New Technologies for the 21st Century
by Thomas P. Doherty, Futurist
[based on presentations and publications in 1988]
- New Technologies for the 21st Century
by Thomas P. Doherty, Futurist
These are exciting times. We are witnessing a major transformation in society, the likes of which have not been seen for over 400 years. Change in our society is inevitable, but the changes we are now experiencing are of a far greater magnitude than those our parents and grandparents experienced. When Gutenberg combined the elements of the printing press, metallurgy, new inks and movable type in 1457, he had invented an efficient system of mass production of books at 1/1000 the cost of a scribe. His new information technology of the day had a dramatic impact on that society.
Similarly, today and into the next century, the change in the way we deal with information is the most significant transformation seen since Gutenberg. The key technological change driving this information revolution is the dramatic lowering of the cost of computer power, which is cut in half every 18 months. As a result, everyone will have instant access to the world's common knowledge, practically cost-free information (words, numbers, calculations, video, etc.). Globally, everyone will be on an even playing field with everyone else.
This "cheap instant data" will have profound impacts in every facet of your personal and business lives. In exploring what might happen, I see these first order effects:
To these, I have added a few of many possible second, third and fourth order changes. It is noteworthy that any change is a double-edged sword ... there are always pros and cons!
Enhanced communications will give everyone instant access to the world's knowledge and the capability to instantly share any new knowledge globally. Rapid computations and instant data analysis will allow smart machines to make smart products in small lots with extremely high productivity. Virtual-reality simulations will lead to consumers interactively designing and demanding tailor-made products that could even cost less than mass produced products, because only those materials needed for a specific task will be required. Panasonic is already producing tailor-made bicycles this way. While the basic bicycle building blocks are mass produced, the final cutting and assembly are customized.
How long will all this change take? Quite a while. Any technological change that causes major social change takes at least a generation, because this kind of change requires a restructuring of human behavior. The first users need a reason to make a change. Usually that reason is not economical. The new product often costs more and few know how to use it. Many, however, will remain stuck in their old ways, and only their deaths or retirements will shift the balance to those who are more familiar with the new ways.
Technological change is relatively easy to forecast using accurate historical data and patterns of progress. Once change begins, most often it proceeds at a predictable orderly rate, sector by sector, slowly transforming a whole society and can be tracked using simple and powerful trend analysis techniques. With a few tricks of the trade you can recognize technological and social change as it occurs. The larger the institution, the more entrenched and the more resistant it is to change. Therefore, large institutions like governments, the Roman Catholic church and Fortune 500 multinational corporations are usually the last to change.
All our purchasing decisions are simply choices among 7 basic need categories (food,
clothing, housing, medicine, transportation, personal business and recreation) which hold
remarkably constant, as % of the whole, year after year. Each new product in a given
category simply satisfies the consumer's need better, usually at a lower price; and is just
a substitute for an old product in the same category. Trends satisfying basic human needs
seldom end. When a mature technology approaches an absolute limit, new technologies take
over. It really doesn't matter which technology is satisfying our need, we just need to
focus on what need is being satisfied better or cheaper or both and its rate of improvement. Then we can define what a new technology brings to the market and predict and how good it has to be when.
When a new technology (or a new way of life) begins to replace an existing technology without a major change in function, the substitution tends to go to completion at a constant, forcastable rate. One very slow takeover is the substitution of paper & ink communications by electronics. For such a huge social transformation as this, several generations are needed for people to convert from reading newspapers and books to becoming couch potatoes, and then change again into interactive negotiators of the information highway.
Basic technological innovations are inventions (or discoveries) which have been put into practice and subsequently had powerful economic consequences that started new industries or transformed existing ones. These innovations, usually arising from inventions occurring as much as one-half century before, tend not to occur gradually but within a ten year period every 45-60 years. Right now we are at the end of the second surge of innovation in this century. After each innovation wave, the world is dramatically different.
Putting inflation into perspective: superinflations, such as we have just lived through, have occurred only about every 400 years over the last 1000 years, usually followed by a large explosion of knowledge. There have also been many periods of deflation. Most common is no inflation at all! The power of cheap instant data is finally being harnessed into a productivity surge that shall eventually minimize inflation as a concern.
In summary, change is inevitable. We will demand more and more for less and less. New ways will substitute for old ways in a predictable and orderly fashion, often taking a generation. Cheap instant data will cause massive societal changes impacting every discipline. Businesses still caught in the old paradigm of mass production and economies of scale will continue to lose market share. The factory of the future will rely on information flows, rather than labor, to make quality tailor-made products just in time. Our task is to figure out what is happening in our world and how these changes will impact us.
Thomas P. Doherty is an independent futurist specializing in tailored presentations, technological and social trend forecasting, strategic planning and futures research. Additionally, he is a technical consultant and technical editor for the National Textile Center, a professional genealogical researcher and president of the Delaware Genealogical Society. Tom earned a Ph.D. in organic chemistry from the University of Illinois, then joined DuPont where he had a 25-year technical career in textiles and technology forecasting. He can be reached at
3321 N Rockfield Dr, Devonshire
Wilmington DE 19810-3238
Telephone: (302) 478-4758
FAX : (302)-479-9595 [telephone first so computer can be turned on]
World Wide Web home page:
Thomas P. Doherty -
July 8, 1997 - comments to: firstname.lastname@example.org