In human terms, our experience of change has been so gradual that we've had little awareness that the rate of change has been growing more rapid. In fact, the rate of change has been increasing exponentially and we're totally unprepared for it.
In this podcast, Living in a World of Exponential Change, I show you how our inability to see today’s rapid change for what it is—exponential rather than linear—keeps us from adjusting to the challenges presented by technology and other factors. Understanding that difference now can help us develop new strategies, take control of our lives, and design a better future.
Why is it that whenever something new and innovative comes along, one of the first reactions of the press and pundits is that it means the elimination of whatever went before? When television was first invented and began to become popular, the “conventional wisdom” was that it meant the end of radio. Who would want to listen to a talking box when you could have talking pictures?! Well I don’t know about you, but when I last checked (this morning) radio was an even more viable medium than ever.
TV certainly changed radio and how we listen and interact with it, and I’m not sure there are too many households sitting around the radio listening to programs in the evenings. But far from being eliminated, it seems that radio is currently experiencing its own revival via the likes of Internet-based radio and satellite radio. And for me, podcasts are an extension of radio, bringing back a flood of a new, more vibrant and relevant form of “talk shows”. This is all very different than in the past to be sure, but to my way of thinking, it is also vastly improved, reaching more people and having a greater impact than ever.
Similar predictions have been made about other innovations: eLearning meant the end of classrooms and teachers, online sites meant the end of newspapers, DVD’s meant the end of movie theaters...and the list goes on. After observing this phenomenon for many years now, I can only conclude that it is an odd characteristic of human nature, and we just need to try to learn more from these lessons of the past and match these realities to our predictions and expectations.
Earlier this week (January 21, 2007), I read about this very same syndrome being applied to some new developments. In this case, Bryan Appleyard made some interesting commentary in his UK Sunday Times column with the headline “Could this be the final chapter in the life of the book”. This was his reaction to the likes of Google, Microsoft, and Amazon to scan the content of a majority of the world’s books and make this content discoverable online.
In case you were not aware of these developments, here is a quick review of the past few years:
Back in 2003 Amazon started to “unbind” books it offers with the introduction of their “Search Inside the Book” project which will help you find the exact page and associated text and context you are looking for. They have gone on to add programs such as “Amazon Pages”, which “unbundles” these digital books so that customers can have online access to any page, section or chapter, and a program called “Amazon Upgrade” which will allow customers to "upgrade" their purchase of a physical book on Amazon.com to include complete online access.
Google got involved in 2004 when they introduced a program they initially called Google Print to “help users search through the oceans of information contained in the world's books.” In December 2004, Google extended this idea when it made a deal with five libraries—NYPL (New York Public Library) and the universities of Stanford, Harvard, Michigan, and Oxford—to scan their stocks, making their contents available online, and renamed the service Google Book Search. Ultimately, they predict that some 30 million volumes will be involved and they claim to be scanning about 3000 books per day, a rate that would translate into more than 1 million books per year.
Microsoft and MSN have also been working on similar “book search” projects that scan printed content and make it accessible online. In November 2005, they made a deal with the British Library to scan 100,000 books from its vast collection with over 25 million pages to be scanned the first year alone. And in June 2006, the universities of California and Toronto agreed to lend their collections of out-of-copyright material held in trust. In concert with the Open Content Alliance, Microsoft will scan and index the materials for use in its Windows Live Book Search. This month (January 2006) they also plan to add books from the New York Public Library, Cornell University and the American Museum of Veterinary Medicine, which are being scanned by robotic machines.
More recently (and what prompted the Times article) were some comments from Jens Redmer, director of Google Book Search in Europe who said at the “Unbound” conference at the New York Public Library, "We are working on a platform that will let publishers give readers full access to a book online." From this, Appleyard concluded that "We are, it seems, about to lose physical contact with books, the primary experience and foundation of civilisation for the last 500 years."
Of course, Appleyard may well be right that as the content of books becomes available to us online (as I would believe is inevitable and will happen much faster than predicted), it will change both the way and the amount we interact with physical books. But how the form or medium upon which text is transferred has anything to do with how it is used and interpreted is beyond me.
Appleyard goes even further with his “sky is falling” style of predictions to say:
"...it is the teachers who will have the final say. They will determine whether people will read for information, knowledge or, ultimately, wisdom. If they fail and their pupils read only for information, then we are in deep trouble. For the net doesn't educate and the mind must be primed to deal with its informational deluge. On that priming depends the future of civilisation. How we handle the digitising of the libraries will determine who we are to become."
But fortunately some reality prevailed in the form of good commentary from several other sources. A UK colleague of mine, David Worlock of Electronic Publishing Services, who was also speaking at Unbound said, “Ultimately it’s not up to Google or the publishers to decide how books will be read. It’s the readers who will have the final say.” Here here! And from down under, Stuart Corner on ITWire provided reactions to Appleyard’s comments that I would strongly agree with.
As Appleyard notes, even the British Library sees this digitization and access to content to be a great thing:
“Lynne Brindley, chief executive of the British Library, refuses to see this in apocalyptic terms. With 100,000 of her books being scanned by Microsoft this year, she regards the ultimate digitisation of the library’s entire 150m-item collection (journals included) as 'a wonderful outcome, though I suspect I’ll be long dead by then.'"
I certainly share the concern for any bias towards either American or English books, literature, or culture, which is raised here, however I would agree with Brindley that this is highly unlikely to happen. Brindley notes that search engines are still in their infancy and that even Google has competitors who are bound to eat into their monopoly. She goes on to say that “improved technologies will make search results more like indexes, working more precisely as knowledge providers than simple information dispensers.”
I was just delighted to finally see some acknowledgment that the majority of the world’s content is NOT yet available on the internet at all! Books are but one great example, especially those in most libraries. Then there are related issues of the degree to which most information in magazines (and especially journals) are still difficult to discover online. Yet to listen to some people, you’d think that if content doesn’t show up in a search result, it doesn’t exist. I, for one, can’t wait to have this mass transfer of content to digital forms occur and for it to be accessible for mass discovery. And I suspect that as noted in my upcoming podcast “Living in a World of Exponential Change”, this will happen MUCH sooner than expected. Now we just need to shift the focus from searching to finding! But that’s a topic for another posting.
As I’ll talk about more in my next podcast, our world is changing at unimaginable rates, and these rates are increasing exponentially. One interesting and increasingly problematic aspect of this phenomenon is that many of our units of measure are becoming less useful. They are so small that we have to start dealing with multiples that are cumbersome. Consider something as simple as our monetary units—dollars, Euros, pesos, yen, etc. When we deal with the gross national product of a country or its deficit, say, can we really fathom how comparatively big or small a trillion dollars or euros is? And if that’s not bad enough, it’s compounded by the fact that the same unit of measure can mean different things in different countries; a billion in the UK has 12 zeros behind it, whereas a billion in the USA has only nine (1012 in the UK and 109 in the USA)!
Being unable to make these units and numbers meaningful also interferes with our ability to make smart decisions or engage in meaningful discussions, so all of us need to be concerned about this growing problem.
To me, much of the complexity is needless and self-induced. A good dose of simplification and reduction goes a long way towards resolving the problem. I’ve always liked the notion of KISS (Keep it Simple, Stupid), and so I was intrigued to read in this month’s (January 2007) issue of Spectrum magazine of a proposal to deal with these very problems as they pertain to energy. Spectrum is of the many monthly publications I receive from IEEE (Institute for Electrical and Electronic Engineers) where many of us have worked for years on standards for Learning Technology.
This wonderfully short and simple article “Joules, BTUs, Quads—Let's Call the Whole Thing Off” lays out an equally simple solution to the current problem of too many different and often too small units of measure for energy. The article includes a simple example showing how this problem makes it almost impossible to reasonably compare and choose from different energy sources. The proposal from several energy experts is to standardize on an existing single large unit of measure for all such comparisons: one cubic mile of oil (CMO).
Illustrations are often wonderful examples of the elegance, clarity, and simplicity. The illlustration included in this article is just that. It clearly compares how many different energy sources (dams, nuclear power plants, coal plants, windmills, or solar panels) it would take to generate one CMO each year for 50 years. As you can immediately see, using CMO as the only unit of measure makes the comparison clear and simple. Imagine instead what this would look like as a table containing all of the different energy units—from Joules to BTU’s to Quads—and all with enormous numbers in front of them!
Our challenge is look at our own fields of expertise for examples of this problem—too many units of measure and quantitative measures with too many digits—where comparisons are unwieldy and unmanageable. How many different terms or units can you eliminate by doing something similar? What kinds of comparisons can you make so much clearer and understandable if you do?
So KISS...and then tell me about it. Send me your comments via this blog or by other means. Share your results and help all of us collectively use the power of KISS to make this complex and exponentially growing world of ours a little better and more understandable. Here’s to all of us having better discussions and making better decisions.
I’ve long maintained that while Wi-Fi, cellular and satellite technology brings us independence and freedom, one VERY large anchor that still tethers us is the power outlet! Yes, I know about batteries and they certainly have helped to provide momentary experiences of being wireless. But they really only serve to remind us of just how much we want to cut the power cord.
Who hasn’t had their share of hauling around different types of batteries and an even larger collection of the bricks that masquerade as power supplies? We’re apparently supposed to cart these around the globe with us, find enough space to plug them into the wall outlet or even less successfully into power strips, and somehow get all these through airport security!
Besides, how often have you desperately searched for the closest AC plug while the stress rises with each beep of the device reminding you that it’s about to shut down, losing your connection, data, or conversation? Come on, we’ve all been there and we’ve all quietly laughed… and then grimaced… as we recognize ourselves in those people you see huddled on the floor around the lone AC outlet in the airport or at conferences. In a scene only duplicated by SCUBA divers who are out of oxygen and are frantically passing their air regulator back and forth, we wonder in desperation when we will FINALLY get to cut the POWER cord and enjoy the wonder of a true wireless existence.
Is that independence coming right along with the paperless office and speech recognition? Perhaps not. Out of the hype and hoopla of the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) last week in Las Vegas, Nevada emerged one truly bright light trying to shine through, and I found it heartening. While it’s not yet ready for general use, its promise is all too tantalizing and real. What I gathered gather from various sources, this technology comes from a small Pennsylvania startup called Powercast, and their technology for wirelessly “harvesting energy” via radio frequency (RF). CNET has short review and video of this technology.
In brief, their device broadcasts an RF signal over a small area and the energy within this signal is then “harvested” by devices within range to charge their batteries. The transmitter can be placed anywhere there is an AC power source, such as a lamp or TV, and then any receiver, which is described as being “about the size of a fingernail”, that is within range is able to either continuously recharge the battery or eliminate its need altogether.
None of this is particularly new and there are more than a few limitations to the application and the amount of power that can be generated. Of course this may all be obviated by the introduction of an even better breakthrough for a dramatic improvement of battery technology. But could we PLEASE get started and have at least a few of our many gadgets gain their independence from AC power connections? Let’s hope that this most recent example from Powercast bodes well for the start of just such a trend and …………………………………. Oops, sorry, gotta run, my laptop battery is dying and I need to send this off before I lose it.