I have often written about the contact sport we call innovation. Last weekend, I participated in a lively panel on the dynamics of disruptive innovation at the Silicon Flatirons Center for Law, Technology and Entrepreneurship. Other panelists included Vint Cerf (Google), Aneesh Chopra (U.S. CTO), Brad Feld (Foundry Group), Michael Fricklas (Viacom) and Mike Powell (former FCC Chair), with Phil Weiser (National Economic Council) as the moderator.
As one would expect, the panel's discussion topics ranged widely, from the coming exhaustion of IPv4 Internet addresses and the transition to IPv6 through the government enablers and inhibitors for nimble technical and economic responses to the importance of privacy and security in the Internet world. I took the opportunity to emphasize a few points I have made in the past, about the effects of technological future shock and the need for new frameworks and mechanisms for informed debate and nimble decision making.
All of this made me reflect on the dizzying rate of change and the sometimes devestating effects on individual lives.
My grandfather, Sydney, who was born in rural Arkansas in 1889, experienced the effects of radical change first hand. Armed with a third grade education, he came of age in a time and place where horseback and buggy were the primary transport modes, Sears and Roebuck mailorder was the source of exotic materials (if they could be afforded), a union suit was winter attire, and people quite literally lived off the land.
In that environment, he courted and wed Lora, the love of his life, and he raised six children in often difficult circumstances. It was a hardscrabble existence, one he never forgot. As a young boy, I distinctly remember him describing working in the fields from "can to can't" (i.e. from first light until too dark to see) for two bits ($0.25) per day. He also talked about misery of the Great Depression and the welcome benefits of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), both of which employed his sons.
In a single lifetime, my grandfather saw the rise of the automobile, the deployment of the telephone, the birth of the airplane and the growth of commercial air travel (both propellor and jet aircraft), the appearance of television broadcasting, satellite launches and spaceflight and the dawn of the PC era. He also saw two world wars, experienced Prohibition, suffered through the Great Depression, and watched the urbanization of American life.
21st Century Disruption
We live in a time of economic disruption not seen in most of our lifetimes, while also experiencing the ever more rapid proliferation of new technologies. It's a time when an entire industry can blossom and then die a handful of years.
In such a world of exponential technological change, with its concomitant social and economic disruptions, it is all too easy for the intelligentsia and technorati topontificate glibly on macroeconomic trends, demographic shifts and global talent flows while speaking sotto voce, if at all, about the human cost of technological future shock. I confess that I have been guilty at times myself.
For the well prepared and positioned, rapid technological change does create amazing opportunities. For many less fortunate, it can be a rather less happy tale of fear and uncertainty, of economic dislocation and opportunity lost. Such is our challenge, fostering rapid innovation in a globally competitive world while also supporting and aiding those struggling with the transition.
Disruption is not just a tale of gleaming new technologies and economic niches; it also has a personal face, something we should all remember. Each time I forget, Sydney and Lora gently remind me.