The Age of Disruption

We are living in a time when, more than ever before, technology and its impact on society are increasingly disruptive. Never before have we had so much technology-driven change happen so rapidly, with the effect being felt right away instead of over generations or centuries.

In only a few short years, for example, wireless technology has unplugged the telephone and moved person-to-person communications from the home and office to anywhere at anytime. What used to be a stationary device for private, place-based communications has morphed into a social companion and traveling remote control, allowing us to make instant contact with others, effortlessly capture and push a variety of media, and entertain ourselves on the fly. In the blink of an eye, we have become untethered both from fixed places and from generations-old social patterns separating work and play.

Changes in technology are bringing about other new social behaviors. If you still find yourself frustrated with people talking on their cell phones in the movie theater, you had better get ready for multiple shocks as the "age of disruption" continues to unfold.

Here are some other examples of disruptive trends on their way.

The consumer turned creator. With Internet-supported, peer-to-peer technologies, we now can share all forms of information and media, slicing and dicing it to meet our own particular interests and needs. We don't have to buy a whole music CD anymore, or an entire newspaper or magazine. Rather, we can carve them up, rehash them and share them with the world in an entirely different format altogether, editorializing all the way. Not only can we put our own special twist on others' products, but we can create things entirely our own and broadcast them universally. Blogging, podcasting and videocasting are just the primitive beginnings of what will soon become high-quality productions made by you and me. Enter the era of "Radio Me" and "Me TV." After generations of being fed our news and information from media giants and advertisers, with letters to the editor our only recourse to respond, we are now being encouraged to interact in real time with the source and other consumers. Technology has emboldened us to think that our opinions matter and given us permission to become the source itself. Media and advertising (not to mention democracy) will never be the same.

The free market is about to be set free, at last. The movement called open-source, or the ability to access and change software source code freely, is going mainstream. That means that anyone with the will and the skills to alter or improve upon existing software products can do so as long as he has permission from the original creators. Imagine being able to change your office software today to better suit your personal needs, without having to wait for a few years to purchase the next version, which may or may not meet your exact requirements. In this brave new participatory world, individual patents and copyright protections could actually be replaced by the collective right to access and build off of previous work. This doesn't mean that we will be able to get any and all software, or privately produced work, free of charge. But it does mean that traditional capitalism based on intellectual property ownership may evolve into an economic regime built on value-added collaboration, open distribution and widely shared ownership. Soon, owning a successful patent may be less important, and less profitable, than "freeing" an idea out into the open market to be improved upon and shared with as many people as possible.

Collaboration is in, and competition is out. The open-source mentality is also opening minds to the benefits of collaboration in general. Instead of people competing with others through first-right publication or patent protections, we are slowly understanding that making our ideas available to more people at the outset has the potential of being in our own best interests and simultaneously achieving the greater good. For example, most companies typically employ a research team to develop a new product secretly. But it is only when the product is released into the outside world that many product or service flaws are discovered. The open-source model suggests that getting an idea or prototype out there for the entire world to see at the outset will allow for more input -- potentially identifying costly flaws -- before going to market. Similarly, a reporter or academic could theoretically produce a better news story or research paper if his initial draft was made publicly available for feedback before going to print. The notion of competitors or the masses adding value in a way that ultimately provides for a better, less expensive product is just now being explored. Online gaming, social networking, blogging and citizen journalism will only fuel the fire of broad-based collaboration further.

The rules of the ruling class have changed. In a world that is information-driven, it's no secret that people who are best suited to innovate and manage ideas are the most highly valued. In the past, the aristocrats and industrialists who owned the land and capital were the most affluent and most influential, generation after generation. Today and tomorrow, it is those people who are able to come up with great ideas and have the ability to get those ideas out there quickly and efficiently who will end up on top, almost overnight. The Rockefellers are stepping aside for the likes of Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin. The new serf will be the person who doesn't contribute to the innovation value chain or can't find a way to benefit from it directly. In the age of disruption, just being an owner is not enough, and class success is all about creativity and rapid-fire adaptation to the "new" new thing.

Forever young or forever old. Science will shortly allow us to live much longer through a combination of better medicine, better drugs and replacement parts. Just like a '57 Chevy that has been lovingly restored, we will look and feel almost like new at ever later stages in life. While our odometers may read 100 or 125 years, our minds will remain increasingly sharp and focused. Will we behave any differently knowing that time has slowed down if we choose to push, and can afford, the extended-play button? What will we do with all of this extra time? It is difficult to say, but one thing we do know is that our earlier notions of what it means to be young and what it means to be old are being brought into question. Moving forward, our lives will undoubtedly appear more predictable and increasingly under our own control -- perhaps giving science the upper hand over a belief in the almighty?

The implications of each of these technology-driven trends are overwhelming in their own right -- and this is just a small sampling.

But even more important than the number of changes we face or the technologies driving them, the hyperacceleration in the rate of change is arguably the most disruptive thing of all. As humans, it seems we have an unlimited capacity for absorbing change and adapting to it. How many worldwide biological, social, economic, political and (more recently) climate changes have we already endured, barely taking the time to look back? But the speed factor is relatively new and untested in human history.

Can we deal with the speed, and will we be running too fast to be able to distinguish the utopian from the dystopian elements along the way? This is the most important question of all in the age of disruption.

Paul Lamb is a founder of www.streettech.org" and a fellow at the Community Technology Foundation of California. Contact him at pauljlamb@gmail.com.

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