The Communications Revolution is misunderstood and underestimated. This is an especially critical problem for communications professionals who are too close to the forest to see the trees. The good news is that the downside for misreading what is happening in communications is not dramatically risky. On the other hand, there is a big upside for those who can understand it accurately.
Ask communications professionals for an explanation of “The Communications Revolution.” The answer is likely to be a recitation of the incredible advances in how we communicate: the ubiquity of email and the Internet, easy access to the tools of communication by individuals and organizations, the explosion of cable television channels, the rise of Big Data and changes in the way people are targeted for messages, how those messages are crafted and received – and so much more. Such answers are only sort-of correct. They cite the tools used in a contemporary communications effort; but they do not define or explain the revolution itself.
An analogous mistake could have been possible in the late 1800s-mid 1900s when skyscrapers started to rise in New York. Then, if asked to explain the high-rise revolution in urban life and architecture, an astute observer might have cited the innovative tools that allowed skyscrapers to be built: elevators, fire-proof iron structures, electric lights, etc. But whereas the elevator et al were vital tools without which the revolution in urban life would not have been possible, they helped construct but did not define or explain the fundamental change in the way people lived and socialized, conducted commerce, and even how they inspired themselves. Those at the time who accurately understood and envisioned the changes and prospects in store for elevators could have become very successful in the elevator business. However, those who could understand the basic and robust changes in urban life would have had an order of magnitude abundance of bigger opportunities.
In the same fashion, we now need to jettison our tools-centric definition of The Communications Revolution in favor of something more fundamental. That’s especially important if the revolution is of the magnitude of The Copernican Revolution, which I believe is now the case: a fundamental change in the very nature of the human animal. This revolution is not about email or any other tool; rather, it’s about a new worldview and a to-the-roots change in cultural, economic and political terms.
To understand the basic premise for this revolution, I suggest imagining yourself as an early human ancestor, living in Savannah grassland. You have two primary major differentiators with all other living beings: the ability to walk upright and to communicate at a higher level. So, you and a hunting companion would take advantage of these unique assets when walking together in the grasslands in search of dinner. To communicate, you could grunt at each other if you were evolved enough to have a voice box, but even without a voice box you could still communicate with each other by pointing and pantomiming, alerting each other to what you see.
That type of communication worked fine as long as you and your friend were hunting together side-by-side for food. But the problem with pointing and pantomiming is that to communicate with each other, you have to be in the same space at the same time. It’s obvious that the human animal wasn’t happy with that situation – why else would the human’s multi-thousand-year evolution be so engaged in changing the way we communicate, step-by-step and in small increments?
To overcome the limitations imposed by distance, we initially yelled, used drums and lit smoke signals. Later, we posted sentries on watchtowers who could wave pennants as messages to sentries at the next watchtower and down the line. More improvements – from the printing press to the pony express – came more frequently with ever-more impact. Now we live with email service, and social media, and the ability to access any content or conduct any conversation at whatever time we want in virtually any way we want.
The human animal has actually achieved an evolutionary breakthrough. Over thousands of years, humans changed the way they communicate in a very fundamental way: for all practical purposes they have eliminated the tyranny time and space have exerted on our communications since the early hominids showed up on earth. At the beginning of the human experience, we could communicate with others only at the same time in the same space. Today, space and time are largely irrelevant. That evolutionary breakthrough is the true fundamental premise that is driving The Communications Revolution. When trying to explain that revolution, the recitation of communications tools, regardless of how sophisticated they may be, belittles the weight of what is really happening.
The fundamental change in the way humans communicate is naturally translating into cultural and social changes that we are just beginning to observe and understand. Consider the human transformation already experienced, from the steady decline of “truth” in our lives to the facility of adopting different personas for ourselves, depending on which of our online (but increasingly real) communities we want to spend time in at the moment.
Volatility is an essential part of the deal whenever there is a revolution. The more fundamental the revolution, the more frequent and forceful the volatility there will be. That was certainly the case when the pre-Copernican worldview was based on the earth being the stable and fixed center of a universe around which everything else revolved. The human could not continue to live with that lie once the truth was discovered, even though putting an end to the lie would be traumatic. Now, as time and space no longer dictate human communications, we are bumping smack into the Einsteinium truth that time and space are not two separate things but a single continuum. And, just as pre-Copernicans couldn’t fathom what life would be like in a post-Copernican world, now it is extraordinarily difficult trying to relate to the post-Einsteinium world of the future.
If you are a communications professional, it may be worth the time to try envisioning the basic changes that will continue to truly revolutionize our world, even while elevating your expertise on how to use the tools that exist today. Just be aware that the best tools you master today may be obsolete before you realize it.
About the Author: Over a five-decade career in communications, Doug Poretz, Principal, Doug Poretz Ltd. Communications Strategy, has been involved in virtually every type of communications issue, from opening a major casino in Atlantic City to integrating the public schools of Alexandria, VA (“Remember the Titans”), engineering acquisitions and divestitures, IPOs, and major positioning and branding campaigns for enterprises in a wide variety of industries at every stage of the life cycle. Along the way, he has been part of the senior management of three NYSE companies, and started a number of highly successful communications firms, each of which benefited by Doug’s model of no time sheets, no departments or “practice groups” and no silos. The approach generally resulted in producing great work for clients, high margins and growth for the firm, and an exhilaratingly great experience for the firm’s professionals. Today, Doug provides strategic counsel on a retainer or project basis for enterprises including communications firms wanting to think past the existing boundaries. [email protected]