Forward to the Age of Scale

Below is an unedited preview of the “foreword” to The Age of Scale, the book I’m writing about technology and change.

On a breezy morning 5,000 years ago, someone stepped into a boat, raised a sail, and glided over the horizon, moved only by the wind. The Age of Sail began quietly, but the world would never be the same. Fortunes would be won and lost; empires built and ruined; science, culture, and learning spread between the four corners of the earth — as well as disease, bigotry, and war. Entire civilizations would be connected, met, and destroyed — all because someone tied a sheet of cloth to a spar of wood that day, and learned to sail.

The technology could hardly have been perfect: technology never is. Sailboats always feel dodgy — fragile and improvised — more a floating collection of hacks caulked together with guesses and wishful thinking than a technology, per se. Even the best designed ships seem to be forever poised at the edge of catastrophe: so unpredictable is nature and so immense are the forces at play. But when it works, as it must have on that day — wind water, and sail balanced in harmony — the result can feel like perfection. Divine.

I imagine the sailor pushing away from the shore that day, her tension melting with relief for a moment as the breeze snaps the sail into shape and the boat accelerates beneath her. A crowd watches from the shore and she nods to them, as sailors do.

But the crowd, for the most part, glares back with hostility and skepticism.

Hostility because change is always a threat to someone’s status quo. A sail is a fist raised above a social order: millennia of habits and relationships established with the assumption that boats — and in them, goods, people, and information — move in a certain way, at a certain speed, under the control of certain people. And skepticism, with a tinge of annoyance, because most new ideas fail, over and over again, and then, like children, they are successful in ways that are difficult to understand and control.

It probably would have been hard to notice what happened that day as a breakthrough — as the breakthrough — and even harder to predict where it would lead. What they saw from the shore was probably a subtle change, one of many tweaks dating back as far as anyone could remember. And even if the new sail was perfect, and recognized as such, its design could only be adopted and spread so quickly: sailcloth took time to weave — by hand; boats would need to be modified, new tools invented and built — new business relationships and social conventions as well. There were no manuals back then, nothing that we would call a distribution network; no MBAs or consultants with status reports and PowerPoint presentations — there probably wasn’t even literacy where these changes took place. There were limits to how fast the idea of sailing could scale, as we would say today. The Age of Sail would come, but slowly: it would take another three or four thousand years to really arrive.

Three or four thousand years seems like a long time to bring an idea to maturity, but that was probably fast compared to the kind of change we grew up with as a species: incremental, gradual, and slow. Very, very slow. Slow to a degree that we today can barely imagine today. We were trained, as a species, on the savannas of Africa, exquisitely adapted over millions of years to succeed there, in that particular environment: hunting in small groups; living short lives; fearful in the dark of night. All else is relatively new by comparison, an experiment, and one that’s getting weirder by the minute.

How weird? Imagine how we would have felt, 5,000 years ago, if our sailor put to sea and returned a few weeks later standing at the helm of a beautiful Dutch schooner. Schooners were a popular ship design in the 17th century. Such ships were typically 50 meters long with three 20 meter masts and seven graceful sails. A schooner could move at 14 knots for days upon end, across entire oceans. Such a vessel would have been as far removed from the technology of 5,000 years ago as the International Space Station is from twig floating down a stream, but imagine if it just…arrived. And then, just when we started to get used to the schooner — just when the boat builders, merchants and sailors got over their initial shock and the local authorities brought their first schooner committee meeting to order — what if our sailor left for the day, and returned on…a steamship? And then ten of them. And then a month after that, she sails away and returns with an armada of nuclear submarines — imagine the reaction she’d get from the shore then.

But that’s the kind of change we’re experiencing now: exponential, fast, continuous; global in scale, accelerating in speed, and enormous in scope. Anyone likely to be reading this book has already seen more of this change in their lifetime — of broader scope, larger scale, and faster speed — than our ancestors saw in hundreds, thousands, or even tens of thousands of years. And even though this kind of change is happening all around us, every day, we seem as unprepared to recognize and harness it — to discuss, manage, and shape it — as the crowd on the shore was when they saw a sailboat for the first time 5,000 years ago.

And we’re just getting started — just beginning to chart the surface of what will come. Driven by the Internet and ongoing, exponential growth in the capabilities of computer systems, a strange and challenging future is emerging unlike anything we’ve ever experienced or prepared for. This is not speculation or hyperbole. Large parts of this future have already arrived. It is, as the saying goes, already here.

There are 7 billion active mobile phones in the world today, one for every human being on earth, and almost half of humanity, 3.7 billion people, are connected to the Internet, with the rest soon to follow. By design, each connection to the Internet confers the right to both consume what’s there and to contribute something new. Nanotechnology, materials science, and 3d printing are converging to enable new kinds of manufacturing and the creation of new kinds of matter; biotechnology, artificial intelligence, and robotics are converging to give us the power to manipulate genomes, re-program the function of living cells and bridge the divide between humans and machines; cheap, ubiquitous sensors and computer-based controllers are making these capabilities available to billions of people, largely without interference or oversight from governments or institutions; and behind it all the requirements of civilization—the drive to make and enjoy culture, the demands and opportunities of globalization, and the pressure of environmental change, to name a few—are like a ticking clock, a faint heartbeat in the background reminding us, when we choose to listen, that this challenging, change-filled future is not an abstraction without consequences. It is happening to us now. It is our life, and it is all that we will ever know.

So what should we do?

* * *

For most of my adult life I worked in a place that can most conveniently be called a museum, though it is much more than that. The Smithsonian Institution is the world’s largest museum and research complex. It has 6,000 employees, 28 museums and research centers, and a zoo. The Smithsonian plays midwife to baby pandas, it flies satellites in outer space for NASA, and it entertains millions of visitors a year in its monumental buildings in New York City and Washington, DC. And all of this activity — all of the effort, expertise, infrastructure, and the $1.3 billion expense of keeping it all going every year is marshaled to advance the brilliant and enduring mission proposed by its founder, James Smithson, over 160 years ago: “The increase and diffusion of knowledge.” It’s a big mission, and a remarkable place.

Big missions require all kinds of work from all kinds of people. My part started over 25 years ago when the Smithsonian was kind enough to hire me as a young, starving artist, to contribute in perhaps the only way I was qualified; cleaning Plexiglas cases for exhibits. Once I proved my abilities there (cleaning Plexiglas is harder than it looks), I became interested in computers, and I was gradually allowed to spend time working on what has turned out to be an ongoing series of open-ended questions about how people use technology to work together and get things done.

Initially, people was my immediate coworkers; technology was a handful of pitiful beige IBM computers; and work was whatever we happened to be doing before technology came along to make things harder, as in, “Why do I need to learn word processing when there’s a perfectly good typewriter sitting on the desk next to me?”

As with the sailboat of 5,000 years ago, the technology was so imperfect at first — such an awkward juxtaposition of expensive boxes, mystical knowledge, and luck that none of us really knew if we could even keep the whole thing running from day-to-day, let alone where it would lead. The server, for example, was exotic and god-like to us, sacrosanct, though for some reason we kept it under a folding table in the copy room where its enormous, howling fans attracted mountains of fibrous dust from throughout the building, 24 hours a day. Occasionally, a cleaning crew would unplug the server to free up an electrical outlet for their floor buffing machine. The network was connected with miles of waxy, black coaxial cable so stiff and heavy that we could have used it to tow a barge, and I remember using a fax machine to order critical software upgrades that would arrive a week or two later in the mail, on stacks of floppy disks held together with rubber bands. We knew the whole system was lame and buggy even then: If ever a technology was going to take a few thousand years to reach its potential, this was surely it. But the technology improved, and so did we.

I hesitate to say the improvements came quickly. It certainly didn’t feel like it at the time. In the rhythm of our daily lives we seemed to be forever tinkering: on hold with tech support somewhere, restoring accidentally deleted files, staring helplessly at screens full of cryptic error codes, or attempting to reassure skeptical or hostile colleagues that all of the disruption and change would be worth it someday. Day-by-day our progress felt too slow and small to be significant, but over longer periods of time it was almost too fast and momentous to perceive.

In a matter of years, not millennia — but years, our pitiful beige computers became pitiful black computers — then smartphones and Macbooks; text commands and function keys became mice and windows — then gestural interfaces and voice commands; floppy disks became CD-ROMs and thumb drives — then the cloud. And on one fateful day, though we barely knew what it meant at the time, our small, isolated network was connected to the Internet, and we quietly became part of something a million times more powerful than we could ever be on our own.

Which brings me to the topic of this book.

I no longer clean Plexiglas for a living (I miss it) but 25 years later I’m still asking the same open-ended questions about how people use technology to work together and get things done. And like a thread you start pulling on, only to unravel an entire garment, my understanding of what people, technology, and work should encompass has grown in scope from a small group of my immediate colleagues to encompass almost everyone and everything in the world.

Because it’s all changed. All of it.

The technology, once weak, exotic, and difficult, is now pervasive, accessible, and powerful beyond our wildest imagination. The people, once just you, me, and whoever else was close at hand can now include almost anyone on earth. And so the work, defined, constrained and liberated as it has always been by the capabilities of our tools and the skill and energy of our collaborators, can change as well.

What we choose to do; how and how quickly we can do it; who we work with; who benefits, how much they benefit — and even what we dream it is possible and necessary to accomplish in the first place can all be re-imagined now. Yesterday we went out on a sailboat and this morning we came back on a rocket ship.

But most people haven’t noticed, and even fewer have taken action. Change is here, but it arrived in a way that fooled our senses and makes it difficult to find our bearings and chart a course. And though this is a big challenge it is one that I think we can solve and I am full of hope.

Somewhere on the shore that day, 5,000 years ago, among the hostile and skeptical onlookers the there were a few curious and open-minded individuals. They weren’t threatened by what they saw: they were captivated. To them, a sailboat was a challenge; the start of something new. And as they watched the first sail take shape in the breeze and the boat move towards the horizon, in their hearts they became sailors too—travelers to new lands unreachable by older, slower ships.

And there were also children in the crowd that day, and the young-at-heart. There are always children on the shore when boats are put to sea. When they saw the sailboat for the first time they understood it in an instant and embraced it in their minds as fact — as if sailing had always been. For children, so used to seeing new things — learning, testing, discovery, and play — a sailboat wasn’t an innovation; it wasn’t a threat to the status quo or an insult to their traditions. It just was. And from that moment on, they were sailors too. And those children, and their children, and the generations moving forward from that day would refine and advance the technology, build, navies, merchant fleets, bigger sails, faster, leaner ships. They would try new things, succeed and fail, and their societies would adjust to the consequences, both good and bad, planned and unforeseen. They would change the world in ways they never expected.

And we will too.

Welcome to the Age of Scale.