The Failed Understanding of the Information Age

Note: this is a crazy rant I had lying around on my Notepad that I worked on in transit

It’s good to be back a while in my home country, the European-average Netherlands. Since last December I’m renting a pimping sublet in the center of Amsterdam. The owners are trying to pursue their dream in Hollywood (good luck!) and I’m guarding their purple walled pimpmobile. Unfortunately, they cancelled their DSL subscription last month which I found out only recently. As soon as I could I called the DSL company and asked to ‘take over their subscription’, but unfortunately that was a naive dream of mine. Procedure dictates that the DSL modem has to be sent back by the old customer, I would be treated as a new customer and receive a new DSL modem (probably the same one). No mechanic has to show up. Average time of delivery: five weeks.. FIVE WEEKS Yes Sir, there is a mandatory one week ‘are you sure’ period mandated by the government and four weeks is “the normal waiting period”.

So now, as an internet refugee, I’m writing this in the library of the Utrecht University campus. Working here is awesome, there are huge tables and spaces. Beautiful modern architecture that inspires creativity. All funded by the government as part of their plan to make the Netherlands ‘Kennisland’ (Knowledge-land). All of this makes me think… Does the Dutch Government really understand the changes happening in the world? To them, a knowledge economy seems to mean moving away from relying on industrial output and stimulating a service industry with highly educated workers. But aren’t they missing something?

The Age of Extremistan

One of the biggest changes happening in our world today is the shift away from the physical (industrial era) to the informational (information era). Yes, it is now possible to generate tremendous amounts of value all virtual. How is that possible? Simply think about a car factory. The car factory started with big groups of humans assembling every little component, later things got automated more and more and now programming robots is much more valuable than touching any material objects. Factories are becoming more modular too, with generic purposes machines that can shape objects based on 3D CAD-designs. Now imagine the most generic purpose assembling device, yes! It’s the Star Trek Food Dispenser! :-] Science fiction or not, molecular manufacturing will be the end of the true end of the Industrial Age. It’s all nanotechnology from there. And as these changes happen, more and more physical objects will become informational.

As more and more things get informational, new laws apply. Information behaves very different than physical objects, but is unfortunately often treated the same. The current shake-up of the music industry is a great example of how traditional models of scarcity fail. Kevin Kelley explains it well in his essay that asserts that everything that can be copied will drop in value.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb in his book The Black Swan makes a distinction between Mediocrestan and Extremistan, respectively meaning the physical and informational worlds of probability. Extremistan has the tendency to be much more volatile, quicker changing and unpredictable.

It’s the activity that matters

One thing that bothers me about the collapse of the financial industry is that people scream ‘back to basic’, and shift their focus back to the tangible. Complex financial instruments are not necessarily bad, massive speculation without transparency IS.

People fail to understand that every industry is essentially a bubble and has a limited lifespan. The music industry is a great example. There was a time, in the beginning of it’s forming where a pop-artist could produce one hit song and live a luxury life for the rest of their life. After a while, this was becoming an expectation throughout the entire music industry. But now that money can no longer be charged for the actual content, the sector is imploding. In other words, you need to constantly work your ass off to make a buck. Perform, sign t-shirts, engage constantly…

Every industry has a lifespan that is based on technology, in it’s early stage people can make money in a highly scalable way (one day fly), but there comes a point where constant change (creative input) is necessary. Every industry!

And guess what, while the pace of innovation is speeding up, industries and companies will have ever shortening life spans. (Check out my crazy illustration below 🙂

What can organizations do?

The real competitive advantage for any (corporate) entity is the ability to change. As things are speeding up and markets expand and contract more rapidly, it’s all about being agile. This means that larger organizations are at a disadvantage.

  • Move away from a monolithic structure to a fabric of smaller cells that work autonomously
  • Give those cells more responsibility and shift to an ‘entrepreneurial workforce’
  • Destroy the clustering of specialization, every cell should have multiple disciplines
  • Provide the cells with extreme communication tools
  • Abolish salaries, be more like an incubator
  • Embrace new technology like never before

What can Governments do?

(Image courtesy of the Long Now Foundation)

If Governments really want to succeed in the information era, they need to provide the tools for rapid change. Stimulate velocity at all costs. This will require radical change and cut-throat free market capitalism. Yeah, I said it!

  • Invest heavily in digitizing all public services, most importantly: Tax bureaucracy, Chamber of Commerce
  • Make sure you can register and dissolve corporate entities within seconds (through an API)
  • Invest heavily in both digital and physical infrastructure
  • Reward taking risk and entrepreneurship, at cost of social welfare
  • Give up taxes on many things. Already, the Dutch Government doesn’t tax ‘electronic services delivered to non-European countries’. Added informational value is hard to understand and will only get more complicated in the future.

Coming from a European country and having written some of my crazy ideas here I realize that it’s going to be a bumpy road. Governments, especially European ones, will move incredibly slowly.

In a way that’s sad, because the changes our world is going through will require some serious governance. Bio and nano- technology can have monstrous consequences when not controlled correctly. Things might become crazy – sooner than we think :]