Crystal Ball

Are We Living in ‘The Age of Empowerment’?


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For this week’s blog entry, I’m reposting part 1 of a series I wrote in 2005, but never got around to publishing beyond my own department at Goshen College.  I’m reposting it because it’s a pretty good piece of prognostication and because seven years later I still think that empowerment is an enormously important concept that defines our era and shapes how we should act in it.  

The Age of Empowerment – Definition 
Originally Posted June 3, 2005

A simple definition of the Age of Empowerment is as follows:

In the Age of Empowerment:

Bandwidth is unlimited and ubiquitous
Processing power is unlimited and ubiquitous
Storage is unlimited and personal
Communications is ubiquitous and personal
Digital media is pervasive
Information access is unlimited and ubiquitous
Professional quality tools are free or affordable

The convergence of these trends and the synergies growing out of them make possible a new era where the individual is empowered beyond the imaginings of any previous generation. Computers and networks have always been empowering tools and so you see early signs of the Age of Empowerment going back into the 80’s. What is different and what marks a shift into a new era is the scope, scale and penetration of these technologies into normal, everyday living.

To illustrate: The other day I asked my 14-year-old daughter whether bandwidth would be a consideration in her choice of a college. She looked at me blankly for a few seconds, and then said, “Well, Duh! I’m gonna be online, like, all the time.” When something as esoteric as network bandwidth rates a “Well, Duh!”, you know something’s afoot.

A second illustration. This morning , I drove to Topeka, Ind., to get my car worked on. Topeka is barely more than an intersection in a county that has more horse and buggies than BMW’s. As I sat in Tiffany’s restaurant across from the grain elevator, waiting for my car, I popped open my PowerBook and to my surprise, it grabbed Tiffany’s open WiFi hotspot. The connection was nice and fast, too. When you can get WiFi in Topeka, you know the Age of Empowerment is near.

In the Age of Empowerment, not everyone is empowered. That’s no surprise. Not everyone was enlightened in the Age of Enlightenment, nor reasonable in the Age of Reason; there were still farmers in the Industrial Age, and very few astronauts in the Space Age. But the potential for empowerment is there for everyone.

Part of the reason to begin a global discussion on the Age of Empowerment is to help people understand their own potential for empowerment, and to discuss frankly the risks and rewards of acting on that empowerment. This is in no way a benign phenomenon. Along with all the potential for good comes lots of change. Governments may change. Major corporations may fail. Maps may be redrawn, and wealth may be redistributed across the globe. Many people will die.


Commentary from 2012:  In some ways, 2005 doesn’t seem like all that long ago. But consider that in 2005, YouTube had just been founded; the iPod was Apple’s hot product and the iPhone was still a top-secret project; Wikipedia was just coming onto the radar; Facebook was still for college students; and Google had just gone public. The world was a very different place.

My motivation for writing the original piece was to get people to think about their own empowerment and what it might mean for everyone to be empowered.  In some ways the idea of calling our era the Age of Empowerment seems just as fresh and relevant as it did seven years ago.

We have seen the reality of empowerment–that you can build new global, multibillion dollar companies, that young Arabs with cell phones and Twitter accounts can overturn authoritarian regimes, that a loose-knit bunch of volunteers can create an encyclopedia that outstrips Encyclopedia Britannica, that someone with a smartphone can post an unflattering video from a fund-raiser that potentially swings the presidential election.

But in 2012 we are perhaps more keenly aware of the dark side of empowerment–that bad guys on the other side of the globe can empty your bank account, or hijack your email identity to scam your friends, or that Harvard-trained brainiacs can create complex derivatives that obscure the worthless securities underneath and ultimately destabilize the global financial system, or that drone pilots in Nevada can blow up suspected terrorists, or wedding parties, in Pakistan.

Empowerment is in no way a benign phenomenon.

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3 Responses

  1. Elise

    December 10, 2012 2:23 pm

    Very thought-provoking post, Michael. 2005 doesn’t sound that long ago–but your reminders of some of the changes in technology make me realize how quickly everything is changing. I just saw the latest Bond film, Skyfall, which plays with some of these points, including the dark side of empowerment.

  2. Ben

    December 12, 2012 11:09 am

    Thanks Michael. It is good to reflect on the ages humans have gone through. Do you see the Age of Empowerment being around for a long time? It is hard to imagine there might be a day when computers are no longer around.

    • Michael Sherer

      December 12, 2012 6:36 pm

      I’ll say more about this next week, but one of the factors in play is that the level of empowerment that is broadly available tends to skew inequities that have always been present. The people who act on their own empowerment have almost unlimited potential and they go zooming forward, while those who behave as though they aren’t empowered sit at the starting line. Empowerment is a competitive advantage. Barring some cataclysmic disaster, the Age of Empowerment is here to stay, just as the space age and information age haven’t really gone away. Similarly the dark counterpoint, the forces of control and manipulation, are also here to stay.


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