Incredible Future

Wriston, Walter B.


Incredible Future by Walter B. Wriston for Executive Excellence


The future is always unbelievable because we extrapolate from what we know and are always surprised by the totally new.

In Seattle, the home of aerospace, biotech, and software giants, it's almost amusing to recall that none of these huge businesses was foreseen by the experts of yesterday.

Just 25 years ago, there were no pocket calculators, no personal computers, CAT-scanners, no supersonic jets, no genetic engineering or fiber optics. We're living in an age that will produce more change in a shorter time than in any previous era in history. Some 50 years ago, for example, astronomers could identify only two galaxies. Now we know there are over 2 billion. Every area of science and technology is undergoing radical change. Some estimates indicate that information is doubling every 18 months. Trying to make sense of all this will be a continuing challenge. The pace of change will only accelerate, as information technology will get both faster and more pervasive.

Information technology has demolished time and distance, but instead of validating Orwell's vision of big brother watching the citizen, just the reverse has happened; the citizen is watching big brother. And so the virus of freedom, for which there is no antidote, is spread by myriad electronic networks worldwide.

The inventions that made possible the information revolution changed the way we solve problems. When Gutenberg pioneered movable type printing in Europe about 1438 and when the group at Intel designed the integrated circuit in the 1970s, the way we record, store, access and peruse knowledge made a quantum leap forward and affected not only how we do our jobs, but what we do.

In modern terms Gutenberg broke the monopoly of the monks who copied manuscripts by hand and guarded them jealously. They clearly understood that knowledge was power and thus not to be lightly dispensed. In some places the books were chained to the shelves. Contrast that mind-set with the fact that a kid with a computer and a modem sitting anywhere in the world can tap into the database of the Library of Congress, the Bibliotheque de France, the British Library, or search the catalogs of thousands of other libraries. From the beginning, power has been based on information. Timely information has always conferred power both in the commercial and the political marketplace.

The dissemination of once closely held information to huge numbers of people who didn't have it before often upsets existing power structures. Today, 99 percent of the computing power sits collectively on the world's desktop (and laptop) computers. This explosion of information combined with the speed with which it is transferred across what were once defended sovereign borders has changed the perception of what constitutes wealth--what it is, how it is generated, used and saved. This shifting perception is a common thread that runs through the major upheavals in world history.

  • This document was created from the article, "Incredible Future" by Walter B. Wriston for the November 1995 edition of "Executive Excellence." The original article is located in MS134.003.028.00015.
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