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Future Change Management May Be Beyond Political Control

The Internet Is Serious Business - NASA
No change in the news that things are changing. Rapidly. Things get faster, more efficient, more gadget-based. Is there a limit? Is tomorrow controllable?

In a world increasingly dependent on digital technology, it’s easy to think people will go on developing new ideas, new ways of living and ordering lives, without end into some unknown (but reassuringly safe) forever. But can they?

According to Grady Booch, IBM Fellow, the limits of technology were defined in 2003 by the laws of software and physics, the challenge of algorithms, the difficulties of distribution, the problems of design functionality, the importance of organization, the impact of economics and the influence of politics.

Politicians strive to frame laws to deal with cyber-crime, pornography, data protection, individual freedom, protecting internet commerce, but they are essentially only able to play catch-up. The internet and technology pushes forward relentlessly, shaping society. Society does not direct it.

A Limit to Human Knowledge?

Since 2003, the physical limitations defined by Booch remain; but opportunities and the exponential nature of technological advance have increased. Can the brain keep up? The University of Southern California published a study in February 2011’s Science showing that everybody is bombarded with enough daily data and information to fill 174 newspapers.

They also discovered that the average person created six times more data on emails, networking, digital photographing and texts than 25 years ago. Dr Martin Hilbert, leader of the project, said that “the brain is very plastic and very good at understanding and processing information”.

They believed there are 295 exabytes (that’s 29,500 with twenty one further zeros following) of data held in digital form. That is still less than 1% of the information held in the DNA of a single human being. The researchers clearly believed that human capacity for storage, processing and transmitting data was far from being exceeded.

The Economics of Obsolescence

The machinery and apparatus of technology is a different matter. That is being superseded and outdated so rapidly that people expect and accept it. Pixmania-Pro, the office equipment retailer, compiled a 2011 list of ‘endangered office gadgets’, destined to follow VHS, cassettes, typewriters and floppies.

The science of economic obsolescence has it that built-in short-term life expectancy encourages evolution of new generations of equipment. This is both inevitable and desirable as it in turn drives new inventions, innovation and economic activity manufacturing the new, recycling the old.

New, smarter technology has condemned the USB port and data/memory stick, diaries, desk-phones and landlines, calculators and the CD to history. The days of the PC are numbered. The hard drive is gradually being replaced by cloud computer networks. Already more and more activities are online through cyberspace. Reality has been redefined. It will progressively change, transform, evolve.

Where From Here?

But can anyone be more specific about the future than to state that? In February 2011, Britain’s Daily Telegraph, with stories about future technologies and to celebrate 50 years of its existence, asked a series of questions about the next half century. The contemporary ‘great and good’ pontificated.

‘Queen of Retailing’, Mary Portas predicted a move in shopping to “mindful consumption in better shops”. Homes and design guru Kevin McCloud felt people would no longer own their houses and land, but would share it all, including their communities. Garden writer Bunny Guinness imagined a future where gardens, controlled by technology, would be hyper-productive.

Chef Michel Roux anticipated a future of less food waste, rotational land farming and total ready-instant food. Property developer Nick Candy envisioned the renting of airspace with landspace for flying pods, while others dared to think about fertility, the family, the monarchy, beauty, aging, disabilities, cancer and faith.

Future warfare, television, writing, art, politics, sport, transport and civilisation itself were guessed at. James Dyson, inventor of the bagless vacuum cleaner, felt that “we needed to get the balance right between cyber and real worlds”. He urged investment in tangible technology that draws on mechanics and material science.

David Rowan, editor of Wired magazine, argued that smart devices would “augment humanity”. What the pundits have in common, of course, is that all their predictions are uncertain, even dangerous, including this one. Many are just laughably wrong in retrospect.

We can be sure that the internet is here to stay (for some time) and that is a mixed blessing. There may soon be hundreds of private world wide webs as well as public ones. And we know that social isolation is a paradox of easier communication. Beyond that, we know little for certain. Even what the politicos will and can do about it all.

First published on Suite 101, 21st February 2011.

Photo: The Internet Is Serious Business – NASA

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