Pick your measure. No matter what standard you choose, the information revolution is less than 3 percent complete. That’s right: Whether you count users, devices, speed, content or number of applications, the revolution is just revving up. That has two implications: 1) virtual lifetime employment for tech writers; and 2) we don’t have a clue as to what the future will bring.
About the only thing we can be sure of is that the revolution will be just that: a time of vast, wrenching change. We can guess at the scale and contours of the forces hammering at us and maybe even plot the trajectories we’ll face. But that plural is vital. We haven’t an inkling which of the possible futures will come to pass.
So what do we know? The most important thing is that the cost of being wired is plummeting. Chip cost per dollar will drop by a factor of 10 over the next five years. The amount of computing power a dollar will buy will increase 10 times over the next four years. Similarly, the amount of data storage available for a dollar will increase 10 times over the next seven years. Network capacity will increase 100-fold over the next five years; ditto for the local loop. Costs are going to fall 99 percent.
As prices vanish and capacities soar, we will be moving to “the next-generation Internet,” in which data will be everywhere, all the time. We are on the threshold of a world of staggering possibilities. Don’t take my word for it: The Computer Systems Policy Project (www.cspp.org), a public advocacy group of industry notables, summarized the outlook in “Living in the Network World,” a recent report: “The Networked World will revolutionize the very fabric of our society — the way we live, work, educate and govern ourselves. . . . The Networked World is momentous.”
Momentous, eh? Michael Nelson, director of Internet Technology and Strategy at IBM, and the former special assistant for information technology at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, says we are on the verge of a revolution like that triggered by the printing press, a development that ushered in the age of literacy, sovereignty, democracy and a nasty war. He has a caveat, though: He believes that because the information revolution will be faster and totally global, it will be even less predictable than the one launched a half-millennium or so ago.
Nelson is here for a pair of conferences: the ICANN (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers) confab that wrapped up Sunday and the Internet Society meetings taking place today and tomorrow in Yokohama. In between, he gave a luncheon talk and elaborated on his vision(s) of the future in an interview.
How do we make sense of such a turbulent tomorrow? Nelson, who admits that he is a techno-optimist, argues that the only course is embracing change, accepting the possibility of failure and “letting 1,000 flowers bloom.” “We can’t plan the future,” he said, “but we can plan the paths. And then we can move from path to path.”
Not surprisingly, Nelson offers IBM as exhibit one in the model for digital success. The company — once the epitome of stodgy, buttoned-down corporate America — has embraced risk-taking. The company lives by several simple maxims: Think small and move fast; develop prototypes; utilize unconventional thinking; design from the outside in (i.e., address customer needs first); partner, partner, partner; and embrace open standards.
The results are pretty impressive. IBM sold $15 billion worth of products online in 1999. E-procurement reached $12 billion last year, and the company eliminated 5 million paper invoices. In 1998, the company had 14 million electronic customer-care transactions; the next year that number doubled. Nelson put the savings in the hundreds of millions of dollars.
The lesson, says Nelson, is straightforward: Flexibility will be the most important resource in the networked world. Nelson believes that we have to assume that all our assumptions are outdated and jettison the old models of social, economic and political behavior.
Take the new business landscape, Nelson says. IT is driving globalization, a process that has just about erased the significance of geographic boundaries for businesses. Management can move operations to wherever labor is more efficient and the burdens imposed by government are smaller.
If they want to survive and and if they want to prepare their citizens for the digital future, governments must change. That means restructuring education systems and helping to develop and promote new skills. Most important, he adds, they have to adopt a new mentality: “Don’t legislate, don’t regulate — benchmark.” Bureaucracies must move away from a mind-set in which all that is not permitted is restricted to one in which all that is not restricted is permitted.
For many, that is an abdication of responsibility, and will trigger a race to the bottom in which the poorest people and those least able to defend themselves will be hurt the most. Businesses will flee to where regulations are lightest and labor cheapest. Environmental destruction and child labor are sure to follow.
Nelson believes that the Networked World empowers individuals so that they can check that abuse, though he qualifies his case: There must be open standards that encourage competition between companies and ensure that consumers have a choice, and an open press that promotes transparency. Serve up those two conditions, and individuals can vote with their wallets, punishing those companies and governments that thumb their noses at core values.
Sound far-fetched? Not quite. Think of the spread of new standards — the various ISOs and new corporate codes of behavior — the spread of socially responsible investing, and even the smear campaigns that have forced companies to change the way they do business.
In other words, in addition to rethinking business models and organizations, we have to change our behavior as consumers and citizens. The precise contours of the future may be unclear, but the advance of the technological steamroller is certain. We may not know where we’re going till we get there, but we will get there sooner than we think.
Brad Glosserman (firstname.lastname@example.org)