The Most Connected Man on Earth
The future had arrived. It’s still not evenly distributed.
In conversation, I often bring up someone I refer to as “the most connected man in the world”, who I met over a decade ago and who is still the most connected person I’ve ever met, all these years later.
For the younger folks in the audience, let me set the scene. We’re in New Zealand. It’s 2004 or perhaps early 2005. There are no iPhones. Few people have anything that remotely resembles today’s smartphones. Mobile internet was ridiculously expensive and pathetically slow. Internet Explorer on Windows was still utterly dominant among browsers.
I’d flown to New Zealand to do a presentation for the folks who a little later would start WebStock. WebStock founder Mike Brown picked me up from the airport, along with a speaker from New Zealand who was totally blind. We chatted away as we drove into Wellington, and then at one point he turned around and apologised for perhaps being a little distracted, he was just catching up on his emails.
So, why is this in any way noteworthy? We all check emails (and then then non-existent Twitter, Facebook, Slack channels, news) constantly, even flying across oceans.
It’s hard to imagine that back then folks didn’t spend their lives staring at screens like we do these days. As I mentioned, mobile internet was expensive, rare and slow. Wifi hotspots in public were few and far between.
But it stays in my mind since I’d otherwise have had no idea he was checking his email then and there. His hand was inside his jacket, and via a braille interface to a Widows CE device (the company he worked for made these hardware add-ons to Windows PDAs (‘personal digital assistant’ was the name we used then for what became smartphones). The internet even then was woven more seamlessly into his life than smartphones are for us today. It was both fully enabled, and yet he could still connect entirely with those around him in conversation.
I’ve often thought back to that afternoon when thinking about the way in which humans interface with networks. He was more connected then than we are even now, despite using a device several orders of magnitudes slower than today’s, on networks far slower and less reliable, because that connectivity augmented his connection to the world, rather than partially replacing it.
Some folks might argue that the natural successor to his connectedness would be an AR experience not unlike Google Glass. But I increasingly think it’s our ears that will connect us to networks, first with devices like Apple’s Airpods, but in the not too distant future with devices closer to cochlear ear implants (currently the preserve of people with hearing loss), that won’t simply augment our hearing, but unobtrusively deliver time and location based information as we move through the world.
They’ll prompt us with the name of a person we’re approaching. They’ll remind us as we pass the convenience store we frequent that we need milk. They’ll give us experiences more like those explored in Spike Jonze’s film Her, rather than a Robocop-style heads-up display.
Even so, and no matter how our network connections evolve, I’m not sure I’ll ever be as connected as the most connected man in the world, in 2004, in Wellington, New Zealand.