Thomas L. Friedman / Adapt or lose: Hyperconnectivity produces hyperchange
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President Barack Obama's first term was absorbed with the Great Recession. I hope now he can devote attention to the Great Inflection.
Dealing with the Great Recession was largely about "Yes We Can" -- about government, about what we must do "together" to shore up the safety nets and institutions that undergird our society and economy. Mr. Obama's inaugural address was a full-throated defense of that "public" side of the unique public-private partnership that makes America great.
But if we're to sustain our public institutions and safety nets, it will require a lot more growth by the private sector, a lot more entrepreneurship and a lot more individual risk-taking -- things the president rarely speaks about. And it will all have to happen during the Great Inflection.
What is the Great Inflection? Something very big happened in the last decade. The world went from connected to hyperconnected in a way that is affecting every job, industry and school, but was largely disguised by 9/11 and then the Great Recession.
In 2004, I wrote "The World Is Flat" about how the world was getting digitally connected so more people could compete, connect and collaborate from anywhere. Facebook, Twitter, cloud computing, 4G wireless, ultra-high-speed bandwidth, Skype, system-on-a-chip circuits, iPhones, iPods, iPads and cellphone apps didn't exist or were in their infancy.
Today, those things in combination have taken us from connected to hyperconnected. Now, notes Craig Mundie, one of Microsoft's top technologists, virtually everyone everywhere has, or soon will have, access to a hand-held computer/cellphone which can be connected via the cloud to infinite applications and storage, so they can work, invent, entertain, collaborate and learn for less money than ever before. Alas, though, every boss now also has cheaper, easier access to more above-average software, automation, robotics, cheap labor and cheap genius than ever before. That means the old average is over. Everyone who wants a job now must demonstrate how they can add value better than the new alternatives.
As a result, says Mr. Mundie, the speed with which every job and industry changes also is going into hypermode. "In the old days," he said, "it was assumed that your educational foundation would last your whole lifetime. That is no longer true." Now, the skill required for every decent job is rising, as is the necessity of lifelong learning. More and more things you know and tools you use "are being made obsolete faster," added Mr. Mundie.
This is exacerbating our unemployment problem. In their terrific book, "Race Against the Machine: How the Digital Revolution Is Accelerating Innovation, Driving Productivity and Irreversibly Transforming Employment and the Economy," Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee of MIT write that for the last two centuries productivity, median income and employment all tracked each other nicely. "So most economists have had this feeling that if you just boost productivity, the pie grows, and, in the long run, everything else takes care of itself," Mr. Brynjolfsson explained. "But there is no economic law that says technological progress has to benefit everyone. It's entirely possible for the pie to get bigger and some people to get a smaller slice."
When the digital revolution gets so ubiquitous you see this in three ways, he said: Those with more education start to earn much more than those without it, those with the capital to buy and operate machines earn much more than those who can just offer their labor, and those with superstar skills who can reach global markets earn much more than those with even slightly less talent.
Put it all together, and you see that while the Great Recession has taken the biggest bite out of employment lately, it is not the only thing affecting job loss -- and that while we have record productivity, wealth and innovation, median incomes are falling, inequality is rising and high unemployment persists.
How to adapt? It will require more individual initiative. It will be vital to have more of the "right" education. Everyone will need to develop skills that are complementary to technology rather than ones that can be easily replaced by it. And we will need to be creating new products and services to employ the people who are being liberated from routine work by automation and software.
The winners won't just be those with more IQ. It will also be those with more PQ (passion quotient) and CQ (curiosity quotient) to leverage all the new digital tools to not just find a job, but to invent one or reinvent one, and to not just learn but to relearn for a lifetime.
Government must help, but the president needs to explain that this won't just be an era of "Yes We Can." It will also be an era of "Yes You Must."
First Published January 31, 2013 12:00 am