Surviving the Age of Accelerations

Road at high speed with blurred effect

by Robbin Orbison

“You feel it. Something is wrong with the world. You don’t know what it is but it’s there, like a splinter in your mind.”

If you don’t recognize it, this is what Morpheus says to Neo at their first meeting in The Matrix. He was, of course, talking about the existence of the Matrix, the computer simulation in which everyone was trapped. Science fiction? Real scientists today are studying the possibility that the world we know is in fact a computer simulation created by future humans.

I don’t know about all that, but the Matrix works handily as a metaphor for what’s really causing that splinter in our minds, the unshakeable feeling that something is out of control in the world. That feeling is called “dislocation” and it is being caused not because we live in a simulated physical environment, but because we live in something finally named and explained in Thomas Friedman’s new book, Thank You for Being Late. It is called the Age of Accelerations.

Here’s the short explanation: Technology is advancing at an accelerating rate while the capacity of human society to adapt increases at a slower and non-accelerating rate.

“Disruption” occurs when something happens that makes something else obsolete, like smart phones replacing land phones. But “dislocation” is what happens, says Friedman, “when the whole environment is being altered so quickly that everyone starts to feel that they can’t keep up…There is a mismatch between the change in the pace of change and our ability to develop the learning systems, training systems, management systems, social safety nets, and government regulations that would enable citizens to get the most out of these accelerations and cushion their worst impacts.”

According to Eric “Astro” Teller, the CEO of Google X’s research lab, the technology platform for society now turns over every five to seven years, but it takes ten to fifteen years for humans to adapt to each turnover, causing us to all feel out of control because we can’t adapt to the world as fast as it is changing. Teller says “By the time we get used to the change, that won’t even be the prevailing change anymore…Smartphone technology gave rise to Uber, but by the time the world figures out how to regulate ride-sharing, self-driving cars will have made those regulations obsolete.”

Friedman goes so far as to consider the Age of Accelerations the leading culprit behind the turmoil roiling politics and society today, giving rise to upset events like Brexit and the US presidential election.

What does all this have to do with co-working? The traditional place of work is part of the slow-changing infrastructure that needs to adapt faster. Coworking models allow users to work in collaborative, stimulating environments while remaining lean and agile. And there are implications for a primary user group – the sole proprietor or micro business.

For example, in a former life, I was an accountant. In the 80s, accountants could get away with just knowing accounting. Today, accountants have to know not only accounting but accounting software. And the software packages have become as complex and rapidly changing as the myriad accounting regulations they must keep up with.

Point being this is not just a problem for people working specifically in the tech field. Accounting and many other fields are growing in complexity and are now inextricably linked to technology. The marketing profession has essentially morphed into a technology profession, and is a good example with which to illustrate the dangers of navigating a career or business in the Age of Accelerations.

Traditional media advertising still exists of course, but technologies and attendant strategies in digital marketing, social media and big data are emerging at breakneck speed, leaving business owners confused about how to use these tools and whom to trust to guide them.

Friedman points out that “None of us have the capacity to deeply comprehend more than one of these fields – the sum of human knowledge has far outstripped any single individual’s capacity to learn.”

If that is true, the implications for small business are that specialization is almost imperative. The only way to survive as a generalist is to develop an exceptional network of relationships with specialists and follow a general contractor model. The value that such a general contractor can add may be growing as customers find it more and more difficult to navigate the increasingly complex and crowded field of specialists on their own.

Friedman believes that the way to meet the challenge of acceleration is to teach humanity how to adapt faster, and he offers some suggestions for how to do this at the government and institutional levels. For us individuals, awareness and the necessity of lifelong learning are essential elements of the new reality. Just what exactly we need to learn will probably have changed by the time I post this blog.