oday's pace of change sweeps well beyond computers, communications, and the business world. In fact, it influences n
early every aspect of our larger society. We asked eight thinkers and doers to comment on the pace of change and its impact on the way we work, play, think, and live.
Their responses ranged from clinical to cynical. Yet they all touched on the widespread nature of change, the historical precedents for rapid technological development, and the endless struggle between humanity's love of stability, safety, and surety on one hand, and its hunger for novelty, change, and progress on the other.
Gordon Moore, Intel co-founder
Paul Romer, economist
Tom Tomorrow, cartoonist
David Noble, historian
Jim Breyer, venture capitalist
Janpieter Sheerder, SunSoft president
Paul Wahl, CEO of SAP
Watts Wacker, futurist
Hold those obituaries for Moore's Law, says none other than its creator, Gordon Moore. Two years ago, the Intel Corp. co-founder predicted the demise of his eponymous formula, devised when Lyndon B. Johnson sat in the White House. Moore's Law observes that the density of microprocessors roughly doubles every two years. Moore's career, from the startup of the legendary Fairchild Semiconductor in the '50s to what he calls "the largest cubicle at Intel," helped define the computer era.
But in doubting his axiom, Moore was wrong. "I was looking at the exploding cost of new factories," says Moore, 67, and today Intel's chairman emeritus. "The thing that's amazed me is that the industry tracked that curve really well, and funds are available for new factories. The other thing that happened-and that I hoped to stimulate a bit by my comments-is that we've made good progress in focusing on cost factors."
Although his law lives on, Moore believes the reprieve is only temporary. "It looks like we
'll be able to do three more generations before we have to make significant changes in lithography," says Moore. "You then have several equally unattractive alternatives. It's a phenomenal engineering problem, but we have a decade to do it."
Moore's Law will peter out for good in perhaps 20 years, he says, when the physical limits of chip density are reached, but the momentum Moore identified will not die. "The rate of increase will slow down gradually, but that doesn't stop the evolution of the industry," he says. "The creativity of designers can be phenomenal, and other factors besides chip density will drive it forward, too."
Looking ahead, Moore sees more of the same. "As far as I can see in the future, we will have rapid change," he predicts. "We move along exponential curves. If we didn't, that would be the biggest change." Call it Moore's other law.
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Economists measure change as growth, and that makes for a
lot of frustrated economists. "All around us is the micro evidence of things speeding up, but the macro evidence is of a slowdown in productivity and wage growth," says Paul Romer. "Economists are obsessed with this problem."
Romer, a Stanford professor who gets mentioned as Nobel material, suspects the problem lies not in productivity, but in the way we measure the economy. "One possibility is that the productivity slowdown is the result of price mismeasurement," he offers. "I suspect that the statistics are a problem, and that the slowdown is overstated-or might not even exist."
Romer offers the example of a car that was purchased in 1960 for a price that was the equivalent of six months' salary. A comparable car in 1997 might cost seven months' salary. Economists would record this difference as a decline in real wages. But what if a "comparable" car isn't truly comparable? "Today's cars are better, the
y last much longer, they are safer," says Romer. "We're not measuring that value."
Also, overestimating inflation means underestimating the pace of growth. "If the basic stats are all messed up, we're groping around in the dark," Romer says.
From a historical point of view, Romer adds, the pace of growth has increased, and he predicts that growth in the next century will be comparable to the robust growth in this one. Powering this economic expansion are ideas, which Romer regards as vital capital in the information age. "Most economic effort used to be spent using existing ideas to transform the physical world," he says. "Today, companies like Merck and Microsoft have most of their people working on new ideas, with the end product being a formula or bit string that is valuable. Once you've got the idea at the end of the expensive process, a fraction of your people are engaged in transforming physical objects."
While he cautions against visions of unbridled growth in the future, Romer thinks the
idea-driven economy is sustainable. "We can increasingly economize on using people in jobs they're best at," he says. "The pace of change reflects the accumulation of new ideas, and that's what drives growth."
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David Noble looks at a world seemingly devoted to mammon and discerns a higher presence: God, the ultimate ghost in the machine.
"Certainly people are developing technology for the money, but that doesn't explain a lot of stuff they do," says Noble, a historian and author of The Religion of Technology: The Divinity of Man and the Spirit of Invention, due in August from Knopf. "People like to say that technology is shaping society. I turn that causation around and look at how society is shaping the technology."
A former MIT professor who now teaches the history of technology at Toronto's York University, Noble
argues that the drive toward technological change is part of a religious, specifically Christian, impulse in Western culture. "For the last 1,000 years," he explains, "technology has been implicated in restoring what Adam knew-dominion over the universe, a share of knowledge in the universe."
It's not that electrical engineers begin each day by contemplating Edenic perfection, says Noble. "I'm talking about cultural impulses, and so much of that is unconscious."
Nuclear weapons, space exploration, genetic engineering-"all are essentially religious, otherworldly," says Noble. "Cyberspace gives people the anticipation of omnipresence and omniscience. Artificial intelligence will rescue the mind from the impediments of the body."
Noble, who published a book called Progress Without People: In Defense of Luddism, insists he is not a Luddite, although he does eschew E-mail and requires his students to handwrite papers. "The notion that someone is for or against technology is absurd," he says.
also concerned that the "irrationality" he perceives in the tech race has significant costs to society. "I'm convinced that this inspiration has outlived its usefulness," says Noble. "It's leading people to develop technologies at a pace that is antithetical to meeting human needs, because meeting human needs is not what this is about. It's about transcending them."
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High-tech investors thrive on new products and new companies. So why is venture capitalist Jim Breyer queasy? Because this Silicon Valley veteran fears the Internet-pumped pace of investing looks like too much, too fast.
"Last year I saw companies make multimillion-dollar investment decisions in days," says Breyer, a managing partner of Accel Partners, a San Francisco venture firm. "We know of decisions made after
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time? No, says Breyer. "You can't invest well at that pace," he insists. "Classic business-analysis discipline gets subjugated to emotion and gut-feeling. Too many `me-too' projects
Accel's investments have been anything but me-too's. The firm scored on its trailblazing Internet investment in UUNet Technologies, whose U.S. headquarters is in Fairfax, Va., and it has money in high-profile plays like RealAudio maker Progressive Networks in Seattle.
Still, Breyer is uneasy about today's market. "Whenever a fundamental platform change occurs, you have a period of extreme frenzy, then a backlash, and then finally a more sane environment," he says. The backlash may already be upon us, he says: "We began to see some cracks last July, and more in February and March. In the next six months, we'll see a significant correction for small-cap tech stocks."
Coping with change has required Accel to make some changes of its own. Mainly, the firm has narrowed its investment focus. "No more biotech o
r medical devices," Breyer says. "We need to come into a situation already informed."
Specializing has helped Accel cut its due-diligence process from two months to one, but Breyer says he still walks away from plenty of attractive deals due to a lack of time. "There are some very high-quality companies that needed a decision in a week," he says, "and we were simply uncomfortable with the time allowed." Call it queasy money.
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Managing creative workers in the protean software business means accepting the inevitability of change. "This morning somebody asked me, `What's the plan three years from now?'" says Janpieter Scheerder, president of SunSoft Inc. "I told them to get a life."
Scheerder needs the people in his Mountain View, Calif., company, a unit of Sun Microsystems, to deliver seamless growth
and scalability across a product line tailored to the demands of different customers. "We have products on cycles of three months to 24 months, and we have to structure our delivery, marketing, and public relations around each one," Scheerder explains. "We build around reusable modules, which means you need a great factory to slap it together reliably. This only works with rigorous standards. You have to be very consistent."
SunSoft's style of production management creates challenges in the parallel job of people management. "It makes demands on people," says Scheerder. "There's a lot of pressure, a lot of planning. I can't say it's unnatural, because people enjoy it."
Scheerder tries to keep the troops focused and productive by emphasizing the goal of customer satisfaction, and by holding out the promise of participation in the company's financial success through stock options and bonuses. He also stresses the overall work environment and experience: "We ask, `Are you learning and teaching, working w
ith great people?'"
He emphasizes teamwork. "Acts of heroism are not good, they are disruptive," he says. At the same time though, Scheerder doesn't want to stifle creativity and initiative. "Brilliantly talented people need to be given a really hard problem," he says. "We have distinguished engineers and fellows who are treated differently, but they are given their own space to innovate for a common goal."
Hierarchical management is out. "The key is to be the lubricant to the organization, not to tell people what to do," says Scheerder. "If you run at this speed, you can't control everything."
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CEO of SAP
Computer companies used to deliver innovations on their own schedule. That was then. Today, says Paul Wahl, CEO of enterprise-software maker SAP America Inc., it's business that calls the tune.
"A business leader innovates, a
nd that forces the technology company to make it happen," says Wahl in a rapid-fire German accent. "Business leaders around the world are creating new ways to service their customers faster, and technology is not always ready to support that."
Customers have learned to articulate what they want their machines to do in support of their operations. "Companies and the Big Six consulting firms come to us more with the business perspective than with technology specifications," says Wahl. "Compared with 10 years ago, we really need to execute according to their needs."
Businesses that are focused on rapid product cycles and low inventory need to be able to communicate across their organizations. "It's driven by shareholder value," says Wahl. "Our customers will no longer accept software that doesn't talk to different parts of the business. The demand is for seamless software, and the technology people need to meet it."
The pace of change may not have slowed as businesses have taken a lead role in tech
nology development, but it has grown more focused. "A lot of good solutions come out of this constant innovation, with companies continuously bringing out faster, more powerful systems, and newer technologies to meet this demand, especially in areas like networks and videoconferencing," says Wahl.
The challenge for SAP and other vendors is "to increase their willingness to change with their customers," says Wahl. "We have to look across the entire supply chain and see how can we work together as a virtual team. There are a lot of industries where the retailer and the manufacturer are working as one team, even though they are different entities. We need to find our place in that system."
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If you're struggling to adjust to the pace of change, Watts Wacker says you're fighting yesterday's battle.
"Business and personal
lives have organized around acceleration of the rate of change for 30 years," says Wacker, the resident futurist at SRI Consultants and co-author of
The 500 Year Delta: What Happens After What Comes Next
(HarperBusiness, 1997). "We're at the next dimension, beyond the organizing premise of change. Now we're at change in the rate of acceleration."
What's pushing the rate of acceleration ever faster, says Wacker, is that more things are changing all at once. "This is a confluence of change, the conspiracy theory of change, all happening at one time-a meta change," he says.
Wacker's prescription: a different organizing principle that goes beyond logic and the rate of linear change. "We need a new operating system, a chaos-driven operating system for the age of unreason," he says. "For the last 100 years, psychology has been organized around adjustment theory. But you can't adjust to change, you can only be with it. You can't catch up or be ahead."
Just when his spiel starts to sound like a Gr
ateful Dead lyric, Wacker tries to bring things back down to earth. "Causality has not ceased to exist," he says reassuringly. "But the intervals between cause and effect are so brief that reason can no longer be parsed."
With change both ineluctable and unpredictable, linear planning is out, he says. "You have to figure out where you want to be, and plan backwards from there," says Wacker. He says the shift from reason to chaos marks an historic change of the sort that happens only once every five centuries. "We say, `Do 500-year plans, recognize that this is a new era.' You have to look way ahead, forget about process and causation and focus on the results you want."
A social scientist who spends a month each summer working as a cowboy and guide in Montana, Wacker is happy to offer predictions of where change may take us 500 years in the future. "When people ask where you're from, you'll say, 'Earth.' People will live 800 years. You'll be Yoda."
Challenge predictions like that, and Wacker repli
es, "A futurist doesn't have to give you the right future. The important thing is to challenge your assumptions."
To see how other IS executives and big thinkers cope with the pace of change, check out
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