Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

Rethinking normal 5: when my normal is different than yours, and yours than mine 2

Posted in book recommendations, reexamining the fundamentals by Timothy Platt on September 22, 2013

This is my fifth installment to a series on change, and more specifically about our understanding of what is normal, and how normal and assumable change (see Reexamining the Fundamentals, Section III.) And this is my second posting within this series to consider how a sufficiently rapid pace of change as it determines and defines normal, can create societal friction that limits the pace of this ongoing change (see Part 4.) And I begin this posting by citing for a second time for this series, a book that I first noted in Part 3: rethinking the pace of change:

• Kurzweil, R. (2005) The Singularity Is Near: when humans transcend biology. Penguin Books.

Kurzweil accurately notes the historical trend whereby the pace of change has been accelerating, and certainly over the past century and more. And his discussion is quite compatible with a matching understanding that community and society-shared understandings of what is normal and acceptable, and even necessary have changed accordingly, with technology adaptation and change adaptation per se enabling and creating new visions and understandings of what normal means and at a seemingly ever-accelerating pace.

• But the whole notion of this flow of change and its acceleration leading to a singularity at least strongly intimates that change and its acceptance must be fundamentally frictionless.

We have, in fact seen friction and pushback, and forces and voices that would slow down or even at least locally halt this change for generations and even for centuries.

• As an early example I could cite the voice of caution and even overt resistance to a then new technology of writing, as discussed in Part 2.
• For a newer example of pushback and resistance I could cite Ned Ludd and his Luddite followers as they resisted and pushed back against the new labor-saving machinery that as introduced and adapted, brought the textile industry into the Industrial Revolution. This revolt against new technology and the change that it created took place in Great Britain in the early years of the 19th century, principally from 1811 to 1817. But the resistance of these hand loom and traditional technology artisans against this change, where they saw it as a direct threat to them and their livelihoods still resonates with others who face the pressures of change that would challenge their ways of life.
• As a third historical example, I would cite the introduction of the Hollerith card: a punch card technology that was first widely used in setting weaving patterns for use in Jacquard textile looms. But the specific example of pushback that I would site here involves a newer and emergent use for this data storage tool: the resistance that use of these cards faced when they were brought into the US government’s census process for the 1890 census. A significant number of census workers saw these cards and the tabulating machinery they were processed through as directly threatening their jobs by making them obsolete. So workers in a number of Bureau of the Census offices intentionally broke their mechanical tabulators and even burned the cards that individual census records had been coded into and in large numbers.

My point here is that history is replete with examples of resistance to change, and to the way that this redefines normal and from way before our more recent generations of significant acceleration in how this change has been happening. And with that stated, I move this narrative forward in time to the immediate here and now, to consider three current flashpoint areas where the pace of this change has, at the very least exacerbated creation of friction. And I pick up here on the three arenas of current and ongoing friction that I first cited at the end of Part 4:

• The challenge of have and have not nations and disparities of access and availability, and with and without technology leapfrogging.
• The role of change and its pace in the conflict between Islam and certainly its more extreme protectors, and the West – and the way that jihadist anger stems more from fear of being overrun and forced into identity and culture-denying change, than from anything like a sense of arrogance.
• And of course generational and other divides, and even within more online connected countries and societies, and with this coming from both access barriers and from early versus late adaptor comfort levels – where late enough means never catching up and in fact means falling further and further behind.

And I will focus here on the first of these examples and begin that by noting that technology access and availability issues are not in any way the sole province of Third World countries. Third World countries might face this type of challenge disproportionately and from poverty and lack of critical infrastructure in general, and from the way so many of these nations have faced political turmoil. But even the more advanced and privileged First World countries can face technology access and adaptation challenges, and particularly as new and next generation resources arise on progressively shorter timeframes and the definition of current and cutting edge changes at least as rapidly, and where widespread and society-wide adaptation and access inclusion would call for massive overall infrastructure changes.

A case in point that comes immediately to mind in this is provided by the challenges of building and offering widely available broadband connectivity. As of this writing, small and geographically compact Singapore offers its citizens one of the fastest broadband networks in the world with a goal of offering everyone a connection speed of at least one billion bits per second. The United States with its maze of privately owned and managed service providers, its vast and complex geography and its mix of densely populated urban and sparsely populated rural areas offers much slower broadband.

One proposed technology fix for increasing the basic definition of broadband per se, and for offering faster connections as a basic rule, comes from the longer range goals of developing a fundamentally new and next generation internet backbone, with this overall effort comprising the Internet2 initiative. But when the fundamental barrier takes the form of massive minimum costs of building a cable-connected system of any type for achieving widespread internet access at all, other more readily currently available options and alternatives are needed. One approach is to cable-connect locally and within perhaps more isolated communities, but nationally and globally connect through satellite transceiver ground stations, where long distance connections are made without a requirement of installing or maintaining long distance cable. And that is an example of technology leapfrogging, where older wired and cable systems and their technologies are skipped over with moves to newer technology options without having to recapitulate any older technology solutions and even when they were essential to the initial development of the new as evolutionary steps – here broadband wireless capabilities that use satellite networks for bouncing signals long distance.

I have had the opportunity to serve as a member of a technology advisors group to a United Nations agency that was set up with a goal of introducing more effective information and communications infrastructure systems into less developed regions and countries to create greater international equality of opportunity. As a part of that participation, I used to attend meetings at the United Nations where this type of challenge was discussed in detail regarding very specific regions and their information technology needs (see my directory: United Nations Global Alliance for ICT and Development (UN-GAID) for a brief set of postings related to that.) And our goal was to help develop options and approaches that would be effective, affordable and acceptable on the ground where needed – not always an easy task and with challenges at every step when attempting to move from initial concept and discussion through to carefully planned implementation, and with a tremendous amount of work from both contributing national governments and Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO) required to implement anything.

• But the challenges that I write of here are not simply limited to nations and peoples who live in poverty or who live with more limited national, regional and local basic infrastructures.
• The faster the pace of change, the more challenging it becomes to keep up with every possible innovative capability that becomes technically possible, and particularly as adaptation would call for wider ranging infrastructure redevelopment and where there are no clear technology leapfrogging options that would help reduce overall development costs.
• And the more change accelerates, the more likely it becomes that disparities of technology availability will arise and in fact become more pronounced – and particularly when comparing more have and have-not nations. And the have-nots can find themselves falling further and further behind as barriers to catching up steepen.
• And with technology adaptation comes change in perception as to what is possible and what can simply be assumed – and this all means differences in how peoples see and understand normal – and even in our increasingly globally interconnected world. What is becomes what is taken for granted and shapes our understanding or what is normal and what can be.

I have focused here on a set of challenges where there can be very genuine and strong desire to develop and implement change, and a willingness to accept its consequences in how normal becomes redefined. I am going to continue this discussion in a next series installment where I will challenge that point, by discussing the second friction arena that I noted as working examples at the end of Part 4 and again towards the top of this posting, where friction comes specifically from resistance to change in normal and expected, and from resistance to cultural and cultural identity change. I will then delve into my third example to conclude this part of this overall discussion. Meanwhile, you can find this and related postings at Reexamining the Fundamentals.

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