Monday, June 29, 2009

Welcome to the Acceleratron

Amidst the worst economic crisis in generations (which conceivably may not be over), it’s easy to lose sight— not of the recovery, but of what’s really going on. The “new normal” is likely not a hopelessly stuck economy, but a technologically-fueled pace of change that’s far more dramatic, a future that delivers a constant stream of surprises, both “good” and “bad”.

The “new normal” seems to be an acceleration of change driven by red-hot technological innovations that interact with each other exponentially on a truly global scale, as Moore’s Law meets Metclafe’s Law meets learning curves. The result transforms the pace of scientific research, creative destruction, and cultural evolution.

Two recent articles highlight the change. John Hagel’s and John Seeley Brown’s research on the “The Big Shift” illuminate and quantify the impact on businesses and the economy. Their work is detailed, thoughtful, and ongoing.

As I have been reflecting on what’s happening, I begin with a look back. In the last fifteen years we have witnessed and experienced massive changes, such as: the rise of the consumer internet, adoption of cell phones by more than 3 billion people, completion of the mapping of the human genome, and cloning of the first mammals.

But do you believe that the next 15 years will produce changes that are very likely to exceed these? Do you believe that the rate of technological change is continuing to accelerate? Do you believe that no other period of history is remotely close to what we are about to experience?

This thinking stretches me, but I believe it. Here’s why: information technologies now in place globally are feeding on each other, creating an accelerating wheel of advancement and creative destruction. The technologies fall into (at least) three categories, the dynamics of which are individually mostly understood, but which collectively are creating new dynamics that are difficult to fully grasp since they are evolving in real-time. Three of the powerful technological forces are:

1. IT Infrastructure— Moore’s Law type effects. This includes computing power, storage, bandwidth, and all of the derivative devices, such as an increasing array of personal computing devices (such as tablet computers) and massive scale cloud computing. These powerful effects have been running strong for decades and will continue.

2. Meta Tools-- fueled by acceleration in open source software, meta-tools continue to accelerate the pace of software development. Building on the shoulders of those that came before them, software engineers in healthy situations can be 3-5X more productive than 10 years ago.

3. Collaboration and radical network effects—Metcalfe’s Law type effects are combing with learning curve effects to create viral adoption of new methods, a catalyst for the next ratchet-up of the speed of change. John Hagel and John Seely Brown have called this effect the “collaboration curve”, when traditional learning curves are multiplied by massive scale collaboration. While not limited exclusively to the IT sector, the best examples are companies like Apple, Google, and Facebook, who often have more third-party (external marketplace) engineers working on improving and extending aspects of their software technologies than they employ themselves. They’ve opened critical parts of their systems and toppled market leaders.

These three mega-trends— simultaneous radical improvements in infrastructure, tools, and collaboration— work together to create a constant flow of discontinuous change, an “acceleratron” that may be only beginning.

The acceleratron enables developments such as:
- iphone applications being written at the rate of 25,000 to 50,000 per year, essentially none of those by Apple itself
- Google becoming a $100 billion market cap company in under a decade, while old media dies
- Amazon becoming one of the most valuable retailers in the world in just over a decade
- Wikipedia becoming the world’s largest database of actively curated and moderated content with only a few employees

The acceleratron speeds up all industries and processes. You can find examples in agriculture, education, energy, healthcare, manufacturing, and retailing.

The acceleratron's reach will remake industries in small fractions of the time it took to create them (see newspapers); it will unleash even more fantastic scientific progress (see genetics); and it might remake a “have/have not” world order to a “know/know not” world order (which will bring new issues).

Are we ready for all of this change? As companies, countries, cultures, and citizens, are we prepared? Absolutely not. The changes will test us, strain us, and push us in entirely new ways.

Will our essential humanity, our fuzzy brains, our cultural proclivities, and our basic desires for the simple things, provide a “natural brake” to the full effects of the acceleratron? Will some communities do a better job of digesting and moderating the pace of changes than others? In my view, yes and yes.

I’m optimistic about our ability to harness the acceleratron, unlocking an exciting period of advancement and understanding, while holding on to things most dear.

I know not how to end this post. Perhaps, with this: more to come.

Credits: Joe Rosenblum, INET’s CTO, helped shape my thoughts on “the acceleratron”.


  1. I'm one of the old guys- I wrote my first computer program in 1971. I can still remember when it was a mark of pride in a high level manager to say he couldn't type and didn't use a computer. I agree with everything in this post. I would like to point out a concern that I don't think is being addressed in our politics or media.

    Ulimately we all need a certain amount of tangible stuff. Food, clothes, cars, computers. We have to find a way to get more American interested in using all this ability not just to make software and websites, but also to find a way to make stuff. If we can't find a way to profitably make electric drill and television sets and lawn chairs, at some point we're going to find our standard of living slipping dangerously. Has anyone thought about how we do that?

  2. Great, complicated comment...for an economy to flourish, it needs as many and as large of comparative advantages as possible.

    In theory, could the U.S. dominate intellectual property and essentially abandon the production of tangible property? In theory, yes. This has happened in many sectors already. But in practice, can this dichotomy continue over the long haul? This is far less clear and there's good reason to be skeptical. Intellectual property and physical production are interwoven; one would think that intimacy with one helps create advantage in the other.

  3. Interesting note about tangible goods. As long as we continue to move towards a world with fewer trade barriers, I don't see any problems with Apple's "Designed in California, Made in China" approach.

    The dominant international trade paradigm has long been to extract resources in areas of cheap labor and abundant resources, and then add value in markets with more expensive resources and labor; all that is different in Apple's approach is the changing notion of 'what is a resource' (and even: 'what is labor') as global markets in labor and resources become more liquid.

  4. Was there a better example of the shift in power been the “have/have not” and the “know/know not” class than the coverage of MJ’s tragic story.

    Little TMZ perceived as a “have not”, though using their skill, moved the “know not” NY and LA Times into a “have not” class in a matter of hours.

    I think we will continue to see transitions like this in every aspect of our business and personal life. Businesses will move from have/ have not status based on their ability to KNOW. Technology will power know.

    Those who do not get on the train (figure out how to monetize what they know) will be left at the station be it intellectual or tangible property.

    How to do it? I believe that the answer lies in the new social organizations that are building in every aspect of our life and will drive how we buy, select and perceive tangible items.

    I’d call them “domains of interest” of every type and kind. Can you say a thousand points of light?

  5. With regard to the acceleration of technological change, what we perceive is the leading bow wave of the coming Technological Singularity as it approaches us, presuming that such a thing exists, of course.

    With regard to the connectedness of tangible (production) and intangible (information) goods, they are so intricately woven that they are inseparable, no matter how much we wish they were not. When you lose one aspect of a subject, you lose the ability to think particular thoughts. When you don't have the words to describe something, you don't tend to think about it. Basic human psychology that has been covered in dozens of studies. Losing the ability to manufacture physical goods has more of an impact than just the loss of a few jobs or a manufacturing plant conversely foreign manufacturing is more than the acquisition of cheap imported goods.

    With regard to the desire for tangible goods comments, yes, we all have a basic need, and our desire for tangible (or even intangible goods) is based almost purely upon marketing, whether that marketing is driven by the "magic beans" (go look it up) of advertisers and marketers or the new old thing of social networks. Maslow’s hierarchy has been partially inverted (to the perversion of nature?) a few times in the 1st world in the past few decades, as summarized by Adams, as (paraphrasing) “Civilization passes through three distinct phases, Survival, Inquiry and Sophistication, or How, Why and Where. The first phase can be characterized by “How can we eat?” (as discussed by the great Greek philosophers), the second by “Why do we eat?” (as discussed by Avi Shkedi, Dalia lama, etc), the third by “Where shall we do lunch?” (as discussed by most of the people around the office whilst I am trying to write code).” (Interesting side-note: most people spend longer in any given day discussing what they would like to do for lunch than they do thinking about their financial future in any given year.)

    Read Tribes by Seth Godin (in fact, read anything by Seth Godin!), read The Dip, read anything on the Technological Singularity by Vernor Vinge, Kurzweil, et al. In broad scope Brisco and the commentary follow-up on here is a (very) short summation of all those ideas.