The Information Age is over – What’s next?
At a time in history with unprecedented access to global information streams, it may seem odd to some that the “Information Age” is already behind us. Traditionally a period of history can be characterized by the dominant technology that separates the leaders from the followers. Today is no exception. Power and influence is often associated with those that master the novel technology and rapid changes in economic and/or political fortunes soon ripple across societies. The dawn of the “Industrial Age” coincided with global changes in how physical materials were transformed and distributed. The costs of manufacturing and distribution plummeted raising the standard of living for many. The commoditization of material goods began and the control of capital, raw material sources, and production capacity reshaped the thinking of the day.
The “Information Age” extended this paradigm to a world focused on planning, forecasting, and predictability. Data and information were often expensive to produce, manage, and manipulate by hand, so mainframes took over and created a world dominated by computation speed and efficiency. However, as the underlying technologies improved and were reduced in cost, the application of computing evolved toward a more distributed framework. Once again, the commoditization of technology changed the nature of how value was being created and how benefits would be recognized. Data flows are now expanding exponentially – driven by computing machines, digital imagers, intelligent devices, and RFID tags that have become ubiquitous and interlinked through multi-tiered networks.
Dawn of the “Systems Age”
As the amount of information and data expands exponentially, the value of any average datum is being reduced to near zero. Intelligent systems will be increasingly responsible for sensing, collecting, and manipulating data in near real-time with little to no human supervision. More importantly, most discrete data will be actively forgotten once it has passed through filters and pattern recognition systems that ultimately feed into a new type of system memory. Decision making ability will no longer require perfect recall of every piece of data (There is often simply too much information to process in a tractable, timely manner).
A simple extension of the logic behind Metcalfe’s “law”, suggests that the value of any telecommunications network is some power function of the number of connected users/devices. Intelligent devices/machines will ultimately dominate many of the networks we use today, and create value in an automated fashion. Traditional decision engines will be augmented with sophisticated pattern recognition algorithms and high-level reasoning and learning capability. Ultimately a type of machine “self-awareness” will be developed in response to the enormous amount of locally generated, near-real time data available for processing and sharing. The first generation of lightweight interactive intelligent machines that behave in this way are already around us in the form of smart phones and GPS-enabled telematics devices. Networks of these devices will form a cloud of knowledge that can be shared and traded based on a fluid set of value propositions.
The “Systems Age” will spawn a type of social networking for machines where the opportunities for value creation will no longer be limited to purely physical transformations of matter, but rather to the overall efficiency of compute power, network configuration, decision management, and idea creation. Rather than strive for the impossible goal of perfect predictability, the “Systems Age” paradigm accepts the inevitable uncertainty in the world and quickly responds to it. Since readily available computing power continues to increase at an exponential rate, while the cost of computation continues to plummet, those that fail to incorporate the value of “Systems Thinking” into their products, services and future vision will soon be at a great technological disadvantage.
Suggested reading for perspective:
Between Human and Machine : Feedback, Control and Computing before Cybernetics by David A. Mindell
The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore and London 2002
Managing for the Future, Alf Chattell 1995, Macmillan Press Ltd, Basingstoke