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A fabulous article in The Guardian is a must read for anyone interested in information technology and where it is heading in terms of societal impact – Thanks Gutenberg, but we’re too pressed for time to read.

When the printing press arrived in the 15th Century, the immediate impact was that books suddenly became accessible and ownership was no longer restricted to the monarchy, church and excessively rich. In theory, everyone now had the opportunity to learn to read. The reality at the time was somewhat different. But reading and writing did eventually become common place. The long term effects included disrupting religion (and monarchies too in some countries), introducing school for many (and childhood too – it takes longer to learn to read than it does to speak), modern science and medicine, basically a whole new world. None of which could easily have been predicted in advance of it actually happening.

Fast forward 500 years and we have Gutenberg mk II – The Hyperlink. The immediate impact is already being felt, and perhaps Web 2.0 will represent our over-estimations about short term change. But what will be the real effects that come about thanks to the giddy world of the Web? The Guardian article provides a glimpse of the near future, referencing the recent report from The British Library – Information Behaviour of the Researcher of the Future (PDF). Linear study is being replaced by horizontal bouncing and skimming.

How long will it take for our educational, political, business and social systems to truly adapt to the Internet? I was shocked to read about a UK professor who has banned her students from using Google and Wikipedia in their studies. I can understand some teachers being worried about the effects the Internet is having on their classes. But this particular teacher was professor of media studies!!! Media! That industry most affected by the Internet in the visible short term. I’d recommend any students attending that course to strongly consider switching to a different university. Makes you wonder how long it took some professors of medicine to stop recommending bleeding veins as the cure for most ailments. (Imagine the tutorial session: ¨You honestly think that little white pill can cure a headache? We’ve been bleeding veins since the Greeks and you think you know better!¨)

If I had to attempt foresight, my guess is that the ultimate change this time around will be a shift from local to global politics. Whilst the Internet has created a flattened world in many respects, politics is still a local affair. But there are issues on everyone’s agenda that pay no respect to national borders – climate change, terrorism and the increasing awareness of imbalances in the world. The solutions are not going to be pleasant, particularly for the richer nations. But sooner or later, governments are going to have to learn to behave differently. In the meantime, we’ll continue to see disruption on a smaller scale, as people start to adjust to new ways of working with information. The big effects will come later.

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