Last autumn, some very nice folks from Freunde von Freunden got in touch and invited me to be a part of the Deutsche Bank Stories series. They sent round a very professional and also very fun crew, and despite the fact that I was getting over a bad flu and therefore both sounded and rather looked like something the Swamp Thing had for breakfast and later threw up, we had a great chat and I really enjoyed myself.
Of course I can’t remember most of what I said, but one of the bits that made it into the final cut is something I’ve been mulling over from various angles for a while now… the bit about the shift in the 19th century from person-to-person commerce to business-to-person commerce, and the currently growing momentum in the opposite direction.
Everything moves so quickly these days that it’s easy to forget our current way of doing business has only been in place for the last 150 years or so, and the current set of growth expectations for far less than that. Yes, we’ve adapted to the commercial frameworks we live in to some degree, but there is a far older part of us that craves human-to-human contact. After all, the old way of doing things was around for thousands of years; the current way’s a drop in the ocean by comparison. And this is one of the most interesting things about what’s been happening in technology over the past 10 or so years: by far the most popular, best-loved and best-understood services and applications of technology are the ones that connect us to one another. It’s also one of the things that’s leading us (potentially) into the most trouble, thanks to the questionable ethics of those who gather data based on our communications, but for the purposes of this post I’m going to focus on the good side.
We humans love making connections, and it shows in some of the biggest technology successes and trends of recent years. Apart from Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, WhatsApp, Yammer, Viber, Dasher, Snapchat, Wire, LINE, etc. etc., we’ve also seen the massive growth of AirBnB (renting our spaces to each other), Etsy (making and selling things to each other, regardless of geography), Getaround (renting our cars to each other when we’re not using them), and loads more, both already out there and in the works. And the businesses that provide the platforms for these person-to-person exchanges – providing security, peace of mind, the means for connection and various other value-added bits and pieces – are doing quite well commercially, without the predatory behaviour we so often see in the tech-startup world.
I take this as an encouragement to keep advocating for the person at the receiving (or giving) end of the technology. Designing for people, thinking ethically and focussing on real value, can and does lead to commercial success. And just as the Industrial Revolution forever changed the way we think of and see the world, so too will the shifts we are experiencing now. We may not be able to see the outcomes yet – it can be difficult to see the shape of a thing until one has some distance from it – but for all the grousing I do about things not being done right, there is a lot of positive stuff going on as well. And I do think that putting control into people’s hands will (while there will always be unethical dicks out there) help continue to foster positive creativity. We’re hard-wired to hack the world, and we’ve got a long history of finding unexpected (collective and individual) solutions to our problems. I think it’s going to be really fascinating to see how that continues as more and more of us develop fluency with technology and hack that to our (collective and individual) advantage as well.