Here’s what we’re learning with our cell phones, sensors and Wi-Fi: losing the wires is only the beginning. What happens next is unpredictable, empowering and sometimes a bit unnerving.

In the ’90s, people went bananas over wireless. Electronic communications once thought to be permanently bound to the world of cables and hard-wired connections suddenly were sprung free, and the possibilities seemed endless. Entrenched monopolies would fall, and a new uncabled era would usher in a level of intimate contact that would not only transform business but change human behavior. Such was the view by the end of that groundbreaking decade—the 1890s.

To be sure, the sepia-toned hype of those days wasn’t all hot air. Guglielmo Marconi’s “magic box” and its contemporary inventions kicked off an era of profound changes, not the least of which was the advent of broadcasting. So it does seem strange that a century later the buzz once more is about wireless. And once again the commotion is justified. Because changes are afoot that are arguably as earth shattering as the first wireless transformation.

Certainly a huge part of this revolution comes from untethering the most powerful communication tools of our time. Between our mobile phones, our BlackBerrys and Treos and our Wi-Fi’d computers, we’re always on and always connected—and soon our cars and appliances will be too. While there’s been considerable planning as to how people will use these tools and how they’ll pay for them, the wonderful reality is that, as with the Internet, much of the action in the wireless world will ultimately emerge from the imaginative twists and turns that are possible when digital technology trumps the analog mind-set of telecom companies and government regulators.

Wi-Fi is a shining example of how wireless innovation can itself shed the constricting cables of conventional wisdom. At one point it was assumed that when people wanted to use wireless devices for things other than conversation, they’d have to rely on the painstakingly drawn, investment-heavy standards adopted by the giant corporations that rake in the dough through your monthly phone bill. But then some geeks came up with a new communications standard exploiting an unlicensed part of the spectrum (which the wonks at the FCC called “junk band,” stuff designated for techno-flotsam like microwave ovens and cordless phones). It was called 802.11 and only later sexed up with the Wi-Fi moniker.

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