Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Man-made tsunamis the new challenge

Back in the days when the world around us changed ever so slowly it was the nasty surprises that nature delivered which caught us off guard.

Although we have built cushions into 21st century living that shield many of us from the most diabolical of what nature has to offer, the hurricanes, tsunamis, earthquakes, droughts, floods, plagues and volcanic eruptions have not gone away, and every so often, a bigger event than we expected wreaks havoc.

As a result of our efforts to smooth out nature's bumps, we have created a new kind of tsunami, that every so often washes through civilization and leaves a trail of destruction. Millions out of work, struggling to feed themselves and their families.

The man-made Tsunamis occur at the transition from one socio-technological age to another, when people and organizations don't realize they need to adapt to the new social, market and economic conditions in order to be successful.

It's the start of a new kind of economy - the Wisdom Economy.

The US Department of Labor (2001) shows that big dislocations occurred during the 20th Century in the 1930s which was the Great Depression where one in three were out of work, and again in the 1980s. We are in the middle of another big upset labelled the GFC or global financial crisis which began in 2008.

These epochs are well known to us. The Industrial Age (1700-1940), the Information Age (1940-1990) and the Knowledge Age (1990-2005). The timing of these dislocations broadly coincides with major shifts in the power of the knowledge we create, how we embed that knowledge in more complex and powerful tools, and the way we organize work.

We know from our history books that farm workers and artisans migrated to the cities in droves when their jobs were automated by machines. They found work in the factories that destroyed their old jobs, but miraculously created many more of the new.

Not only did we survive the extinction of clerical and secretarial work by computers and the automation of knowledge or professional work by expert and control system, but we also managed to upgrade the work, so that unskilled jobs now represent only a small fraction of what's available. It is now becoming more difficult to find adequately trained workers for the new jobs that are being created, especially maths and science trained vocational workers.

The really big dislocations occur just where we would expect, at the intersection between socio-technological paradigms. Each new wave is about one-fifth the length of its' predecessor, a constant which is the reciprocal of the Feigenbaum delta, 4.6669*.

We tend to think these dislocations are caused by some one's financial greed, but there appears to be a more likely culprit. All of us.

Our efforts to create a better life for ourselves and our children create a demand for smarter and better tools, products, services and methods. We then use these tools to create more  knowledge, which we turn into even better products and services to improve our lives. More and better trained people are needed to design and operate these more complex and powerful tools, which speeds up the rate at which we create new knowledge, and the rate at which everything changes.

The waves of change, from Industrial Age onwards, follow this pattern of knowledge use:

* knowledge transmission - experts tell you all you need to know.
* knowledge re-purposing - you get to work out what to do with an expert's knowledge
* knowledge co-creation - you play a role in creating new knowledge so you and your  organization can adapt more quickly to change
* the wise application of knowledge - everyone plays a role in creating new knowledge and applying it wisely by using tools with the wise application of knowledge" or "initial conditions" built in, like "Intel inside".

So paradoxically, our collective desire to reduce the uncertainties in life, creates more uncertainties.

The big question for society is can we continue to adapt to change, or are we sowing the seeds of our own ultimate destruction as a society? And what if those who can't keep up with the change (or don't want to), let the rest of us know they have had enough and forcibly drive us all back to a time when change was slower.

It is tempting to head back to the past when our world changed more slowly. Let's assume a generation is 20 years, about the time it takes for your kids to have your grandchildren. That's about 5 every 100 years, 50 every 1000 years, 500 every 10,000 years.

Since the big migration out of Africa, Hunter Gatherer society remain relatively unchanged for 2,000 generations. Sons and daughters were able to learn all they needed to know about life from their parents, who learned what they knew from their parents with hardly any variation for 40,000 years.

Our Agricultural Age ancestors lived in a world that stayed much the same for 400 generations or 8,000 years, plenty of time to settle down into a regular and reliable pattern.

For the next three stages of society, it is a totally different story. No sooner had the farmers left their farms and started work in factories, their world was turned upside down. Just 5-6 generations to get used to the concept of factory work, before the next 5-6 generations headed towards an Information Age world.

The Information Age came and went in three generations. The Knowledge Age is disappearing from view after one.

So here is a workshop to explore these ideas about the emerging Wisdom Economy:

1. Think back to some of your first memories of the world around you. What kinds of tools (products, services, methods and ways of learning) existed when you first arrived on the planet?

2. Think back over your life. What are some of the changes in technology that you personally have experienced?

3. Choose a technology with which you are familiar e.g. music players and describe the kinds of changes that have occurred.

4. Thinking about how knowledge is incorporated into the products and services that have changed during your lifetime, what shifts have taken place?

5. Give examples of each of the following kinds of knowledge processing (transmission of expert knowledge, repurposing of expert knowledge, co-creation of knowledge, wise application of knowledge)

6. Give an example of a group of people in society who have chosen to remain at an earlier stage of knowledge processing (transmission, repurposing, co-creation) How are they different to the leading edge of society?

7. What might be some of the consequences for human society of accelerating change/accelerating knowledge creation?

8. Describe a product or service for the Wisdom Economy with "the wise application of knowledge" inside"?

9. What might be the economic, social and political consequences of some people being unable/unprepared to adapt (i.e be educated to a higher level) to the societal change, and/or participate in the new kinds of "wise application of knowledge" jobs?

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