Thursday, February 13, 2014

The Information Age is here



Jon Gilman in Programming: Ideas, Tutorial, and Experience

It is often hard to appreciate the extent to which new innovations will impact our future as a society as we’re all living through these changes together. It’s only in retrospect that these societal trends and non-linear inflection points become entirely clear. However, Albert Wegner of Union Square Ventures gave a talk at DLD14 hypothesizing that we are at one such inflection point in our society. His view is that we are on the brink of an Information Age, which will fundamentally change how our society operates, and it is up to us to define that change, for better or worse.

To better understand the significance of the Information Age, it’s helpful to look back at previous societal innovations and inflection points. As Albert points out in his talk, there have been a number of significant societal shifts throughout the course of human history. These shifts include moving from a hunter and gatherer society to an agrarian society and then subsequently moving from agrarian society to an industrial society. These are not subtle changes in how a small portion of society operates but rather are complete overhauls that change the core of how society functions.

Imagine you‘re an expert hunter back in the hunter and gatherer age. You’re the rock star, people rely on you to bring back food and keep the community going. People’s lives literally depend on you doing your job well. But imagine that on one hunting trip, you stumble upon a group of individuals playing with plants and actually eating them. At that moment, they must have seemed absolutely nuts! Why would anyone spend their time harvesting plants when there was so much meat for the hunting?

Unknown to the hunters, these plant cultivators were also harvesting (pun intended) an enormous innovation for society. Early farmers honed their craft through continued experimentation and it eventually became clear how everyone could benefit from agriculture. These farms could be leveraged to create a more stable community (you didn’t always have to move with the animals), they could feed larger communities at scale, and this abundance allowed people to spend their time doing things other than hunting. And that was a major societal breakthrough!

Concerns about eating meat aside, let’s remember our expert hunters. Their skill set was made entirely obsolete by the evolution of farmers. The farmers went from the crazy ones eating plants instead of meat to feeding an entire village with the meat that came from animals on their farms. This transition must have been painful for our expert hunters. Society as a whole was making enormous progress but the benefits of that progress were certainly not evenly distributed.

Today, we’re faced with another major shift in how our society functions and operates. We’re at the very beginning of the Information Age, where computers and the internet are allowing us to do previously unimaginable things. The byproduct of this innovation is that skill sets that previously led to being the “rock star” will likely become obsolete in tomorrow’s world.

So when we talk about how software is eating the world, this applies to both the products/services of today’s economy and the functional skill sets required as inputs to those products and services. Think about Google’s initiative around self-driving cars. Forget Uber disrupting the taxi market, Google’s cars (or maybe Uber’s cars too) will eventually replace all drivers and anyone who made a living off driving a car will be flat out of luck.

As a society, this is once again going to be a huge breakthrough. We’ll likely have fewer accidents, be able to control traffic better, and be able to use time we previously spent driving for more productive pursuits. But again, the benefits of this progress will certainly not be evenly distributed.

The same phenomenon is going to play out across a number of industries and jobs as we fully embrace the Information Age. It’s still early, but Bitcoin and other crypto-currencies look very promising to significantly improve how online payments operates (in addition to many other use cases, which are an entire blog post in and of itself). At the end of this evolution, we’re likely to see transactional systems powered by crypto-currencies that have more transparency, lower fees, and higher volumes than systems we use today. That’s progress! But anyone with a skill set around today’s online payment world will most likely be left behind.

In reality, the final outlook for those impacted by innovations is not so dire. For sure the full transition to the Information Age is going to be painful for some and downright tragic for others. But it is up to us as individuals to choose a path. We can continue to operate under today’s assumptions around what’s required for success or we can create our own definitions for the required skill sets to succeed in tomorrow’s world. Since tomorrow’s world is squarely focused around computers and the internet, one might assume that we should all just drop what we’re doing and learn how to code. I disagree; true success will come from understanding how the internet and computers are powering this innovation and then applying your own unique personal skill set (not functional skill set) to that knowledge. Ignorance to the impending Information Age is the only surefire way to lose.

Follow me on Twitter (@jongilman) to hear more thoughts about the amazing opportunities ahead of us in the Information Age.

Here’s a link to Albert’s full talk at DLD14, it’s well worth 15 minutes of your time.

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