Lessons on the Future of IT From 'Future Shock' and 'The Singularity Is Near'

Alvin Toffler introduced to the term 'information overload,' while Ray Kurzweil told us we'll be overload with more information each decade than in the previous century. There's a lesson for the IT departments of today (and tomorrow): Ignore emerging technology, despite its flaws, at your own risk.

By Bernard Golden
Tue, September 17, 2013

CIO — More than 40 years ago, Alvin Toffler unleashed the book Future Shock on the United States. In it, he used the term "information overload" to refer to the disoriented reaction experienced by people when they feel overwhelmed by constant technological churn. Summed up, his thesis is that technology is developing faster and faster — and faster than people can respond to it, leaving them anxious and befuddled.

The theme of ongoing and accelerating change isn't the sole province of Toffler, of course. The influential Ray Kurzweil, now Google's Director of Engineering, states in The Singularity is Near that technological change is increasing so rapidly that each decade of this century will change as much as the entire 20th century did.

So it was with some puzzlement that I read a recent piece by Joel Mokyr, a Northwestern University professor specializing in economic history, addressing a current meme that technology progress has stopped. Mokyr's position is summed up by that famous phrase, "You ain't seen nothin' yet."

I think the reasoning underlying this "nothing is changing" idea is that people feel OK with the way things stand; nothing further is needed or possible. Perhaps they feel that it's been such a struggle to get on top of things as they stand that any further change should be renounced.

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This reminds me of what I see each day in IT: Someone up to speed on the last major technology shift but digging in when confronted with the next one, asserting plaintively that the new thing falls short in some aspect — while not realizing that, when the last major technology shift occurred, it received the exact same kind of criticism. Furthermore, he or she fails to remember that the last major technology shift overcame its initial shortcomings while solving a problem (or set of problems) that the previous technology platform was unable to address.

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For example, when the Web first came onto the scene, Web-based applications, as compared to the then-standard client/server architectures, were criticized as suffering from crude UIs, unimpressive performance and complexity due to poor software components. Over time, however, browser UI support and performance improved, due to multiplexing multiple interactions in a single network round trip and bigger network pipes.

Eventually, Web apps improved enough that "production" applications could run over the Web. Meanwhile, client/server apps never could address the major benefit of Web-based applications: Easy access from anywhere in the world with a standard browser interface. This meant that, once Web apps improved enough, client/server apps rapidly fell out of favor.

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