Accelerating Change 2004 :: Physical Space, Virtual Space, and Interface
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Why is Accelerating Change Important?

Many scholars, such as Brian Arthur of the Santa Fe Institute, have observed that accelerating and diversifying social interaction is a prime way to create economic value in modern society.

In the late 19th century, the railroads transformed and greatly accelerated U.S. society. When the golden spike was driven at Promontory Point, Utah in 1869, transcontinental travel time was reduced, ever after, from six months to six days, culturally accelerating and unifying our nation. By 1903, a handful of railroad companies had become the largest, most capitalized firms in the U.S., U.K., and Japan.

In the 1910's, the assembly line compressed Model T production time from several days to 90 minutes, catalyzing many domains of industrial production and social interaction. At the same time, automobiles themselves greatly accelerated human social computation, spurring highway and city development. By 1937, the auto company General Motors had become the world's largest industrial corporation.

Today, we have entered the era of the Network Economy. Telecommunication and computer companies, and the supply chain management and solutions companies they enable, have become our leading drivers of change. Wal-Mart is now #1 on the Fortune 500, a network-centric company whose business model involves creating a few pennies of greater value than its competitors, to very large numbers of suppliers, manufacturers, and consumers. Old-economy companies, which make large amounts of money on small numbers of customers (such as military) through largely political affiliations, have become less valuable in this new network-rich environment. Acceleration continues unchecked, and it periodically delivers new value to human society in a process of permanent phase change or paradigm shift.

What great economic and social opportunities (e.g., ubiquitous sensing, wired and wireless communication, simulation, social software, the conversational user interface, persuasive computing, digital identity) are being enabled today due to accelerating change? Which are still too soon to emerge? What types of acceleration are we confident must continue, and which are much less certain, more influenced by near-term business strategy and market choice? What great political, legal and social forces are set in motion by accelerating technological innovation?

Such questions are among the most interesting and important of the coming decades. As Everett Rogers notes, our independent technology innovation, diffusion, assessment, and policy (IDAP) processes present many subtleties and opportunities for our evolutionary free choice, yet technology can also impact us in grand and unstoppable waves of developmental change. In such cases we either recognize and adapt to the new realities or are caught unaware and unprepared.

The early 20th century's Industrial Society soon became the late 20th century's Information Society, which is now becoming the early 21st century's Technologically Globalized, Digital Content-Rich, Simulation-Enabled, Network-Centric Society. American executives and technical workers will either become managers, employers, and partners of the world's rapidly developing technological workforce, or will become candidates for retraining within someone else's more efficient, more productive infrastructure.

Pierre Wack and Roger Rainbow at Shell's Scenario Planning Group would say that this type of globalization is an internet-driven TINA trend: 'There Is No Alternative.' Are political, educational, and social systems ready to recognize that the world has yet again changed?

As technology roadmapping expert Richard Albright explains (see "What Can Past Technology Forecasts Tell Us About the Future?," TF&SC, 2002), various forms of technological capacity growth have been uniquely predictable for more than half century, at least. If the developmental record of 20th century computing continues for only another thirty years, we must rapidly and permanently move to a very different world. Are we presently best prepared to enter that world? We can already tell it will be a place where simulation-enhanced versions of many types of human interaction will be both socially and economically preferred to may of our present activities in slow and expensive "real space." Even the U.S. Amish have become enamored of today's cellphone, a still-primitive communications technology.

Tomorrow's internet will eventually educate and interact with virtually all planetary denizens through a powerful, ubiquitous "conversational user interface." How soon might this occur given present trends? How will this improve the economic and social prospects for the youth of the world? We will eventually see a planet where ubiquitous sensing and communications technology has not only heightened world security, but also in many places created a "transparent society." How can we ensure this guarantees civil rights and a stronger and more accountable democracy?

How will we manage, and how might we mismanage, the modern forces of accelerating change? How do we best minimize the disruptive and destabilizing effects of change? What are the most promising technologies to accelerate? Which should we avoid or presently minimize? How can we ensure that the actions we take today lead to a more, not less, humanizing future?

How do we best define, benchmark and measure accelerating change? Which products, services and systems are affected most dramatically today? In five years? Which developments are highly probable, perhaps even effectively inevitable? Which others are a matter of personal or institutional choice? What can we control, and what controls us?

Foresight and dialog in using and directing accelerating change has become our prime political, economic, social, and personal priority. Accelerating Change is a community of interest to explore accelerating domains of science and technology, and their implications for the near future of business and society.

We hope you can join us each year in Palo Alto as we investigate some of the most fascinating and important issues of the modern era.

Key Questions
What is accelerating change?
Why is accelerating change important?
What are the historical drivers of accelerating change?
What is the "technological singularity"?
Where will accelerating change take us in the 21st century?
What are our major benefits and risks with regard to accelerating change?

Analysis • Forecasting • Action

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