too—reducing the need for physical proximity in business, for example—that will save time and resources and make the world both richer and greener.

The information revolution really is as important as the Neolithic Revolution and the Industrial Revolution. And we are not even to the halfway point.

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  • Tom Holsinger

    I read an article about a feature in Apple’s new operating system which allegedly might have a revolutionary effect – voice to text recognition which actually works. And it is based on transfer of much of the raw computing work to the cloud. Basically a PC doesn’t have the power for that degree of effective voice recognition, but the cloud does.

    I’m a little bit older than WRM and learned to type as a high school sophomore, so I doubt this will mean much to me. But I can see how it could be a really big deal for writers in the future.

  • Daryl Davis

    Let’s not be so hasty to don the rose-colored glasses that we lose sight of the dangers around us. Cloud computing certainly exposes firms to more hacking, and both corporate and foreign espionage.

    It’s quite possible that in the very near future conventional warfare will give way to cyber war. Ask Iran about that.

    And cloud computing, in that theater, is more liability and vulnerability than virtue and boon.

  • Lea Luke

    What has the information revolution done for China lately? I mean that as a serious question, not a snarky remark.

  • alex scipio

    The true game-changer of the web will be politics.

    When We the People really finally are using it to find out what “our” representatives are doing, and “our” representatives finally understand that we ARE watching, THAT will be a game changer. Until then, with the possible exception of cloud computing (which really differs little from the old mainframe-3270 (dumb terminal) days on steriods), the web will have promise, but at a national, cultural and governing level, that promise will not yet have arrived.

    When it does…. well, I guess those same old sclerotic types who think that abiding by the Rule of Law, the Constitution, Separation of Powers and a balanced budget are extremism will be in for a serious shock – if we survive 11/6 by getting rid of the statist in the Ocal Office.

  • cacrucil

    If you want to see a very interesting innovation in healthcare, look no further than resperate, the device that is being marketed on the main website of The American Interest. No joke, that gizmo works. I have high blood pressure, and using it has yielded great results. Considering what a problem hypertension is, and how unpleasant some medications can be, this homeopathic remedy – which teaches you how to breath slowly in a controlled way – is a godsend.

    I know you guys probably chose it for the money the company pays, but you can also be proud of the fact that you are helping sell and excellent product that also exemplifies technological innovation.

  • Lea Luke

    re: “The information revolution really is as important as the Neolithic Revolution and the Industrial Revolution.”

    I think of the information revolution as a continuation of the industrial revolution by other means. A key development was tapping the energy stored in fossil fuels in place of human muscle. That plus the invention of metal-working machine tools. Once you had machines (powered by fossil fuels) making machines (powered by fossil fuels) the way was open to unlimited exponential growth. Together these two developments broke through the ceiling that existed in the days when commercial capitalism (in sugar, slaves, opium, tobacco, and other luxuries and vices) was the only kind of capitalism there was.

    A third factor, in a par with the first two, was the harnessing of the electron.

    A good working (as in down and dirty) definition of capital in the modern sense is everything that runs on or produces electricity or is powered by fossil fuels. (Can anyone think of any exceptions?)

    By this standard improvements in transport and communications technologies are on a par with improvements in manufacturing. They all increase human efficiency: how much we can accomplish with a given amount of time and effort. Together they render slavery and servitude unnecessary to the maintenance of complex societies. In the final analysis that is the truly revolutionary thing it seems to me. They make universal human freedom possible.

  • Lea Luke

    Addendum to my down and dirty definition of capital. It is not only the tools themselves but the knowledge of how to make and use them that counts as capital. Thus modern machines for the storage of information as well as its transmission and communication must be counted as part of capital (as must a lot of stuff we store in our brains).

  • Luke Lea

    Lea Luke, Luke Lea, how did my name get turned around? And is capital in its modern sense the only new thing under the sun? I think so.

  • Anthony

    “The information revolution really is as important as the Neolithic Revolution and the Industrial Revolution.” WRM, social arrangements have been turned upside down by both Neolithic and Idustrial revolutions – major turning points in history. Information Revolution is yet nascent and not completely formed; while not even close to a Thermidor moment, projected vast cultural impact via socio-economic patterns remains undetermined. But IT is definitely here to stay.

  • thibaud

    Mead’s behind the curve. SaaS, virtualization etc were hot
    technologies 5 years ago, but not such a big deal today.

    While data center consolidation is certainly a boon for governments and big enterprise customers, the merging of corporate and consumer behavior within the enterprise is not having any meaningful impact on productivity. The likes of Yammer/Chatter/Blather/Blither/Choomster aren’t raising anyone’s revenue per employee and probably never will. Outlook remains vastly more important than all these little “social enterprise” apps combined.

    Anyway, the smarter VCs are focused on the really consequential, long-horizon technologies, most of which relate to alternative energy.

    Big leaps forward come from things like rural electrification, the TVA, the interstate highway system, not from little plug-ins. Funny how all of these, like fracing, all required huge support from that evil ol’ big gum’mint.

  • Mrs. Davis

    Look for government regulation to start to strangle progress in both healthcare and education.

  • Ritchie The Riveter

    As I told my son when he was a very young IT professional … there is much money to be made in the mundane.

  • TMLutas

    The Web 2.0 technologies in social media are being followed up by Web 3.0 technologies. But they aren’t exactly cloud computing. You could go to the Internet standards body W3C ( ) and type in Web 3.0 into their site search box. Click on the top link and you’ll find some astonishing web standards there that will change the world. For one thing, they make China’s Great Firewall an irrelevant white elephant. They also make it very difficult for government anywhere to pull the wool over the people’s eyes because Web 3.0 is about making public data meaningfully public and machine readable.

    Making public oversight a realistic possibility within the bounds of what non-professionals can realistically devote in terms of time and attention would be a tremendous increase in societal utility. We have the cultural ethic of government by the people and the foundations of the laws necessary to take full advantage of Web 3.0. We just have to make it culturally unacceptable to build a computer system that is *not* Web 3.0 compliant and immediate grounds for getting thrown out of office at the next election.

  • Eric from Texas

    Thibaud @7,

    There you go again! Very few people dispute the need for public goods that facilitate the private sector. Milton Friedman and John Maynard Keynes agreed on that point.

    The problem with the Obama/Reid/Pelosi crowd is that they think they are wiser and more nimble in running vast swaths of the economy better suited to be left to the creativity and efficiency of the private sector. And, of course, they get wealthy at the expense of the rest of us and are condescending to boot. As WRM mentioned in an earlier post, they are modern day Pharisees.

    With respect to the economy, render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and then tell Caesar to just get out of the way!

  • TheRadicalModerate

    thibaud, you’re right that all the enabling technologies for cloud computing happened ten years ago, but it’s the deployment of those technologies at high scale that’s now enabling new and interesting apps.

    WRM didn’t mention the biggest cloud app, though: Big Data. Enterprises, researchers, and even individuals can now feed flexible arrays of processors petabytes of unstructured information and get back analyses that were simply impossible even five years ago. This is the real dawn of the Age of Artificial Intelligence; throw enough computing power at that much data and brute-force pattern recognition becomes pretty easy. Those patterns can reveal unrecognized operational bottlenecks and expenses, underserved markets, and early signs of disruptive technologies, to name but a few examples that are relevant to almost any enterprise. Cloud computing enables a virtual supercomputer for whomever needs one, at a price thousands of times lower than it would be with a physical supercomputer.

    We’re not very far away from the point where human managers are going to be acting on machine-generated conclusions that they can see are valid but which are otherwise opaque to human understanding. That sounds pretty revolutionary to me.

  • willis

    “Look for government regulation to start to strangle progress in both healthcare and education.”

    Start? where have you been Mrs. Davis?

  • M Rad

    Cloud computing is turning clerical and technical operations inside-out. Instead of going to the office, the office comes to you. This accelerates the coffee-shopification (the term is not my invention) of the office. But the real disruptive technolovies are 3D printing, which will turn factories inside-out, and Bitcoin, which will turn banking inside-out.

  • Thucydides

    The problem isn’t so much that we will be able to use the Information Revolution as “We the People” to keep a close eye on the political class, but that sort of ability also means anyone at all can be looking at us as well.

    Sites like Facebook, Google and Amazon save and store detailed information about your search histories, consumer behaviour and linkages between you and the rest of your social network. Other social media sites gather other nuggets of information, so it is possible in theory to data mine all these sources and create very fine grained portraits of you. (It is probably possible right now, but gathering the data from multiple sources is probably the last hurdle).

    So the real revolution may be getting used to living in the Panopticon, under constant observation and assessment by hordes of invisible “others” for purposes of their own. Life in a glass bowl is probably not going to be very pleasant for the majority of people.

  • jaed

    (Am I the only one who finds the monitoring telescreen idea deeply creepy? Orwellian, in fact?)

  • M. Simon

    I was working with server farms and the Cloud back in 98 (99?) when I was involved with chip design firm Cadence. It is not a new idea. The general roll out is what is changing things.

  • Lee Dodson

    The Internet has become a terrific impact equalizer. One person with an idea can move the idea from inspiration to concrete product in a heartbeat. In my case, I was able to mount the entirety of a business plan, let it be seen by over 50K viewers, and come to reality without the involvement of numerous fee charging enablers.

    The mere fact that the completion date on the site was plainly marked saved it from being commandeered by unethical types.

    The other main benefit of the Internet is its immediacy. Bid proposals come in via the internet and are answered within minutes rather than days.

    Now, if I could just get that Nigerian guy to give up pestering me, I’d be dealing with the Russian bride offers and the Viagra purchases said Muscovites would require. But that, of course is another deal entirely, eh?

  • jkl

    The resistance of many in the corporate world to entrusting their data to cloud services is fast eroding.. wait until they read the terms of service

  • thibaud

    #15 – Maybe you’re right, and surely big Data has a lot of promise, but there’s been enough hype of this magical promise to fill a million rainbows. AI is a lot further off, I think, than the Big Data marketers would have us believe.

    Eric #14 – we don’t disagree on Caesar, market failure, gov’t failure etc.

    Where I disagree with Mead is on his rather desperate effort to find some kind of tech phenom that will support his over-the-top, dimly-understood thesis about the need to move beyond big gum’mint, big corporations, big expensive research projects, big school districts, big stuff generally.

    As others have pointed out, the “cloud” is marketing spin for stuff that happened a long time ago. At scale, it will have some impact on the data center, but it is not going to and can never take the place of the really difficult transformations that we need to make regarding alternative energy sources. Those shifts are orders of magnitude more expensive, and vastly more consequential.

    And they require massive amounts of research funding by entities that have far longer investment horizons than our publicly-traded corporations’ shareholders and managers typically accommodate.

    So while it may sound nifty that Mead has adopted the patter you get from a junior content strategist at some internet, er, SaaS, oops, I mean Cloud startup, for a blog focused on POLICY priorities, it’s not very helpful or enlightening.

  • Ritchie The Riveter

    We’re not very far away from the point where human managers are going to be acting on machine-generated conclusions that they can see are valid but which are otherwise opaque to human understanding. That sounds pretty revolutionary to me.

    As an engineer who has experienced small-scale disasters by me and my colleagues simply “reading the meters” and jumping to preconceived conclusions, instead of understanding WHY the meters read the way they do, this sounds like an invitation to large-scale disaster.

  • Ritchie The Riveter

    I’ve had the thought for years … we use telecom systems as channels for the management of everything from our bank accounts to our nuclear weapons.

    Why can’t we leverage telecom/videoconferencing technology to move our Congresscritters out of the DC swamp, and back to home where we can keep a closer eye – and louder voice – directed at them?

    A Tele-Congress, if you will.

    This would be simpler than some of the tasks described in this post/in its comments.

    At the least, it might make the lobbyists’ lives more challenging, in that they’ll have to spend more time and money for that face-to-face stuff that really greases the wheels.

    Same goes for all the back-room deal-making, since relationships between Congresscritters would be more formalized and less good-ol’-boy under such a system, especially after it has operated for a while and those who remember the “good old days” in DC become fewer and fewer.

    And staffing would at least be spread out across the nation (spreading the wealth, anyone?) and less subject to the intellectual/professional inbreeding that has made the professional/political complex so malignant with respect to our liberty.

    Might be worth serious consideration.

  • teapartydoc

    The real big picture goes back to Gutenberg. Information revolutions this big don’t stop with changing technical abilities but with the structure of power and culture. The current revolution is a decentralization on the order of the one in the sixteenth century, and the long-term implications are likely to be as great. We haven’t seen them yet, but the trend away from central control in communications and media is already being demonstrated. The stranglehold on business by central planners would be the next logical chip to fall, simply because the government won’t be able to keep up and new forms of transaction will arise that will be harder to trace and to tax. Think about the 30% of your local construction economy that goes un-traced by government because much of it is barter. A system is likely to be created whereby credits that have no money value are traded in exchange for services rendered. The surface phenomena are all that the government will be able to see. Unless the government is able to basically shut down these advancements we are more likely to live in a world more free.

  • Luke Lea

    TMLutas, I can’t find the site search box you reference. Can you just give us the web address of the page you are talking about? Also, explain exactly how and why the Chinese Firewall will be made obsolete? thanks,

  • Samtastic

    Thibaud just takes the opposite opinion of Meade. In the Thiel/Schmidt post he argued big data is an importance technology but now argues it isn’t. Btw, I pointed out Big Data isn’t that important int the Thiel/Schmidt post.

  • Jim.

    “We wanted flying cars. We got 140 characters.”

    Some things have gotten more convenient, it’s true. It’s become possible for likeminded people to link up and collaborate on a project as never before. Some (but by no means all!) chunks of technical information are avalable without going to a good university library.

    But it’s still just as much of a challenge to get things physically done.

    Recently a sub-project at work involved an offsite resource who now works onsite. His productivity and effectiveness shot up by a factor of five at least– what would take a week started to take a day, and would be far more effective.

    Another caveat is that managers look at all these new tech toys and insist on traceability as never before. The amount of time spent covering new requirements made possible by the tech sucks up most of the time saved by it. And don’t get me started on version control and search of non-ASCII information, or even ASCII information, within commonly used online document repositories.

    The Information Revolution isn’t done yet.

  • Mark Michael

    thibaud #10 “Anyway, the smarter VCs are focused on the really consequential, long-horizon technologies, most of which relate to alternative energy.”

    thibaud #23 “At scale, it will have some impact on the data center, but it is not going to and can never take the place of the really difficult transformations that we need to make regarding alternative energy sources. Those shifts are orders of magnitude more expensive, and vastly more consequential.”

    I guess I don’t understand the fixation on alternative energy sources. Of course, I do not view AGW as a real threat to mankind, or even a negative. Now, carbon-based fuels, particularly coal, do emit substantial air pollution. Scrubbers can and are being used for coal-fired electric utility plants, and that reduces the pollutants substantially. Natural gas is very clean – CH4 yields CO2 and 2 H2O molecules. Oil is a little less clean, but not all that much.

    It’s going to be at least a hundred years before we begin running out of carbon-based fuels. That gives normal market forces lots of time to noodle out efficient ways to attain alternative energy sources. I guess solar panels are a better bet of the various bad choices in that arena. I can’t see windmills ever being very attractive other than a few places.

    Actually, nuclear power is the best non-carbon source of energy for my money. But nuclear is the one big no-no for most leftists. Reminds them of the Cold War or something.

  • thibaud

    sam – of course Big Data’s important. It’s very important. But it’s not nearly so important for our economy and society as advances in energy or biotech.

  • Jim.

    @25, Ritchie–

    That’s a fantastic idea! DC has become far too centralized for a free people to tolerate.

    Sometimes I wonder if we wouldn’t be better off leaving DC as an Edo, and moving the all three branches to Nebraska. It’s closer to most constituencies, farther from the coastal elites, and above all, it revives the notion that this country’s government should be disconnected from its dominant urban region.

    There are other people and points of view in this country that you don’t see in BosWash; giving us a better chance to make our voices heard would help break the impasse we’re seeing in DC now.

  • M. Simon

    thibaud August 5, 2012 at 2:14 am,

    Energy transformations huge and costly? I’m intimately involved on an amateur level with Polywell Fusion. Perhaps you have never heard of it. Not a sure thing. But research continues and we may know something by 2015. Compare and contrast that with ITER whose fuel cycle is problematic. Whose design shows so far unresolved instabilities and that has serious and unresolved material problems. And a “we will know something for sure” date of around 2030 or 2040 maybe.

    In addition Polywell rockets are a definite possibility (Mars in a week or two). ITER not so much.

    And we owe it all to science fiction staple (Star Trek) Dr. Robert Bussard. And a few guys who refused to let the project die. Tom Ligon and Tall Dave among them.

  • M. Simon


    Big Data is how we will get those advances in energy and biotech. I assume you are not an engineer or you would get the value of tools for making tools.

    It seems to me that you are a mere interested observer. I’m in the game.

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