IT talk moves to higher ground

– Have you noticed that geekiness is going out of style in IT? The old revelling in speeds and feeds and mounting terabytes of storage is gone. No more infatuations with the nuts, bolts, bits or bytes of the slickest technology of the moment. Concepts and connections are in, while granular tech specs are receding into the background, the way things do when they become pervasive, a relied upon but little thought of part of life.

Part of this trend follows from the current rhetoric – and reality – demanding that IT march to the cadence of business process and business needs. The line-of-business side of companies is less interested in how technology works than in how it will work to increase productivity and the bottom line. Tight budgets reduce tolerance for technology for its own sake.

But there’s more going on than that. Much of the talk in and about IT these days smacks more of philosophy, psychology and anthropology than engineering and economics. And even discounting the substantial helping of baloney, there are signs that the industry is maturing, putting technology in both business and human contexts.

For example, take business intelligence, a very geeky subdivision of IT, a haven of Ph.Ds in statistics. Every vendor, analyst and user involved in a major BI project I’ve interviewed recently has moved the conversation away from technology and toward cultural transformation and the need to empower workers. “The idea is to get the information in as many hands as possible, and eventually to let a team do analytics together,” says Christopher Ahlberg, CEO of Spotfire, which makes “guided analytics” featuring a graphical query and response system.

At the Catalyst Conference on network and telecom strategies earlier this month, some analysts suggested that while technologies were being developed to manage and federate identities, they might also be changing the fundamental nature of what we mean by “identity.” Pretty heady stuff.

Of course, these same network strategists have been struggling for years with the way computers, networks and the Internet have reshaped – some would say obliterated – our old ideas of privacy. And while vendors and their corporate users work hard to pull a technological privacy curtain around HIPAA-protected health care records, other laws like Sarbanes-Oxley push in the other direction, toward finding technologies that enable financial transparency and corporate accountability.

Technology and the legal system are redefining intellectual property for the digital age, and ways to protect the rights that flow from the new definition are yet to be found. The debate over digital rights may have begun with teenagers swapping music files, but it encompasses our notions of individuality, creativity and ownership.

The late Michael Dertouzos, futurist and head of the computer science labs at MIT, said the interface that matters most in any technology is that between machines and the humans who use them. He spent his career promoting “human-centric” computing, in which awareness of technology faded away as the technology served our needs more efficiently. Dertouzos spearheaded MIT’s Oxygen Project, which aims to make computing as invisible, pervasive and sustaining as the air we breathe. The increasing number of regulations sparked by IT are signs that Dertouzos’ vision is coming to pass. We need laws to govern technologies that have been woven into our lives.

That doesn’t mean that IT will become mundane or dull, at least at its outer edges. IT has always had and always will have visionaries and grand thinkers. Think of Ray Kurzweil. A pioneer in optical character recognition, speech recognition, virtual reality, music synthesis and medical simulation, Kurzweil has unabashedly turned his attention in recent years to the biggest question of them all: Is immortality possible? As an interim step, Kurzweil has speculated that nanorobots might be used to download information from our brain cells that could then be transferred to a “more stable storage medium.”

The term information technology suggests the discipline’s fundamental link to epistemology and age-old questions of what we know and how we know it. Greek philosopher Heraclitus tried to figure out how we navigate the stream of physical sensations continually bombarding us in order to pluck meaning out of chaos. Is that much different from the work of information technologists to turn streams of data into information, perhaps even knowledge, and make our lives better?

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