Innovation happens when the world shrinks. What's next?

August 19th, 2019

To "shrink the world" is to connect distant communities together in a more profound way. When one's world shrinks, information is shared, and new ideas are formed. When a world-shrinking innovation hits, humanity fundamentally changes.

What is it that causes "shrinking"? Is it information per se? Is it our perception of the information? Is it the stimulation of our senses? Is it our ability to feel more deeply connected to another person? It's probably a combination.

Horses were the first world-shrinker. They allowed for the spread of information over larger distances than one could travel by foot. Paul Revere's Midnight Ride played a significant role during the Revolutionary War. Without the benefit of a horse, our country might be quite different today.

Then the telephone (and telegraph) came, bringing the words of a loved one, friend, or enemy into one's ears. Some early accounts described feeling like the other end of the call was in the same room "if one simply closed their eyes." I guess we were more gullible back then.

Then radio and television arrived, broadcasting audio and visual information from far-flung areas of the globe wirelessly across hundreds of miles. It also marked the first time one could take information from one source and share it with thousands of people simultaneously.

Then there's the Internet, and technologies built on top of it, like FaceTime. These innovations shrunk the world dramatically. In some ways, society is still learning how to adapt to such a dramatic shift in how it communicates and learns. The firehose of new information that is created every second is so staggering, it's easy to get overwhelmed. But with those challenges come obvious perks. Every person on the planet now has a voice on the world stage.

What's next? Some view the Internet as the finish line, that any future technology will just be an evolution of it. I don't think it's that simple.

It goes back to the phenomenon of world-shrinking, not just raw communciation. Through that lens, there is still plenty of room to innovate. What medium has the unique ability to shrink the world even more?

Virtual Reality.

Present-day VR goggles feel like a novelty. They play tricks on the senses, making for a neat demo, but not much more. Many view VR as a toy; I know I did for a long time. But that's how people first described the telephone. It's still the early days. It's going to get a lot more interesting over the next couple of decades.

We're already seeing a preview of what will be eventually be commonplace. Fortnite had a virtual event with 10-million attendees. Over the next two decades, as VR tech improves, the barrier between virtual and in-person will shrink, and the world will along with it.

Birthdays will be celebrated. Concerts will be enjoyed. Work will be performed. Dates will be ...endured. Protests and wars will take place. All virtually. And we won't be able to tell the difference.

It sounds dystopian, and in many ways it is. In the years before the Internet, the idea of the Internet sounded pretty dystopian, too. Every innovation has pluses and minuses. What matters is how we choose to use it. Regardless, there's no denying that it's coming.