Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Shift Happens

We take as a given that the pace of our world is accelerating, and the word we most like to use for this acceleration is exponential.

This is mostly because we rely on a raft of technology "laws" to describe what we're feeling in our gut.  The most famous, Moore's Law, says that the number of transistors in a given integrated circuit doubles every 18 to 24 months.  Likewise, Haitz's Law predicts similar improvements for LEDs, while Bell's Law keys off Moore's to predict something we recognize during the Christmas season: A new, lower priced class of computers will come along to establish an entirely new industry about once a decade.  (Think about the arc from mainframes to minis to personals to tablets to smartphones and pads.  Think, too, that Bell might be wrong by a factor of two.)

In fact, Gordon Moore, the co-founder and former CEO of Intel, once joked that his "Law" had apparently been given to everything and anything that changes exponentially: "I say, if Gore invented the Internet, I invented the exponential."

Of course, it doesn't take a law to know that our world is barreling ahead at breakneck speed.  Worldwatch estimated that folks born in the mid-20th century had seen more population growth during their lifetimes than occurred during the preceding four million years.  In his latest book, A Short History of Private Life, Bill Bryson notes that of the total energy produced on Earth since the Industrial Revolution began, half has been consumed in just the last twenty years.  In this week's Wall Street Journal we learned that Fujitsu is expected to create a computer by 2012 that will handle 10 quadrillion calculations per second, which is 5X faster than the top Cray supercomputer. 

Think about the size of your first mobile phone (and no laughing).  Think about the price per gallon of gas when you started driving (and no crying).  Think about, if you are old enough, running code by submitting decks of punch cards to the University's computer departments, hoping that one card wouldn't be bent or mispunched so that the entire job would have to be re-run the next night.  

I even see a blur of speed on the mornings that I drop our daughters off at their high school and observe their peers emerge from cars with iPods in their ears and industrial-sized coffee from Dunkin Donuts and Starbucks.  We are apparently driving exponential change by bringing up a generation of habitually underslept and self-medicated kids.

A good video (from 2007, and hence, already a bit dated) is The Power of Technology: Reasons Why You Should Fear the Information Age.  (The day I looked it was bordered by links offering to "Meet Sexy Women in Your Area" and "Shocking Celebrity Photos"--speaking of exponential change).

The video asks, "Did you know?  We are living in exponential times?" It continues, "It is estimated that a week's worth of New York Times contains more information than a person was likely to come across in a lifetime in the 18th century."  It tells us "The amount of technical information is doubling every two years."  It suggests that maybe the industrial-sized coffee in high school isn't a bad idea, as "We are currently preparing students for jobs that don't yet exist, using technologies that haven't yet been invented, in order to solve problems we don't even know are problems yet."

The video concludes: "Shift happens."

The guru of accelerated change is undoubtedly Ray Kurzweil, who extends exponential growth to its logical conclusion in The Singularity is Near--the "singularity" being that moment when we launch "an era in which our intelligence will become increasingly nonbiological and trillions of times more powerful than it is today—the dawning of a new civilization that will enable us to transcend our biological limitations and amplify our creativity."  One "singularity" was the move from hunting and gathering to farming communities; population shot up, as did innovation of all sorts.  Another was the industrial revolution, when we traded human power for machine power; population and innovation shot up again.  So, if the tea leaves are right, by about 2045 (give or take) we will begin making machines that are smart enough to improve themselves (without our help); once that happens, the pace of technological change will increase again, but this time to the point where human being are essentially toast. 

Now that's acceleration.  

That's also history, at least Western history.  In Inheriting the Revolution, historian Joyce Appleby tells us that "Since the invention of the printing press and voyages of exploration, European society has moved through a succession of irreversible developments that have given each generation the strong feeling that theirs has been the great period of change, or even the principal divide between the traditional and modern.  The sense of transformative change is no doubt real, but the repetition of such experiences warns us off the notion that there has been one singular period in the long, arduous, and fateful move away from the world of custom.”

The poster child for this change in America, of course, is Washington Irving's Rip Van Winkle, who fell asleep before the American Revolution and awoke after to find his "very village was altered; it was larger and more populous. There were rows of houses which he had never seen before, and those which had been his familiar haunts had disappeared. Strange names were over the doors—strange faces at the windows—everything was strange...the very character of the people seemed changed. There was a busy, bustling disputatious tone about it...A fellow...was haranguing vehemently about rights of citizens—elections—members of Congress —liberty...and other words which were a perfect Babylonish jargon. . . .:"

A contemporary of Irving's, Daniel Webster, gave a speech at the 50th anniversary of Bunker Hill, saying, "Events so various and so important that they might distinguish centuries are compressed within the compass of a single life.  When has it happened that history had so much to record in the same term of years, as since the 17th of June, 1775?"
In The Education of Henry Adams, first circulated in 1907, the grandson of John Quincy Adams and great-grandson of John Adams wrote about the wrenching passage from the 18th to the 20th century in America: "For him, alone, the old universe was thrown into the ash-heap and a new one created. He and his eighteenth-century, troglodytic Boston were suddenly cut apart - separated forever - in act if not in sentiment, by the opening of the Boston and Albany Railroad; the appearance of the first Cunard steamers in the bay; and the telegraphic messages which carried from Baltimore to Washington the news that Henry Clay and James K. Polk were nominated for the Presidency. This was in May, 1844; he was six years old ; his new world was ready for use, and only fragments of the old met his eyes."

Skip ahead three generations to a Time magazine essay from 1973 which compares the Van Winkle of the Revolution with those of Vietnam:
WASHINGTON IRVING set his story in the late 18th century, when it took 20 years and an American Revolution to bring about such alterations. With contemporary efficiency and such time-saving devices as the Viet Nam War, change now occurs at quintuple speed. The returning P.O.W.s have been away an average of four years; it is long enough to make them a new breed of Van Winkle, blinking at a world that can hardly believe how profoundly it has changed. . . .
The little things are what the ex-prisoner will notice first, phenomena that civilians have long since absorbed. That local double bill, for example: Suburban Wives and Tower of Screaming Virgins. Four years ago, it would have been restricted to a few downtown grind-houses. Today, blue-movie palaces are as much a part of the suburbs as the wildly proliferating McDonald'ses.
Shaking his head, the new Van Winkle heads for a newsstand. Here, there is still more catching up to do. A copy of Look? No way. Life? No more. How about a copy of Crawdaddy, Screw, Money, Rolling Stone? Rip has heard of none of them. He looks, dazed, at the roster of more undreamt of magazines: Oui, Penthouse, World, Ms. "Pronounced Miz," says the proprietor who starts to elucidate, then drops the subject and the magazine. Who, after all, could explain Gloria Steinem?
He peers in the window of a unisex shop, and then, holding fast to the corner of a building to maintain his balance, he seeks stability at a furniture store. Surely this window will yield a glimpse of the familiar. After all, what is furniture but chairs, tables—and waterbeds? It is time, he feels, to cross the street.
Jesus freaks are gathered at the corner, mixing freely with other louder groups. They carry the perennial banners of militancy, each inscribed with the device, Liberation. Over it are the words Gay, Black, Women's, Chicano and People's. These are the remnants of a great tidal wave of protest that broke in Rip's absence, still sporadically coursing through the streets and campuses. The year 1968 was at once its crest and ebb. Rip was gone when Martin Luther King was assassinated in Memphis and when 172 cities went up in smoke, when 3,500 were injured and 27,000 arrested. He was gone when Bobby Kennedy was murdered two months later, and when two months afterward, the city of Chicago seemed to become the epicenter for every disaffected demonstrator in America.
A striped pole catches Rip's eye. He settles into a chair—only to hear a fresh diatribe from the barber—who now calls himself a stylist. Once, long hair was the exclusive property of the hippies; they have gone but the hair has remained. Now all the straights sport it. The barber talks on about a world gone into reverse. Nixon has toured Communist China, which is now in the U.N. The Empire State Building is no longer the tallest building in the world. The World Trade Center is. Eighteen-year-olds can vote. The New York Giants will soon play in New Jersey. In the American League, pitchers will no longer bat.
The stock market, Rip learns, has hit 1000, yet the go-go funds and glamour conglomerates are a sere and withered group. Unfamiliar newsworthies are summoned to his attention: Mary Jo Kopechne, Clifford Irving, Arthur Bremer, Vida Blue, Archie Bunker, Angela Davis, Daniel Ellsberg.
Rip wanders from the bar in search of nourishment. Next door is a restaurant; it is not until he examines the menu that he sees the words "health foods"—and by then it is a little late to run. On the shelves are strange labels: Granola, mung beans, Tiger's Milk, lecithin, all at nonsensical prices. Vitamin E, he learns, is expected to cure everything but the common cold; Vitamin C takes care of that. . . ."
 And on and on.  It's important to recognize that, what seems quaint now, was startling then to those who lived it. 

Which means, to echo Appleby, that the pace of life in the West has always seemed rapid, even exponential.  In fact, when things don't accelerate as expected, we pick on them.  The joke, often (wrongly) attributed to Bill Gates, is that if "GM kept up with technology the way the computer industry has, we would all be driving $25 cars that get 1000 miles to the gallon."  Over the years this has led to a sea of comic reactions (supposedly) from the auto industry, best summed up by this: "Yes, but it would crash twice a day."

So, we accept the fact that our world today is moving faster than the world in 1990, which was moving much faster than the post WWII world of 1950, which was racing along compared to 1900 or 1800.  That would help to explain, at least in part, our stress, the vague looks into our laptops at 3 p.m. in the afternoon, our fractured resumes, our full calendars and endless to-do lists, and that sense of cognitive dissonance we experience when we try to order at the Starbuck's counter.

Now, though, let's take the argument a little further--say, by looking again at the automobile. 

A 1920 Model T Ford's top speed was 40-45 MPH.  Compare that to a 2010 Honda Accord, with a top speed of 140-145MPH.  A simplistic view of speed would suggest that the Honda is a far riskier, unpredictable and inherently dangerous machine, several factors more stressful to drive than a Model T. 

Of course, we know that to be untrue.  Witness this 2008 driver wrestling with a Model T:
First, you must start it with a crank handle. Hold this the wrong way and your opposable thumb will follow Tin Lizzie into the history books. . .Second, the T creeps forward as soon as you start, so you have to scuttle round quickly to get in. . .Then you get in. . .I found myself hopelessly in a tin tizzy. You have to use a lever and a pedal to change up and down all of two gears (plus another pedal for reverse) and the throttle is where the indicators ought to be. There is no clutch. . .if you're unlucky enough to panic when unexpectedly approached by a speeding bus, and slam the same pedals you would in a Focus, you may find yourself travelling very fast indeed in reverse. . .Majestically enthroned, you're really far too exposed for comfort. Look down and a brass bolt tops the cast iron steering column pointed directly at your heart, while your bottom nestles directly above the petrol tank. When you took your "flivver" on the road a hundred years ago, you did without the benefit of air bags and with no seat belts, no heater, no speedometer, no windscreen wiper, no rear view mirror, no temperature gauge, no side windows, no cup holders. . .
So, it's clear that speed is a component of stress, but hardly the only one. 

A former board member at Sensitech and good friend, Dr. Rafik Bishara, is a leader in the global Life Science quality arena.  We were talking one day a few years ago about Quality at the company and I was obviously not getting the point.  He asked me, "Do you know why a sports car can go fast?"  Thinking this to be a trick question I hesitated, wondering "a big ego?"  Dr. Bishara then stated the obvious, which happened to also be the profound: "Because it has good brakes."

This gets to the heart of my argument about pace and exponential growth, which I'll now call Bishara's First Law of Speed: "We can accept almost unlimited speed and acceleration, so long as the brakes remain at least as good as the engine."

Here's another way to think about it.  The other day on ESPN Ray Lewis was interviewed by Colin Cowherd.  Lewis, a linebacker, has been one of the elite players in the NFL for a decade.  Cowherd asked him what had changed in the last ten years and Lewis said, the game is slower than it was ten years ago.

Slower? 

Even a casual observer of pro football knows that new recruits are bigger, better trained and much faster than they were ten years ago.  The entire game is now a blur.

But listen to how Lewis explained himself:  In the old days he worried about "speed, speed, speed," but "nowadays the game has slowed down so much; it's like, when I sit and watch film from ten years ago, and I watch now, I think, wow, why would I read it that way, why would I take that step, or why would I even go that way?"

"I'm not running the 40 yard dash. . .It's all about angles, it's all about beating the person to the punch, it's all about knowing where the players are going to come before they even think about doing it, it's about recognizing the formations. . . ."

So, in Lewis's world, experience, information, and the ability to anticipate act as a kind of brake (and bumper, strut and airbag).  Lewis, in a sense, has the best of all worlds: He is playing the game of football at the fastest pace and the highest level ever, but feels the game has slowed down. That explains why he finds so much opportunity on the field to make big plays.

That, I think, is pretty much was has happened in our world as well.

If our personal and business lives are accelerating, then so too is our ability to analyze, anticipate, forecast, predict, integrate and disseminate information.  In fact, if LED's don't become increasingly cheaper and better as Haitz predicted, we yawn.  If the Japanese can't do 10 quadrillion calculations in 2012 we'll be disappointed.  (And even moreso if Cray doesn't punch back with something faster by 2015.)  And, if global temperatures warm, oceans rise and California tumbles into the sea, we won't like it, but we can't say that scientists (and Steely Dan) didn't tell us so.

For every person working to disrupt our lives with accelerated technology, there seem to be 20 trying to describe, map, forecast and analyze that disruption, and three (Gladwell and Friedman and Dowd, oh my) who parse through it all to bring us some measure of sanity.  In fact, the discussion about exponential growth is growing exponentially.  And, to Ray Lewis's point, it makes all of this acceleration seem so tame sometimes. 

We've learned the formations.  We recognize the angles.

Conversely, Washington Irving's family business was rocked when the charter of the U.S. central bank was allowed to lapse, leaving nobody to offer specie or help oversee the economy.  It was rocked by non-importation acts and the War of 1812.  It took months for him to know if his books were popular.  One brother was often incapacitated by a disease we can cure today.  There was no stable currency, no Fed, no econometrics, no copyrights, no Social Security, no CNN or Fox, and no Tylenol.  And always, in the background, there was a growing sense that the country was about to blow apart over slavery.

Two hundred years ago the country was--by our measures--moving far slower than today but seemed, to its residents, faster; now it's moving faster but often seems to us slower.  Or maybe a better way of saying it: faster but eminently manageable. 

Heck, I just opened my October issue of the Harvard Business Review, wherein I found: a slideshow on the future of smart energy, an ad from Stanford offering an executive program designed to "discover the catalyst of future success" and one from MIT reminding me that the species that survive are the "most responsive to change," a book telling me how to merge "innovative employees with eager customers and new technologies," an article on how to change my outdated phone surveys for web panels, and another how to open-source my strategy.  The list of schools, articles, books and consultants offering to help me deal with speed and the future is, shall we say, exponential?

So, in the 21st century we find ourselves in the unique position of owning a sportscar with unparalleled acceleration and unparalleled brakes. 

The result for a modern entrepreneur: Unparalleled opportunity.  Our ability to go out and create, with a kind of information safety net woven beneath us (not to mention food on our table, medicine in our cabinet, and a couch at our parents' if we crash and burn) is like nothing ever experienced before in America. 

Along with Ray Lewis we get to play the fastest game in the history of the world and still feel like we're in control.

So, I stand firmly by Bishara's First Law of Speed: "We can accept almost unlimited speed and acceleration, so long as the brakes remain at least as good as the engine."

But, just to be safe, I will also give you Eric's Rollercoaster Corollary to Bishara's First Law of Speed: "It's still a good idea to keep your hands and feet inside at all times while the car is in motion."