Golden age of IT hasn't arrived yet

"The mood here is grim," said W. Brian Arthur, Citibank professor at the Santa Fe Institute, a think tank that specializes in emerging science. "Broadband is dead in the water, some say, and Peter Drucker thinks the information technology revolution is over."

Arthur spoke those sobering words to a business and technology crowd earlier this year in Silicon Valley. But then he went on to explain why he thinks the IT revolution is anything but over. Indeed, Arthur argues, it has only paused briefly to catch its breath before moving on to reach its "golden age" between 2005 and 2015.

Arthur is an economist trained in mathematics and operations research. He specializes in the evolution of technology and has dug deep into history looking for pointers to the future.

He has studied the Industrial Revolution, which extended from 1760 to 1820; the railroad revolution of 1825 to 1875; the "great manufacturing age" of 1910 to 1970; and the IT revolution, which he says began around 1970 with the invention of the microprocessor and the Internet. There are huge differences among these eras, obviously, but what's surprising is how closely they have followed a common pattern.

Each revolution, Arthur shows, has been marked by an initial phase of speculative and somewhat chaotic exuberance, followed by a crash, then by a sustained and strong buildout -- the golden age. For example, railroads in Great Britain started expanding rapidly around 1825. By 1845, an "investment mania" had set in and huge overcapacity had been built. In 1847, a panic occurred, railway shares fell 85 percent, and hundreds of companies folded.

Sound a bit like broadband, or the dot-coms?

After the railway crash, the sustained buildout occurred, and by 1910, Britain had 10 times the rail mileage it had in 1847. There is typically a delay of three to four decades from the onset of a new era and its heyday, and IT will be no exception, Arthur argues.

So, what's needed to get us from the current doldrums to the golden years? "What's missing is thousands of small things that make the base technology work," he says. He calls these "arrangements of use," and they include Internet identity services, enabling software for business networks, privacy guarantees, intelligent information gathering and other things for making technology easier and safer to use.

"Everything I do on the Internet, I feel, is an accomplishment," Arthur complains. "How do we know a technology has arrived? When we don't see it anymore."

According to Arthur, the coming years will be marked by a new ethos -- one of "hard work and much less glamour." It will be a return to basic values, he argues.

Arthur says it wasn't more track that brought the Brits to the golden age of railways; it was things that made travel safe and comfortable: air brakes, sleeping and dining cars, and toilets.

So if you're overseeing the development of systems and services for your internal customers, you may be better off dropping some of the bleeding-edge schemes of the late 1990s in favor of arrangements of use. Maybe it's time to make existing technology work a little better, a little more transparently. Maybe it's time to really tackle issues such as privacy, security, usability and reliability. You might even try making technology likable.

Gary H. Anthes is a Computerworld feature writer. Contact him at gary_anthes@computerworld.com.

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