The Fourth Wave

When venture capitalist John Doerr has a theory, people sit up and listen. Over at the TechCrunch Disrupt 2010 conference (happening today), he’s presenting what he calls the Third Wave. As reported by TechCrunch yesterday:

The First Wave was personal computers and the wave of disruption that caused. The second wave was the Internet, ditto. We are now, says Doerr, in the Third Wave.

What exactly is the Third Wave? It’s the tectonic shifts we’re seeing in mobile platforms (read his post here about the iPad), the social graph (particularly Facebook), and online commerce. All of these things are related and being accelerated by each other (Facebook is the largest mobile application, Zynga leverages Facebook and also stokes Facebook growth, Groupon is social/flash commerce, etc.).

John Doerr’s Waves of Disruptive Technologies

To summarize, it sounds to me like Doerr is saying:

  1. The First Wave is personal computing
  2. The Second Wave is the internet
  3. The Third Wave is social media & mobile devices

Common Traits of Disruptive Technologies

When I look at these waves, I see several common traits. Each subsequent wave builds upon one another. Also, each wave:

  • Increases the level of communication the previous technology affords. These advances, to some extent, mirror real-world interactivity, and extend beyond it. For instance, real-world interactivity only happens at a specific time, a specific location, and by the specific people who are present. Online interactivity can do this, and be at any time, at any place, and by multiple people in real-time or delayed-time. Additional information about the other person can also be shared, such as location, work history, and favorite restaurants, providing a context that real-world interactivity may not.

  • Decreases the distance & friction between two or more parties, consumer-to-consumer, business-to-consumer, consumer-to-business, and business-to-business. Each of those entities can be plural as well. This means the velocity of communication has gone from weeks to minutes to immediate. This also means traditional layers of hierarchy have broken down. A grade school student can contact a CEO or the President of the United States, for example. Or a fast food franchise can send a coupon to your phone if you walk by one of their restaurants.

  • Increases the utility of the previous technology for the user. The personal computer allows a person to write reports, spreadsheets, and presentations. The internet allows a person to conduct research on any topic in the world. Social media allows a person to communicate with friends, family, customers, and more. Mobile devices allow a person to conduct any of these operations wherever that person is located. It is becoming easier, faster, and in some ways, more effective & efficient, to accomplish all the tasks you need to accomplish.

  • Increases the level of intimacy of the technology, while conversely decreasing the level of privacy. A personal computer enables a person to publish print newsletters and reach a limited, yet known audience. The internet enables a person to publish websites and reach a vast, yet unknown audience. Social media enables people to publish thoughts, opinions, and self-expressions, and reach a vast, yet selective audience. Mobile devices enable people to publish anywhere, not just at their laptops, but on a train, plane, or even the toilet. The Third Wave allows you to share your intimate thoughts during potentially intimate moments, though the services are still struggling with the appropriate levels of privacy.

  • Increases the relevancy & clarity of the message. As the intimacy level increases with each wave, the sender is able to know more and more about the receiver. This enables the sender to customize and personalize each message, making it more relevant and useful to the receiver. A skilled sender will also know how to use the latest technologies to send a clear message that can prompt action and be measurable. There is still value to broadcasting a common message to the masses, though sending customized messages to targeted individuals will yield a higher conversion rate & return on investment.

Predicting the Fourth Wave

When placed in this light, I think it’s possible to draw tentative conclusions on what the Fourth Wave may look like. Some trends that I foresee are:

  • Predictive computing. Communications have sped up to real-time now. How much faster can you get than that? How about happening before it even happens? There are indications that predictive computing may already be here, so perhaps this will be just another trait of the Third Wave. Facebook already has a data science team that may know who you may hook up with. Ferreals.

  • Life action streams. Foursquare allows you to publish where you are when you are there, though it’s just a single message and not an exact note of when you arrive and when you leave. Miso allows you to publish what you are watching when you watch it, though it doesn’t let anyone know if you are tuning into the commercials or channel-surfing. The Fourth Wave may offer a continuous stream of all your actions. It’s a bit scary, but I could see its usefulness in ethnographic studies, television ratings, and perhaps tracking your children when they are at Disneyland with you, in case they get lost (mobile phones with GPS can already do this though).

  • Bio-sharing. Devices could be implanted into us to provide someone with immediate information about our bodies. To some extent, this is already being being done in the medical community, like the pacemakers that transmit a heart’s condition in real-time. But how about a device that monitors how well the body is holding up to chemotherapy? Or how happy or angry you are at a game? Could be a good predictor of riots. I suppose some enterprising individual could foresee social media uses too, like sharing when you’re hungry and when you’re sleeping.

What do you think may be in the Fourth Wave?

Photo via: cliff1066™

Author: Mike Lee

An idealistic realist, humanistic technologist & constant student.

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