Technological change, feeding on itself, seems to be increasing at a rate where the only certainty is ever-more-rapid change

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The Independent Culture
An e-mail from the UK the other day bemoaned a failure to find success with an Internet-based virtual enterprise.

The writer asked for my advice - which was promptly offered. Advice, like other information, has the wonderful quality of being cheap and easy to give away. Besides, if you're wrong, people usually forget; if you're right, they think you're a genius.

From the front porch here at, it looks as if the world has begun a turn the likes of which hasn't been seen since the Industrial Revolution. The move from industrial economies to information economies is moving fast and has the potential to create as much disruption as benefit. In fact, technological change, feeding on itself, seems to be increasing at a rate where the only certainty is ever-more-rapid change.

Which means it's getting harder to guess how this will all unfold, harder, even, than it may have been for people during the late 18th century in Britain. Steam engines? Who needs 'em? I got a good horse right over here.

In fact, the pace is so fast that many savvy corporate types decided they needed to go off and form a whole new strategy to cope with this new scheme of things. Problem was, six months into their effort, they found themselves laid off in a corporate re-engineering. Circumstances were overwhelming traditional economic strategies faster than managers could divine new ways to do things.

Case in point: it takes about two years to design and prototype a new computer. These days, a computer model may only have a shelf-life of 90 days, before a faster and cheaper generation comes along. How can people be reasonably expected to forecast demand for a 90-day period two years from now?

Put differently, could a DOS user accurately predict the demand for a Windows 95 computer? The best computer companies, burned frequently in the past, have given up trying and switched to "just-in-time" manufacturing techniques that allow them quickly to go where the market is.

In fact, today's highly interconnected global markets heap a mind-numbing combination of factors such as local tastes, mains voltages, language, phone standards, cultural preference and other issues on top of the rapid pace of change. The world is getting so complicated so quickly that it's a good thing that humans, at their core, are remarkably consistent in their interests. Put another way, if sex and status ever lose their universal appeal, advertisers are going to be in big trouble.

Constant change dictates that companies and workers change frequently, too, or risk losing relevance to their respective markets. In this scenario, workers who can find useful information in a timely fashion are likely to be highly valued. Imagine knowing ahead of time that VHS would beat Beta, or, better, that videotape would become about as popular as television before deciding whether to invest in a VCR factory.

This portends a big change in the circumstances of future information workers. Compare for a moment an average worker in 1955 with one in 2005.

The 1955 worker, at least in the US, would have done well to get on board a rapidly growing industrial giant. Workers mainly built things - ie, they hacked atoms, not bits. A worker's skills, whether manual or managerial, could be relatively modest as long as they got in with the right labour union or corporation. A good worker was stable, with a CV that showed relatively long stays with "quality" companies. "Forty years and a gold watch" was the strategy and security resided with the firm, the union and vested pension plans.

The year 2005 will present a very different landscape, one that's already visible in hi-tech, high-wage places like Silicon Valley. Workers are hacking bits - software, Web sites, marketing plans, with the atom-hacking happening as often as not at offshore plants. Workers have very deep skills like C++ programming or understanding the marketing needs of a Phase 2 start-up company. Good CVs show relatively short stays at "interesting" companies like Netscape, Apple, Sun and Microsoft. "Five years until my stock options vest" is the strategy, and security rests with the worker's reputation, ability to re-configure quickly and accumulation of personal wealth.

Modest skills - the simple, honest manual labour of the Fifties - are cheap and widely available elsewhere. Increasingly, Third World skills command Third World wages regardless of where the worker is located.

Valuable skills are found at increasingly higher levels. Where learning a skill was once good enough, learning itself is now all-important. Companies covet workers who are flexible enough to learn and adapt quickly to emerging challenges and opportunity. High technology literacy is de rigueur, and "complexity literacy" and information skills set the best apart from the pack.

What's more, global competition drives companies to be ever more efficient, or fall prey to businesses located where labour is really cheap. Companies increasingly find it is most efficient to employ specialised workers only when they need them - say, during start-up, for product launches or during "re-engineering".

This creates an opportunity for highly skilled workers whose temporary status at any one company is more than offset by opportunities created by a market where companies are constantly starting up, growing, failing, restarting and reinventing themselves.

Workers, for good reason, covet stability and security above all else. Hard to see stability and security in rapid change? After all, I got a perfectly good skill set right over here.