Storytelling, rich media, and web services

MSNBC's Forrest Sawyer kicked off InfoWorld's NextGen conference with a sweeping survey of evolutionary, cultural, and technological history in the manner of James Burke . Speaking as a communicator, not a technologist, Sawyer recounted the many ways in which technologists have missed the point: communication is not a problem to be solved, it's what makes us human, and the most essential human act is telling a story .

Sawyer's story began with Charles Darwin, touched on T.H. Huxley and Raymond Dart, and paused to consider the situation circa 6 million years BC: a handful of different species of upright apes. They moved out of Africa in three waves. First 1.75 million years ago, then again a million years ago, and finally 50,000 years ago -- a mere tick of the geological clock -- early humans migrated to Europe and Africa. The last and most recent event was the world-changer that established modern humanity. What was different? Speech, language, storytelling: the ability to transmit memes.

Fast forward to Samuel Morse ( What hath God wrought! ), then Marconi who "fought the last battle" pushing wireless versus wired telegraphy, point-to-point, never imagining the role that broadcast would play. At least Marconi made money, unlike poor Philo Farnsworth . "Here you are: electronic television," Sawyer imagined the hapless inventor saying to the world. "Well, he was only 21," Sawyer quipped, "and he never made a nickel from it."

As we continue to fight the last battle, using the web to pass around facsimiles of documents, Sawyer reminds us that "rich media is the next step in the evolutionary path of enterprise communications." ( Jeremy Allaire violently agrees.) The B2B market, Sawyer says, is "effectively 100% broadband today." By 2006, he predicts that "80% of the global 2000 will deploy corporate apps that require streaming video to the desktop."

Once we surmount the technical obstacles, the real challenge arises. How do businesses make using rich media as easy and natural as email? How do we all learn to tell stories that people don't just read, but see and hear? "Not a soul in this room will figure out all the ways," Sawyer said, "because we're fighting the last battle." What's the next one? A planetary experiment in shared consciousness: Teilhard de Chardin's noosphere .

Heady stuff! It might seem an odd way to kick off a conference on applications of Web services. But, of course, he's right.

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