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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, reducing transcontinental travel from six months to six days. By the 1900's, a few railroad companies had become the largest, most valuable 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, greatly accelerating industrial production and social interaction. By 1937, the auto company General Motors was the largest industrial corporation. Today, next to energy and manufacturing, telecommunication and computer companies have become the central drivers of change.

What great economic and social opportunities (e.g., ubiquitous sensing, wired and wireless communication, simulation, social software, groupware, the conversational user interface, persuasive computing, digital identity) are emerging due to accelerating change? 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 politico-legal and social forces are set in motion by accelerating technological innovation? Such questions are among the most important of the coming decades. Technology innovation, diffusion, assessment, and policy (IDAP) processes present many subtleties and opportunities for free choice, yet technology can also impact us in grand and unstoppable waves of change. In such cases we can either recognize and adapt to the new realities or be 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 Society. American executives and technical workers will either become managers, employers, and partners of the world's rapidly developing technological workforce, or will become marginalized. As the long-range futurists at Shell's Scenario Planning Group would say, 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?

If the developmental record of 20th century computing continues for only thirty years, we must rapidly and permanently move to a very different world. Are we prepared to enter that world? We can already tell it will be a place where the simulation of many types of human interaction will be socially and economically preferred to activity in slow and expensive "real space." If you don't believe this, look at the U.S. Amish, who have become enamored of today's cellphone, a still-primitive communications technology. How can we protect the human spirit during this transition?

We will see a world where tomorrow's internet will educate and interact with virtually all planetary denizens through a powerful, ubiquitous "conversational user interface." How will this improve the economic and social prospects for the youth of the world? We will 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 confederation of far stronger and more accountable democracies?

This is only a brief sketch of what an increasing number of technological forecasters now realize must soon come. What else have we missed? How will we manage, and how might we mismanage, the modern forces of accelerating 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?

Finally, there are more technical and proximate questions. 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?

Advancing discussion and research on compelling questions like the above is the mission of the Acceleration Studies Foundation, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit corporation that is building a community of interest to explore accelerating domains of science and technology, and their implications for the near future of business and society.

We believe that the rush of modern events will soon teach us that foresight with regard to our accelerating future is now the prime political, economic, social, and personal priority. We propose that a much more careful, coordinated, and deliberate focus on issues of accelerating change is needed for the coming years.

Come join us in Palo Alto this September as we investigate some of the most fascinating and important issues of the modern era.



©2003 Acceleration Studies Foundation
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