Welcome to the Age of Acceleration

Exploding and imploding markets, instant innovation, “killer” applications: Disruption is a feature of Digtal Enlightenment, not a bug, as Ossi Urchs and I argue in the sixth of ten theses in our book Digital Enlightenment Now!

Thesis 6: Digitalization and networking inevitably lead to massive acceleration and disruption in technology and media. They are impossible to control; all we can do is hang on and enjoy the ride.

Prices in the age of digitalization and networking are destined to fall, not simply because of innovation and market economics. Together, these factors lead to dramatic acceleration in the areas of technology and media. It took approximately 350 years for Guttenberg’s invention of the printing press to give us the first mass-circulation newspapers in the early 19th century. It took the World Wide Web only five years to grow from the brainchild of Tim Berners-Lee into the largest “mass medium” the world has ever seen. And it took only three years for mobile devices to change the way consumers in the U.S. and Europe, but especially in Asia and Latin America access and use the Internet.

Welcome to the Age of Acceleration, where technology and media evolve so fast that business models can’t keep up and in which established products and players can become outdated almost overnight. The term “disruption” perfectly describes what happens if businesses encounter innovation and rule changes that happen so fast they can no longer keep up. In 1942, the Austria economist Josef Schumpeter[1] described what he called “creative destruction” as “a process of industrial mutation that incessantly revolutionizes the economic structure from within, incessantly destroying the old one, incessantly creating a new one.” Nowhere has he been proven right more dramatically than in the Internet Age, where “normal” markets suddenly explode in a burst of innovative dynamism, in the process rewriting the rules and forcing established brands and corporate giants to adapt – or die!

The iPhone is probably the best example to such a “disruptive technology”, allowing Apple to redefine the world market for mobile telephones and pushing long-established leaders like Nokia and Research In Motion (makers of the Blackberry handsets) to the wall. In less than three years Apple catapulted itself from a newcomer to a market leader and in the process “invented” a completely new mass market, namely the mobile Internet. Formerly the domain of a few techie geeks, online mobility has become an everyday fact of life, spawning an entire industry where suppliers, accessory vendors and service providers ply their businesses. More importantly, the iPhone has created an entirely new lifestyle; one that has influenced the lives and the self-esteem of millions around the world. Today, the iPhone has been described as the “Swiss army knife of the digital age”: an all-purpose tool for all things digital, and more importantly the “original” (something actually counterintuitive in the digital world) that others can only try to emulate.

However, it would be both presumptuous and wide-eyed to think we could accurately predict such disruptive markets (although this hardly discourages so-called futurologists and trend scouts from trying). Twenty years ago, anyone crazy enough to predict that texting would one day become the “killer application” of the worldwide mobile phone industry would have been laughed out of the conference room. And the same applies for those who believe they can “handle” disruption. The histories of enterprises such as IBM, Siemens, Nokia and Sony prove that only those who are able to reinvent themselves in a disruptive situation can hope to survive: In the Age of Acceleration there is no such thing as a second chance.

[1] Josef Schumpeter: Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy, Routledge; New Ed edition (1994)

BoD DENThe ten theses are at the center of our book, Digital Enlightenment Now!, that was recently published on BoD. I am reprinting them here as a mini-series to encourage debate among DEF members.

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