The Ten-Year Century

As the pace of change accelerates, trust becomes vital currency.

In computer jargon, when your hard drive becomes overwhelmed with too much information it is said to be fragmented—or “fragged.” Today, the rapid and unsettling pace of change has left us all more than a little, well, fragged.

We watch 60-second television commercials that have been sped up to fit into 30-second spots, even as we multitask our way through emails, text messages and tweets. We assume that these small time compressions are part of the price of modern living. But it is more profound than that.

Changes that used to take generations—economic cycles, cultural shifts, mass migrations, changes in the structures of families and institutions—now unfurl in a span of years. Since 2000, we have experienced three economic bubbles (dot-com, real estate, and credit), three market crashes, a devastating terrorist attack, two wars and a global influenza pandemic.

Game-changing consumer products and services (iPod, smart phones, YouTube, Twitter, blogs) that historically might have appeared once every five or more years roll out within months. In what seems like the blink of an eye one giant industry (recorded music) has been utterly transformed, another (the 250-year-old newspaper business) is facing oblivion, and a half-dozen more (magazines, network television, book publishing) are apparently headed to meet one of those two fates.

Call it the advent of “the 10-year century”: a fast shuffle that stacks events which once took place in the course of a lifetime compressed into the duration of a childhood. To understand how this his happening—and what it will take to cope—take a look at the underlying forces:

• Faster computation. “Moore’s Law”—the doubling of semiconductor chip performance every 18-24 months first observed by Intel co-founder Gordon E. Moore—has become the metronome of modern times. Yet the extraordinary changes we have seen since the invention of the transistor in 1947—all of the way to broadband Internet, smart phones, iPods and supercomputers—are only a prelude to the emerging world of single-molecule silicon gates, nanotechnology and advanced bioinformatics (which uses information processing in molecular biology).

• Quicker access. “Metcalfe’s Law,” named for electrical engineer Robert Metcalfe, says that networks grow in value exponentially with each new user. The biggest network in the world is the Internet; and thanks to the advent of cheap, Web-enabled cellphones, the Internet is about to see its “jump point”: the arrival of two billion new users from the developing world, nearly tripling its size.

Now consider what may happen with faster computation speeds and global broadband wireless coverage, which means full access from anywhere on the planet, anytime. What counts here is not the sheer size of the Internet, or the richness of the experience, but the life-altering access to any information we need, delivered with unprecedented sophistication, almost instantly.

• Shorter decision cycles. Think about what quicker access to vast caches of information, available instantly almost anywhere, to be crunched and analyzed using ubiquitous and powerful processors—all with the knowledge that competitors are doing the same thing—means for business enterprise. The emerging environment is not one for reflection, or “letting things play out for a while.” It means bold, impetuous moves, all while betting that the information is not just complete, but accurate.

True, when a computer chip goes through as many computations in a single second as there are human heartbeats in 10 lifetimes, a 10-year year century seems positively pokey. But we humans have a slower metabolism, which will make this rapid fire of events ever more difficult to comprehend, much less manage.

More disturbing, we have few safeguards—software shut-off switches, virus protections, firewalls, etc.—in place to check or repair our new global über-system when it misfires or goes completely off the rails. When felons with lousy credit histories can sign up for inflated mortgages in a matter of seconds over a computer; when nervous shareholders can panic over a fake blog and dump millions of shares online in a matter of minutes; and when an Internet rumor can provoke a virtual “run” on a bank, then bubbles and cascades and crashes become inevitable.

So how do we control this increasingly out-of-control, interlinked world? Venture capitalist Bill Davidow has proposed the equivalent of online “surge protectors” to stop run-ups and panics on the Internet, the same way stock markets stop runaway trading. At the least we need better analytics to predict where change is taking us next.

Most importantly, trust will become the critical factor. Without the luxury of time, trust will be the new currency of our times, whether in news sources, economic systems, political figures, even spiritual leaders. As change accelerates, it will remain one true constant.

Mr. Hayes is author of “Jump Point: How Network Culture is Revolutionizing Business” (McGraw-Hill, 2008). Mr. Malone’s most recent book is “The Future Arrived Yesterday” (Crown, 2009).


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