Presentation Outline

The Challenge of Ever-Accelerating Change
Finding Inner Wisdom in Uncertain Times

Peter Russell


We all experience how the pace of change is speeding up, but seldom do we step back to look at where this acceleration is taking us, and how to cope with the impact it will have on our lives.

The last half-century has seen unprecedented change–television, satellites, nuclear power, jet travel, fax machines, portable phones–all contributing to a speeding in the pace of change. Yet this acceleration is not a just twentieth century phenomenon. The world of fifty years ago was much faster than the world of 500 years ago when the Renaissance was just beginning and Copernicus dared suggest the Earth was spinning round the sun. The pace of change 500 years ago was much faster than it was 5,000 years ago at the dawn of civilization. And change then was much faster than it was 50,000 years ago. This accelerating pattern goes all the way back to the emergence of life itself. Charting evolution of life on Earth up the side of New York’s World Trade Center, we see how significant developments have occurred in ever-shorter times, and the current epoch corresponds to the thickness of the coat of paint on the top of this quarter-mile high tower.

There are two reasons for this acceleration. The first is positive feedback. The more complexity that is created, the easier it is for more complexity to emerge. When we moved from the Industrial Age into the Information Age we did not have to re-invent factories or mass distribution. That expertise had already been gained; we had simply to apply it to computers. Now this new technology is faciilitating a rapid development in almost all areas of life.

The second reason that the pace of change is speeding up is somewhat ironical. We are trying to speed things up. No one ever made money from an invention that slowed things down–sucha s a 10 Mhz chip. We are continually striving to get more done faster. Twenty years ago social commentators were forecasting that information technology would lead to a "Leisure Society." Where did it go? We’ve used our new technologies not to give us more time, but to pack more and more in to the time we have, driven by the belief that the more we do the happier we’ll be.

Whether we like it or not, the pace of change is going to keep increasing. Extrapolating Moore’s law in computing, we find that by the year 2020 your $1000 computer will have the processing power of the human brain, and virtual reality will be as familiar as the web is today. Biotechnology will have revolutionized medicine, and led to many unexpected breakthroughs, possible extending life far beyond current expectations. And nanotechnology will be creating its own revolution in manufacturing.

Twenty years is only half the time period since the sixties. Yet more change is likely in those next twenty years than occurred over the last 200 years. If we could see just 20 years into the future our new technologies would seem like magic–just as a CD would have been magic to Mozart.

The faster change comes, the harder it is to predict the future. In fact we’ve never been very good at predicting the future. In 1893 a group of thinkers at the Chicago World Trade Fair were asked to predict the world a hundred years in the future. They got just about everything wrong. About the only thing they were correct about was the spread of the telephone, predicting that by 1993 there would then be a telephone in every city–not one in almost very pocket. Similarly, in our own lifes, many experts have vastly underestimated the full impact of computing.

Forty years ago, when I first started working with computers (an 8K machine that filled an office and took 20 minutes to boot up each day), few even foresaw the networking of computers. Twenty years ago, when I wrote The Global Brain, forecasting the growth of the Internet, no one foresaw how profoundly the net would affect our lives. And how many of us, just five years ago, when we were probably first coming to terms with e-mail and the Internet would have predicted where the web would be today? How then can we make any reliable predictions about where it will be in 5 years time–or, given the acceleration in change–in even 3 years time? We are always trapped by our current mindsets; it is impossible to see the inventions and discoveries that are yet to come.

So how do we cope with an increasingly unpredictable world? How can we prepare ourselves as the winds of change whip up into a storm of change? Some hints can be found from how trees withstand a storm.

First a tree needs to be flexible; not to resist the wind but to bend with it. To move with the flow of change we need to be able to let go of past assumptions and learn to think afresh. Taking time is essential. As change pushes us to make more decisions faster and faster, it becomes increasingly important not to fall into the trap of rushing our decisions. We often feel that the quicker we get a problem solved the better things will be. But this seldom leads to the best solution. Quality decisions require we slow down, sleep on it perhaps, and create the opportunity for insights and feelings to emerge in our awareness, .

We need to recognize how the creative process occurs and work with it rather than against it. When do most of us have our best ideas? In the shower, walking the dog, driving home, in the middle of the night. Seldom while we are at our desks struggling with a problem. But what do most of us do when faced with a problem? Seldom do we pause and say maybe I should take a shower or take the dog for a walk; usually we try harder and harder to get to resolve the issue. Yet not trying may be the very thing that would help us most.

Second, if a tree is to withstand a storm it needs strong roots to keep it stable. If we lose our inner equanimity and react emotionally to every new change we will become increasingly stressed, and, as change accelerates, be more prone to burnout. This is most obvious amongst people I know in Silicon Valley where the pressures of rapid change are the greatest. Taking time for ourselves is becoming ever more important. We need to find ways to give ourselves quality downtime, some way to unwind from the increasing busy-ness of our lives. Time to put things in perspective; to recognize that much of the time our "doing" mode of thinking stops us getting what we really want–peace of mind.

How many of us, for example, get stressed by traffic jams? Actually, none of us do. A traffic jam does not that have that power. All it can do is stop cars from moving. If you are feeling stressed it is because the voice in your head (the voice of fear) is telling you what will happen if you are delayed. "I’ll miss the appointment; I’ll lose the deal." "I’ll be late home; my partner will be upset." It is this that is triggering the stress response. Someone else sitting in exactly the same traffic could be saying to themselves "This is just the situation I’ve been wishing for all day. No boring meetings to sit through; nobody coming with their problems for me to solve; no computers alerting me to yet another e-mail. I can sit back and relax." One person getting a step closer to a heart attack; the other taking a step toward better health. And the difference is not in what is going on around them, but in what is going on inside their heads. This is the wisdom we need to help us cope with increasing pressure and change. And it is not a new wisdom. The Greek philosopher Epicitus wrote nearly two thousand years ago: "People are disturbed not by things, but by the view they take of them."

Third, a tree needs other trees. My cottage in England is in the middle of a large forest. In storms I hear the wind in the treetops, but the trees around me are still and safe. Similarly, we need the support and companionship of others. The future is uncharted territory, and we will all feel vulnerable at times, or in need of an friendly ear. In most organizations today we are expected to check our feelings at the door. You are meant to be working hard, with a good reasoning mind, not caught up in feelings. Yet feelings contain a wealth of hidden information, and if left unexpressed can fester and disturb an otherwise healthy team. Again time is important. To put some time aside at the beginning of any meeting to check how people are feeling can be the best lubricant for any team process. In one company I was working with, the CEO took the risk of sharing his feelings on a critical issue with the rest of the board. At first they were astonished that the CEO should express such vulnerability, but once they understood the reasons, they got behind him and saved the company.

In conclusion, those who will best survive and even thrive in the coming times are those who learn to take back some of the time that accelerating change is taking away. We need to reclaim quality time to think, to rest, to allow ideas to bubble and to let feelings surface. Time to nurture our relationships–both at home and at work. Our culture has developed a remarkable mastery of the material world around us; it is time now to develop a similar mastery of the inner world of mind. This is the next great frontier, not outer space, but inner space.