I recently picked up a copy of James Burke’s book Connections, spawned from the 10-part BBC TV series in the late 70s in which he threaded together a series of disparate events, discoveries and achievements to highlight the inter-connectedness of the world.
The kind of thing Burke would feature would be the improbable links between, say, a failing farm equipment business, a cyclist with a puncture, and the most coveted culinary prize for chefs.
The story would unfold through a series of rhetorical questions: If the inherited farm business of brothers Andre and Edouard had been a success would they have thought twice about the fate of the cyclist?
Would that, in turn, mean they would never have patented the detachable tyre, or gone on to found the Michelin Tyre Company?
And would the now famous guide that bears their name have ever launched given that its aim was to promote motoring tourism to help them sell more tyres?
Now a world without codified cuisine excellence and Michelin-starred chefs isn’t on a par with missing out on the discovery of X-rays but it’s the linkage that is important – of knowledge and ideas affecting each other in ways that aren’t obvious.
This is happening around us all the time and the process is being accelerated by the internet.
Occasionally it’s possible to see glimpses of where things are headed and I think that’s what’s happening with real-time data, especially in the area of individual health monitoring.
It was early last year when I first saw Eric Topol’s talk: The wireless future of medicine in which he envisaged people checking their vital signs – heart rhythm, blood pressure, oxygen, tem perature – on their mobile device as readily as they check their emails and relaying that information to carers, doctors and family.
This stuff isn’t years in the future it’s now, albeit a long way from mass market, and the changes it will set in train are enormous. Managing a condition before it becomes critical, before it requires a hospital bed, makes good sense financially as well as good sense for an individual’s well-being.
Just as medical bodies are adapting to this new way of thinking, news organisations need to move their mindsets and start pondering the kind of products and services that will need to be be offered as part of an information-rich, real-time world.
The needs aren’t being annunciated by the audience yet, or at least not in specific or coherent ways. Why would they? As Henry Ford said about the first car he ever built: “If I’d asked my customers what they wanted, they’d have said a faster horse.”
- James Burke: Connections – all 30 episodes online (adafruit.com)
- James Burke’s Connections online (kottke.org)