New Technology Requires A Shift In Viewpoint
DAVID D. THORNBURG
As we enter the last decade of the twentieth century, it's clear that our lives have undergone significant changes in the past ten years. Nowhere is this more evident than in business. External changes—the decline of our aging manufacturing base and the rise of the service sector—mask more fundamental changes that strike the very heart of all businesses, large and small, manufacturing and service-based. These changes affect how we do our jobs, and they change our expectations about our work environment.
To a large extent, these changes have been facilitated by technology. For example, the almost universal access to inexpensive calculators has eliminated the mechanical slide rule on the engineer's belt. The photocopier. The word processor has changed the job of the secretary who, in many cases, has accepted new responsibilities that go far beyond typing.
Now that computers have become indispensable desk accessories, we can see the forces that have set in motion the next phase of our technological development.
The nineteenth-century industrial model that provided the foundation for our growth was connected to a prevailing paradigm based on Newtonian physics—that is, the notion that, like a falling body, the movement of markets could be predicted and that business would be attracted to the strong center provided by the industrial giants.
As the twentieth century progressed, we underwent a revision in our model of the universe, in which Newton's ideas broke down on close inspection. Einstein's notion of mass as energy, Bohr's ideas on the duality of waves and particles, and Heisenberg's principle regarding the inherent uncertainty of quantum events all forever destroyed the clockwork universe epitomized by classical physics.
This paradigm shift in physics is now being reflected in business. Technology, of course, is making this transformation possible, but it is the shift in our perspective that is critical. To see this, imagine a quantum experiment in which a photon (light particle) is directed to a diffraction grating. When it hits the grating, it behaves like a wave and is sent off in a new direction. Our traveling photon then may hit a photocell, where it will be detected as a particle. Depending on its interaction with other objects, the photon can behave like a wave or like a particle.
Now take a look at modern business communication, using a fax machine as an example. The document starts in one office in particle form (as a sheet of paper). It is then placed on the fax machine, where its information is sent as electronic signals (as waves) to the receiving machine, on which it then reappears as a physical sheet of paper (in particle form). Contrast this form of communication with the older Newtonian pure particle model, in which a letter is placed in an envelope and is sent through the mail. As the cost of carrying physical mail has increased, the cost of electronic transmission has decreased, making the new process less expensive than the old one. As a side benefit, a message can be faxed halfway around the world in less than a minute. As millions of inexpensive fax machines are purchased every year, the Newtonian postal service runs the real risk of losing its high-profit first-class mail to this electronic technology.
Another characteristic of the new physics is that time, space, and matter coexist and interrelate in subtle ways. From the perspective of relativity theory, we see the office in a new light. Thousands of people have decided that their office is wherever they happen to be at the moment. Airplane cabins have been turned into airborne offices. Some people are listening to recorded courses on goal achievement, others are working with their laptop computers, and still others are on the telephone. The home office now exists at 30,000 feet and is moving at close to the speed of sound.
When laptop computers first came out, they were regarded as toys. The Tandy Model 100 and its early NEC counterpart may look pale compared with today's products, but the success of this market has had less to do with technology than with attitudes. The original personal computer of the 1970s was personal in ownership but not in use. The computer was on a desk, not in your immediate possession. Today's laptops and palmsized machines are truly personal. You can use them at a desk, on an airplane, or while you're sitting under a tree
Along with the rise of the truly personal computer, we've seen advances in the area of compact hand-held copiers. And Motorola's newest cellular phone looks more like the hand-held communicator from "Star Trek" than the bulky cellular portables of the past. One's computer, calculator, telephone, and copier can now fit in an attaché case.
In thinking about the impact of technology in your business, think less about the hardware and more about the prevailing paradigms of physics. There will be a lot of changes in the next decade, and you can benefit from them if you keep your imagination alive.