Saturday, 18 June 2011

Power to Shape the Future?

Kevin Maney, Steve Hamm, Jeffrey M. O'Brien
IBM Press Pearson plc, New Jersey

IBM celebrates its centenary this year. In 1911 Charles Flint merged three small companies making tabulating machines, time recording punch card machines and computing scales. CTR (the Computing, Tabulating, Recording Company) became International Business Machines in 1924 and the company we know today was born. In a book published to mark 100 years of shaping the corporate world and influencing the way we communicate and do business, Kevin Maney, Steve Hamm and Jeffrey M. O'Brien examine the six pillars of Information Technology which support the computing environment
  • Sensing - mechanisms for obtaining information and getting it into computers
  • Memory - methods of storing and accessing information
  • Processing - the core speed and capabilities of computers
  • Logic - the languages and software which computers use to do their work
  • Connectivity - the methods by which computers talk to each other and to people
  • Architecture - the evolving ways we think about information and the nature of computing .
They also look at how the modern corporation and thinking about corporate life are changing in a global environment and affecting economic systems, influencing how they impact the different regions of the world. The final section of the book examines
methods by which we master complex systems to achieve and deliver those things which we believe will improve our world - seeing, mapping, understanding, believing and acting to bring about change for the better. IT literally changes the way we think and our concept of what is possible - and it does this more than we realise. 

The Book is called Making the World Better; the Ideas that Shaped a Century and a Company and is a really fascinating read, full of memorable stories that make you rethink something you thought you understood - one of IBM's watch words, introduced by one of its founders, Thomas Watson Sr., has always been think. Another concept that has shaped IBM is belief. This, of course interests a theologian but, in fact, this is a different kind of belief - the belief of the scientist or technologist who lights on an idea and then sees it painstakingly through the long, protracted stages of research, staying with is until it is realised, often in the face of opposition, incredulity or mockery.  The authors tell the story of Julio Palmaz who created the world's first coronary stent and who persevered with his innovation in the face of what he called 'rational negativism'.
 'Such perseverance is the result of truly believing. There are many forms of belief, of course, including imagination, curiosity, hypotheses and intuition and each has an important role in life....In the hard work of making the world work better, believing is about establishing and standing on evidence because that's what is takes to support and pursue an idea until it's fully realised. This uniquely human capability is common among history's heroes - people who possess singular vision, drive and charisma. But it can be fostered.'
 This is the belief of the innovator not the belief that is synonymous with faith. It is the same quality but focused on evidence-based knowledge as opposed to those things which cannot be directly evidenced such as quality of moral or personal relationship, divine revelation, ontological meaning. It is a belief that speculates within the boundaries of what might be or become provable. But, of course, the two kinds of belief are linked and IBM has been a company which makes some of these connections; just one of many examples given by the book's authors,
'By learning how to halt the spread of H1N1 we gain insight into more than just pandemic behaviour. Discouraging disease transmission may reveal the keys to encouraging the spread of ideas of tolerance.'
The potential to treat disease, made possible by Information Technology, throws up questions about attitudes to disease and perceptions around the cause of disease which belong much more in the realm of the ethicist, philospher or theologian. This relationship between IT and the human condition is replicated over and over in every area of life and the book makes the reader aware of how this very complex dialogue is played out locally and globally.    

Making the World Better caused me ponder two things in particular.  People of faith tend to see the community of faith and their own scriptures and creeds as the locus of the root of morality. Yet there is much that is going on beyond us that is throwing up both moral perspective and practical ways of tackling moral issues that may challenge us but may also help us to discharge our moral responsibilities and indeed become more nearly the people of God, living in ways that are true to God's purposes for the world. Candidly, sometimes the world beyond the religious community is setting an example. And secondly, the book is very much the story of community - corporate, organisational, national, global - the future is being shaped by forms of IT which are evolving through processes of participation and democratisation previously unthought of. The IT revolution is not primarily about individualism but about community - community is its oxygen - and the revolution is shaping our future in ways we find it hard to imagine.  

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