Two men on the phone in China
Photo: Guang Niu/Getty Images
In just a few short years, Internet-enabled cell phones have gone from a luxury to an almost universal human necessity. We're more connected than ever, but how do we control what we see? Futurist David Houle zeros in on the power of attention.
In my last column, I took a look at our growing digital overload through the lens of history. Whenever a new major communications or information technology comes along, it has a profound cultural, economic and personal effect. The Internet and handheld communications devices are the latest to do so.

Each new technology brings both excitement and hand-wringing, as all of a sudden it seems we take on new behavior patterns and feel the need to decide whether they are good or bad, helpful or hurtful, supportive or detractive. Our latest surge of connectivity, though, has brought about a true sense of immediacy and overload. How will we deal with this immediacy and this overload is the subject of this column.

The simple fact is that the speed of technological innovation and the resultant acceleration in information creation and communication has far outpaced human physiological development. As recently as 1858, the speed of human communication was a horse day—literally how far a horse could travel in a day. This meant that if something happened in Chicago on a Friday, no one would know about it in New York for perhaps a week. In 1859, the Pony Express used maximized the horse day by placing relief stations less than 30 miles apart—as it was determined that a horse could run close to a gallop for 30 miles. Every 30 miles, there was a new rider and horse that would take the saddle bags and ride off to the next station. The Pony Express was the fastest form of communication in the United States...but only for two years. In 1861, the telegraph was invented. That was just 150 years ago!

Today, the total global population is 6.8 billion, and there are more than 4 billion people who have a cell phone or handheld device. This means that we are approaching universal adult cell phone coverage. If I use my cell phone to call someone standing 15 feet away from me, it takes about four seconds for that person's phone to ring. If I call someone in China on their cell phone, it might take eight seconds because of the extra satellite relays. The difference between reaching someone 15 feet away and 12,000 miles away is four seconds.

For the first time in human history, it can be said that there is no time or distance limiting human communication!

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