Saturday, December 15, 2012

Letter From The Future

Dear Colleague;
I thought I’d write you this letter from the future because, quite honestly, people just aren’t paying attention to what’s going on. Many of them don’t see and aren’t looking for the economic realities of a society and workforce changed forever by technology – and especially media. How do I know this? I know by the way they educate themselves today. Folks just don’t get that literacy is still at the heart of a strong democracy….it’s just a different kind of literacy. The world of new media has left some so far behind, that whole fortunes are changing hands because otherwise intelligent but media-illiterate folks just can’t keep pace with information and knowledge.

When I was a kid, my grandparents used to tell me how easy I had it, being able to ride a bus to school – especially in the winter. The bus made school districts larger in geographic size, as kids no longer had to be within a reasonable walking distance of the school. Of, course, my grandparents were also eager to tell me about how hard they had it when they were kids, walking to school in the snow, uphill, both ways! Now, I’m sitting here in 2032, and in my conversation with my grandkids, I’m telling them about how easy they have it connecting to their class and downloading their assignments. In my day, we had to schlep our books through the rain and snow from home to the school bus, and then to our lockers in the school hallway. Between classes we would run by our lockers to exchange books and notebooks, dashing off to the next class before the bell would ring, marking us tardy. Education was as much about “being there”, conforming, and learning the right answers, as it was about anything else.  

My youngest granddaughter is now a senior at the Distributed University of Science and Technology, getting her self-designed degree in molecular holographic displays. Degrees in broad topics, such as electrical engineering, mathematics, or physics became passé some time ago. Industry long ago discovered that a student graduating with a broad degree still had to undergo considerably more education in order to become productive in a new job.  So, many corporations got together and formed DUST in order to get a properly trained graduate right from the get-go. Why spend all that money getting a degree that wasn’t useful?  Thanks to rising debt, the government had to force educational institutions to rethink education. Many institutions decided to put money into quality staff who were not just media literate, but media savvy.  Students were also forced to rethink their student loans: “do I want to borrow money for living and partying expenses?” As it turned out, if you physically went to a school, it was to participate in a team sport or group activity (no, we still haven’t figured out how to have a virtual marching band!).

Those who don’t want to spend their money in group activities can now attend DUST from wherever they live. My granddaughter is very focused on getting her education, but it takes place with kids from around the world, all peering into the same portal to a teacher who is at home, or in a conference room at an airport. It really matters not. Her class and her support group (and I think she doesn’t know which is which!) are no further away than her Spacebook page, which is on “24-7” on her “learning center” display, as well as her smart phone. Her Windows 20 smartphone connects her to the open video connections of her six closest friends or her class.  I swear, with those video “tiles” on her Samsung Galaxy 35, it looks like the Jetsons meets the Brady Bunch! When she graduates, she tells me that she wants to work for Samsung on blending artificial intelligence (maybe not-so-artificial, these days) as used in holograms – which seem to be in use almost everywhere I go. Some young buck who was a student of Dr. Ohler’s at the University of Alaska (back when they still had buildings) invented this personal Hologram, called “TIMMI”. The guy is probably retired somewhere in the South Pacific.

At any rate, home life is different these days. In fact, the living space in the modern home has been redefined. Bedrooms are still important, as are common areas to gather for food and family time – but I swear that the kitchen is looking more and more like a cafeteria!  Everything in the home that has a function, has an IP address and reports its status to a server in the cloud, somewhere, on its health and the environmental factors that affect it. And it’s all controllable from a single device like my smart phone or my touch pad (and for most folks, these days, those devices are one in the same).  Now, while I’m traveling in Europe, my Digital Life application can see that my wine refrigerator isn’t compensating for the hot Texas summer days, and gives me the opportunity to dial down the temperature and turn up the humidity – all from my device. While I was on my Digital Life application on my smart phone, I noticed that my air conditioner wasn’t keeping my house very cool, which was why my wine refrigerator wasn’t working as it should….So I just reset the temperature on my thermostat to drop the temperature in my house a bit. The number of things I can do with the application are almost endless. I can see a live streaming video of the exterior of my home, and if one of the kids leaves the house without locking the door, I can just lock everything with one touch.  I used to worry about whether I had remembered to shut off one of the burners of the stove. Now I can just call it up through Digital Life, and I have instant peace of mind!

I’ve noticed, these days, that the houses that sell the best are the ones that not only have access points for every appliance, measurement device, or entry point, but they now have a “learning” center. The learning center consists of a small room with a working table, lots of electrical outlets, and a two-way video connection with a large, 4-foot, video screen. Cisco have perfected their “Telepresence” products and made them cheap enough that builders include them in their new homes. Now, all newly-built living units have built-in molecular tele-presence displays (MTDs). When we called them “televisions” we measured the resolution of the displays in terms of pixels. As you’ll remember, the number of pixels a screen could have had practical upper limits, the larger a screen was, the easier it was to see the pixels. Now these new MTDs have a fluid 3-dimensional look with no pixilation at all – no matter how large the display. It’s sort of like “plasma displays meets 3-D glasses”, but with no glasses! Televisions don’t exist anymore because they were only one-way devices. They were good for the media conglomerates to be able to send information to the viewer. But heaven forbid that you should want to communicate to the world with your TV! Back in the first decade or two of this century, the only way to communicate to the world was to use your smart phone or personal computer and post stuff on video share sites, social sites or use some sort of video-connect service….I think we called it WebEx when I was in graduate school.  

Starting the day with a high protein breakfast is important, but my granddaughter, like my daughter is very particular about what she eats. She opens the refrigerator and picks up a package of Greek yogurt. Packaging has gotten to be very expensive “real estate” and the new Nutrition and Diet Administration has so many requirements for disclosure, it’s easier just to put a QR code on the side of the package that connects to all the necessary meta-information about the product. (The old Food and Drug Administration that you and I knew has been split apart into the NDA and the Drug Administration Ministry.) When my granddaughter, picks up her yogurt, the focus square in the upper corner of her left eye-glass focuses on the QR code on the package, bringing up all the meta-information about the yogurt  in the micro-display in her glasses. Of course, it’s only viewable by her, but every time she opens the refrigerator and picks up a package, I can hear her talking to herself: “Let’s see, ingredients, no”…. “farm of origin, no”….. “percent of organic content, no”…. “ah! yes! expiration date, that’s it. It looks like this yogurt is good for another four days”. Of course, isn’t that the whole point behind yogurt, in the first place?

Once my granddaughter is off to her learning center, downstairs, I need to check in with my healthcare provider.  Since healthcare has become a government-sponsored service, I don’t need to drive to a doctor’s office and wait any longer. I’ll just sit myself down in front of my 6-foot MTD and hook up a couple of devices to my fingertips and body monitors, all of which are communicating wirelessly to my MTD.  My MTD has a camera so that video works in both directions. While I’m waiting for the next available doctor through the health exchange, I’ll download all my vital signs – blood pressure, blood glucose, heart rate, oxygen levels, and EKG – and sit here and read the news from a few of my favorite sources. (Fortunately, we stopped killing trees about 10 years ago. Nothing arrives in print anymore. It’s just there, on any device I use, whether it’s my smartphone, my  touchpad or my MTD.  Doctors like this arrangement, too.  There are no more doctors’ offices. They just work from home through the health exchange, connected by video to each of their patients, one at a time. The only place they have to show up is at the hospital – still haven’t figured out a way to make triage and surgery a virtual connection, just yet.

I have long-since retired and am really enjoying my smart house on the lake here in north Georgia. But my kids are all still working hard. My oldest daughter used to be in anti-money laundering work.  She was really good at what she did. Then money, as I knew it growing up, became passé. I remember the fellow who was chairman of AT&T at the time I worked there, saying that “people never left home without two things: their wallet and their cell phone; and that our job at AT&T is to make one of those obsolete!”  Well, it looks like he succeeded, since people only carry phones these days – smart phones….real smart phones. All of our rights and privileges, authorizations, validations, identification and currencies are stored in the cloud. A right of citizenship is carrying your smart device. We truly have become digital citizens. Now when a person is born, they get assigned a number for life. We used to have many numbers – social security numbers, bank account numbers, phone numbers, credit card numbers, home phones, fax machines (in fact, I can’t remember when the last time was that I saw a facsimile!) – now there’s just one number. You can call me on it, text me on it, charge me on it; it’s my bank account, retirement account, credit card, and voter identification, my driver’s license and my passport!

Wow, it’s hard to believe how much stuff I used to carry in my briefcase, just to get from one place to the next on a business trip! The good news is that illegal aliens are really easy to detect, since they aren’t carrying a smart device, and even if they stole it, they couldn’t get it to authorize anything without the retina and fingerprint of the person they stole it from. I guess we stopped referring to them as cell phones several years ago. With accounts and exchanges all being electronic, everything happens virtually. Currency flows from one account to another without ever really changing hands, and without having any physical properties or manifestation…it kind of reminds me of that game we used to play called Second Life. Who knew that fantasy would become reality? The good news is that the government’s Treasury Department stopped printing money several years ago; and there is no more counterfeiting organization within the FBI. And what became of my daughter’s anti-money laundering consulting job? Well, she’s become an expert in transactions and authorizations, now that exchanges create transactions, and smart devices create authorizations.  And now days, you can’t have one without the other.

Work – did I say I was retired? Oh yes, I had to retire from AT&T, but that doesn’t mean I had to stop working. In my final years as a company employee, I thought it would be interesting to get a PhD in media psychology. You wouldn’t believe some of wild things we thought about in the first and second decade of this century. Phone coverage was so spotty then, we actually had trouble keeping voice calls connected in some areas of cities and buildings. There was a time when mobile connectivity was the “figure” in our daily lives because something was always going wrong to interrupt service. Downloads took many seconds – sometimes a whole minute! Sometimes e-mail didn’t get sent right away. Now, connectivity is far into the “ground” of everyday life, I can’t remember when the last time was that I actually thought about connectivity.  Like my dad’s old wall phone – yes I still remember when phones were mounted on the wall – and all they did was connect to one other phone at a time for a conversation. Those old phones had become so commonplace at one time, that people just assumed there would always be dial-tone. Now, everyone carries their own personal communications device, and most people wouldn’t know dial tone if it bit them! People rarely use their devices to talk with others, but occasionally they do.

There used to be this company called Amazon (they were bought out by Sam’s Club many years ago: thus the name Samazon.  What the folks at the old Sam’s Club had figured out was that they could sell off most of their real estate and still be the largest provider of groceries and dry goods to the home. They kept one large facility in each city and just use it as a distribution point for delivering goods to the homes in the local market. It seems like the more things change, the more they stay the same. I remember as a kid at my grandmother’s house, seeing the milkman make his delivery to their house twice a week. Samazon is successful because they have captured something long forgotten and broadened it to include anything you can buy that you don’t need to be fitted for!  And Cashiers and stockers are a thing of the past. Just pickers and drivers have jobs. Orders come from peoples’ smart devices generate a picking list and authorizes a funds transfer to Samazon.

Anyhow, I digress. In the old days, Amazon had invented this thing called a “Kindle”. It wasn’t so much that they had cornered the market on functionality, but they had figured out the optimum size for a personal communications device. All smart devices are now about 7 inches in diagonal, and the phone part is a Bluetooth connected ear piece. These devices come equipped with the ability to respond to voice commands (it seems like everything does, these days) through the Bluetooth connected earpiece/microphone. The radio is in the smart device, so as long as it is on or near my person, my world of friends and my world of search are never further away than my voice. There was a time when I had 300 or 400 telephone numbers memorized; now I can’t even remember my wife’s number! But fortunately I’m alright because I can still remember her name!

Where was I… oh yes, retirement. So retirement for me was getting to do what I wanted to do on my terms. I got introduced to a school called Fielding Graduate University – now the largest distributed learning institute in the country – so I studied for a PhD to allow myself an opportunity to continue to make a contribution….and get paid for it! I started a company to help other companies do workforce training and development using various media along with augmented reality. This all came about while I was working for AT&T. At the time, I had noticed that we had a problem getting all of our field operations force on the same page, as it were, for the process of installing or repairing a customer’s broadband service ( and in those days, we thought 50 Mbps was really broadband!  We used to say to ourselves, “who would ever need more than that!”).

One day, I was looking at the customer satisfaction surveys and trying to correlate them to the repeat-dispatch reports, and….viola! It hit me out of the blue: every one of our techs had their own way of resolving problems. Some would just continue to switch out the hardware, some would open up a trouble ticket for another department (the infrastructure folks) to come fix the line, and some of our techs were really good at fixing the problem or doing the installation right the first time. I wondered to myself, “how can we get everyone on the same page?” So, in those days, I dispatched our Metrics group to do time and motion studies on our best techs, and even film them at work. We got the infrastructure group to profile every element of each circuit – all the way out to the home. Actually, it seems we already had most of that information, but it was only available to be viewed in a call center on a single-purpose computer screen by someone who was trained to do just that. Talk about inefficient! The next step was that I asked our IT group to develop a tag with a QR code which correlated to the circuit and all the profile information. Last, I asked our Operations Support group to develop a work-flow “engine” which could step a tech through the thought process of an installation or a repair (in fact, these days, the installations go so smoothly, they apparently rarely get dispatched to repair anything, unless the customer tries to monkey around with the equipment. We haven’t yet seemed to invent a technology that keeps curious customers away from the stuff they shouldn’t touch!)

Boy oh boy!, You should see these techs today! What used to cost the company, on average about 4 hours of time, now gets done in less than an hour and a half. The techs arrive at a home, and the first thing they do is point the camera on their touchpad at the QR code on the tag at the end of the circuit closest to the customer’s house. All of the profile information about the line, the circuit, the conditioning, the previous service, the number and type of trouble tickets and anything else associated with the history of the line, pops up on the touch pad display. Based on the profile, and whether the tech is there to do an install or repair (and the system already knows which because the now fully-automated dispatch center tracks the IP address of the touchpad by its GPS coordinates), a step-by-step video appears on the screen, showing the tech what to do, and communicating with a Bluetooth wireless connection on the test equipment, confirming the tests were done and showing the results. With each step, a 15-30 second video clip is shown based on the readings of the test equipment and where the tech is in the process. Should a technician get confused and not know which connection goes where on the back of the customer’s equipment, he or she can just point the camera on the touch pad device at the back of the equipment and the image recognition software knows which video clip to show in order to help the technician follow through with the right procedure.  It would be nice to just have one piece of equipment to train people on, but competition has kept multiple manufacturers’ equipment alive and well in the middle of networks! And to boot, customers always seem to vary widely in their consumer electronics buying habits.

The interesting part of technology is that even with all the various equipment manufacturers, the company can now take almost anyone off the street and make them productive in a week, rather than the nine weeks it used to take. The economics of the business have completely changed! A week and a half of training versus nine; an hour and a half installation time versus four;  2% repeat dispatches versus twenty; and because they’re doing most everything right the first time, our customer satisfaction scores are off the charts! Now that’s how to build a brand!

Some of the subtending consequences to the business are that there are no more books (in fact, come to think of it, I haven’t seen a book in so long, I’ve forgotten what they smell like!). No more people in the call centers – everything’s completely automated. When I was at the company, we would tend to hire people who are technically savvy, and generally had a short learning curve for the technical aspects of the job. Since leaving the company, however, with all the media-related aspects to the technician’s job, I have developed the testing to assess how literate people are with various types of media, and how quickly their media literacy translates to manual dexterity for making physical connections. But the testing also gives great insight into a person’s ability to interact with others (like our customers) without the use of media. It seems that the more media saturated we’ve become, the more it’s become important for any brand to have folks who don’t hide behind the media in their personal interactions. In fact, we’ve found that the truly media-savvy folks are ready to be productive in just two days, instead of the week it’s now taking! But the hardest thing to train them on is how to read the customer’s voice inflections and body language and respond in such a way that allows for a delightful customer experience. But they must be doing something right at AT&T because their competitors have lost so much market share that several of them have gone out of business or have been bought out for their customer base. 

Thanks for staying in touch, friend. It will be fascinating to see what happens in the next 20 years. I hope I’m still around. I hear that Nicholas Negroponte is predicting that in the not-too-distant future from now, there won’t be any wires, anywhere, for anything! Then we’ll just mail equipment to a customer, and let them install it themselves. Wow, things sure are changing! Here’s to the future!