Twenty years ago, Shoshana Zuboff published In the Age of the Smart Machine, a seminal work on the nature of automation. Her focus was on the capability of machines that automated work to also informate their environment, a term she coined. Informating is the generation of information as a by-product of an action. Zuboff observed that “the same systems that make it possible to automate office transactions also create a vast overview of an organization’s operations, with many levels of data coordinated and accessible for a variety of analytical efforts” (p. 9).
The same thing is now happening, not just with our machines, but with our lives. Digital technology is allowing us to do things we could never do before (or do as easily), but we are spinning off information as a consequence, with profound implications for our experience of life. This was driven home to me on a recent visit to San Francisco. Here’s what I did in one day with my phone:
- I set an alarm to get up (unplugging the alarm clock in my hotel room in order to charge the phone).
- I read daily readings for my church and headlines from the Wall Street Journal and New York Times.
- I captured data on my morning run, including how fast and how far I ran, and I listened to music while running.
- I got the address for my meeting from my calendar and used GPS to guide me to the meeting.
- When I had some time to kill, I looked for information about nearby museums. One was the Autodesk museum, which I had heard about.
- I used the GPS (in walking mode) to guide my walk to the museum, and on the way, I looked up a friend who worked there (who kindly gave me a tour).
- While in the museum, I took a photo of a LEGO dinosaur, which I thought would be interesting to a friend. I sent it to her with a text message.
- I made a few phone calls!
- I downloaded my boarding pass and checked the flight status to make sure it was on time.
- On the way to the airport, I got directions to a convenient gas station where I could fill up the tank on my rental car. When I returned the car, I checked the trunk using my phone’s flashlight.
- I killed time by playing solitaire and checking email.
This was all fantastic. Without the phone, there are things that I would not have done, people I would not have seen; the time that I would have spent doing low-value things was made productive. But in the process, I left a trail of data that revealed details about me and my life. In real time, my phone captured:
- My location
- Data about my health, including sleep patterns and activity
- Where I drove, along with data that could be used to infer something about how I drive
- Data about my interests
- People I know
- What I read
I’m sure there are other details that were captured that I’m not even aware of.
Several of the articles in this issue provide insight into the business implications of this data and the informating of our world.
To continue reading, check out Research-Technology Management‘s latest issue.