What I've Come/Am Coming to Believe

Be warned! What follows is disorganized and half-assed! In a recent post, I provided a reading list of sorts. I am a voracious reader—but in the last few months my voraciousness has turned to frenzy. In 2012, I may have closed off a chapter with the publication of a 23-part,4096-slide fully annotated presentation of, de facto, “everything I know,” which we call MOAP/Mother Of All Presentations—you’ll find it, available for free downloading, at excellencenow.com. As the culmination of that effort occurred, happenstance led me to Seoul for a speech on 14 June 2012. The concomitant conference was grandly called “World Strategy Forum/The New Rules: Reframing Capitalism.” I was the only keynoter who was not a finance minister or former finance minister or prime minister or former prime minister or prominent (e.g., Nobel-level) economist. I humbly came at the gargantuan issue from the perspective of “the work itself”—my life’s work for 30+ years. I felt at sea, and did not really find my thoughts coagulating until I got home. The immediate product was a draft 10-page paper which I titled “‘Reframing Capitalism’: A 15-Point Human Capital Development Manifesto/HCDM at the Enterprise & National Government Level.” (I have included that draft as an Appendix to this brief paper—my conclusions as of June, as you will see if you read the Appendix, have been significantly altered by what has transpired between my ears in the subsequent six months.) Upon completing the attached post-conference draft, the aforementioned reading binge began in earnest—launched with a re-reading of Ray Kurzweil’s mind-zapping The Singularity Is Near. Subsequently, I guess I could say I’ve been indulging in the “futurist game”—something that I have typically avoided like the plague itself. But at some point, one must put the books aside and see if one can figure out what one thinks. Hence, the brief (remember, disorganized and half-assed) paper attached is a scribbling. For me, this means stream-of-consciousness scribbling, which appears from thin air after life-to-date plus an intense recent regimen of provocative reading. I decided to use 1 January 2013 as a punctuation mark, and to get something of some sort “up”—in this case at tompeters.com. So here it is, at least as much for me as for you:

*The power to invent (and execute) is switching/flipping rapidly/inexorably to the network. Commercial as well as personal affairs are singularly and collectively “migrating to the network.” Alliances of unimaginable complexity (as well as simple ones) are being formed, re-formulated, spurting to unimaginable size—and dying off—by the nanosecond. Any given organization, including rather new organizations, is “losing control” of its future by yesterday’s typically rigid standards. Acknowledging/ Embracing/Rejoicing in this and experimenting at a lightening fast pace with new/radically different forms of organizing (organiz-ing, not organization; it’s an “ing” world) is a survival necessity. Key word is “experimenting,” or, more accurately, “playing” with untrammeled vigor.

*As I and others have said in the past, the fluidity of the movie industry and professional services industry and construction industry are more or less traditional role models that actually “prove” the plausibility of today’s shapeshifting. The sorts of organizations that populate these industries have always lived with instability/fluidity/project-centrism; and the participants, from assistant grip to junior accountant to senior accountant to producer, have lived with these destabilizing characteristics. So there is much new under today’s sun, but perhaps some sea anchors from the past which suggest that one can survive—and thrive—in such inherently unstable settings. (Also, and this is a longtime bugbear of mine, fact is that, unseen or acknowledged by the “business guru class,” a sizeable share of the population has lived with uncertainty and “no guarantees” from start to finish of their professional lives—e.g., your local electrician and plumber!)

*The Internet must stay open and significantly unregulated to enable, among other things, the entrepreneurial spurt that will (and is the only thing that can) significantly underpin world economic growth. One imagines that those who enact significant restrictions will pay an extraordinary economic price. We are, of course, impaled on the horns of a dilemma. On the one hand, intellectual capital is the (only, more or less) coin of the realm; its value must therefore be protected—yet that value is only fully realized via the Net/networks which necessarily run roughshod over IP exclusivity.

*Entrepreneurial behavior and upstart entrepreneurial enterprises have underpinned every monster shift in the past, such as farm to factory. Traditional big businesses will probably survive for longer than the alarmists imagine—but many/most will become irrelevant, or disappear.

*But some giants will necessarily survive. For example, the information infrastructure must be robust; hence the basic utilities will likely need to reside in large, stable organizations—e.g., Microsoft de facto fulfilled such a role for 20 years as computing migrated to the desktop; what some called “unimaginative” was a necessary attribute for widespread, co-coordinated global adoption.

*While a Google may be a dominant player for a time, an obsession with (or even the existence of) a “Fortune 500” of more or less stable giants dictating “the way we do things” will likely become an artifact of the past.

*There is simply no limit to invention or entrepreneurial opportunities. We have not and will not ever run out of “wants.” Some may be appalled by this, but it is hard fact. The creation of a jillion quirky innovations associated with a revolutionary technology is eventually sorted to the point that there are a handful without which we cannot live—e.g., the electric power grid and global positioning systems and now the Internet.


In Race Against the Machine, MIT professors Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee put it this way, “We are in no danger of running out of new combinations to try. Even if technology froze today, we have more possible ways of configuring the different applications, machines, tasks, and distribution channels to create new processes and products than we could ever exhaust.” (Incidentally, the full title of the book is Race Against the Machine: How the Digital Revolution is Accelerating Innovation, Driving Productivity, and Irreversibly Transforming Employment and the Economy.)


*The new star bosses will be “wizards” or “maestros.” The chief skills of the chief-of-tomorrow will involve creating ethereal organizations to execute agreed-upon projects—from small to humongous. The projects as well as the data will live in something resembling “the cloud.” These “bosses” (who are not bosses by yesterday’s “command & control” standard) will get off on uncertainty and ambiguity and lightening-fast iterations and bushels of fast failures and rapid shapeshifting. (Slightly more traditional structures will be, I’d guess, required for the likes of logistics and various utilities—though logistics is obviously a network endeavor, subject to the plastic parameters of networking.)

*Sources of sustained profitability will often be elusive. An advanced barter economy is already emerging. The “CFO” job, like almost all others, will disappear as we’ve known it. “Profit gurus” will build business models and find ways to temporarily monetize (a term I used to loathe) the products of a network/set of networks. These Profit Gurus will have their own network—they more or less already do in the form of a host of flavors of venture capital. (Among other things, “angel” investors are of the utmost importance to an entrepreneurially activated economy.)

*Control and accountability will be a delicate dance. On the one hand, we need a “the buck stops here” process including appropriate regulation; on the other hand, the control system, too, will be significantly “emergent”—to a far greater degree than normal, projects will repeatedly redefine themselves as they progress and “Who’s in charge?”/”Who signs off?” will be unstable.

*Trial and error, many many many trials and many many many errors very very very rapidly will be the rule (think dotcom boom and bust—and, in fact, the incredibly valuable residual in terms of entrepreneurial training and ideas surfaced and approaches rejected); tolerance for rapid learning—and unlearning—will be a most valued skill. (FYI: “Gamers” instinctively “get” this—lots of trials, lots of errors as fast as possible—in ways their error-avoiding elders can only imagine; hence, for this reason among many, “the revolution” is/will be, to a very significant degree, led by youth.)

*Women may well flourish to the point of domination in new leadership roles in these emergent/ethereal settings that dominate the landscape—power will be exercised almost entirely indirectly, and will largely live in the network per se. Women, among other things, are “soft power” experts, more comfortable and effective in settings where informal power is dominant. (Can men adapt? Not clear.) (On the other hand, for better and for worse, men typically have a greater proclivity for risktaking—central to an entrepreneurially driven/dominated economy. A friend once said, mostly in jest, “Let the guys start the low-odds businesses—then let women run them.” Hmmm …)

*One thing women are routinely better at than men is … listening. And in a networked world, de facto or de jure listening is paramount as never before. We must listen intently within hyper-extended networks of peers if we intend to be inventive and accomplish complex tasks; participation and cooperation are the animating forces of a networked venture/economy. In the past, the best listeners have reaped great benefits from their skillset; but now listening well is a life or death proposition. (FYI: Cutting off and disempowering blowhards has never been so easy! There are no safety nets for jerks. In a networked world, your peers will vote you on or off the island—and revising a permutation will, as always, be devilishly difficult.)

*The “Brand You/Brand Me” idea (I more or less launched the concept/moniker in the mid-1990s) is alive and well and getting healthier every day and is … not optional. Fact is, we mostly all will have to be entrepreneurial to survive, let alone thrive. The good news is that we mostly were until 100 years ago, so gene alteration is not required—though it, too, may come in the next 25 years! The buck starts and stops with you, not a formally assigned boss—even if you are in a traditional enterprise; “traditional” enterprises may look familiar, but all vestiges of traditional job-security-courtesy-invisibility have evaporated. (Key/essential “Brand You” requirements: (1) Exceedingly good at something—a calling. (2) Constant learning—adding as well as subtracting. (3) Perpetually expanding/deepening one’s network—that is, “brand you” success is co-creation success, the antithesis of the egocentric go-it-aloneism that the term might, at first glance, imply. (4) Dancing skills—changing direction and improvising will be commonplace. (5) “Entrepreneurial,” in quotes because I mean taking the initiative as a matter of course, not necessarily starting your own business. “Change agent” used to be a special category—now, only change agents/initiators will survive.)

*Performance and accountability will be more important than ever, but will be measured by one’s peers along dimensions such as reliability, trustworthiness, engagement, willingness to spend a majority of one’s time (at any given time) helping others with no immediate expected return.

*AI is ripping through traditional jobs at an accelerating pace, and the old saw, “We ain’t seen nothin’ yet,” is a truism. (FYI: AI is transforming local/small businesses as well as the giants—think of local bookstores among many others.) Virtually no job, circa 2000, will remain in a recognizable way within 15-25 years. It’s as simple—and as traumatic—as that. This AI-driven transformation has long been coming—imagine 25-year time-lapse photography of, say, an auto plant—but is accelerating and now scaling the highest peaks as it increasingly immolates “high end”/analytic/pattern-recognition jobs.


Looked at in the context of the eternally lingering anemic economic recovery, MIT professors Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee discern the phenomenon this way in Race Against the Machine, “The root of our problem is not that we’re in a Great Recession or a Great Stagnation, but rather that we are in the early throes of a Great Restructuring. Our technologies are racing ahead, but many of our skills and organizations are lagging behind.”

On 22 May 2000, I authored a Time cover story titled “What Will We Do for Work?” I/It began, “I believe that ninety percent of white-collar jobs in the U.S. will be either destroyed or altered beyond recognition in the next 10 to 15 years.” The three causes I enumerated were “destructive” (game-changing) competition, technology/artificial intelligence, and outsourcing.” I was a bit ahead of schedule—now the process has clearly engulfed us.


*In general, wholesale/continuous/intense re-education (forgetting as well as learning—the former is the most difficult) is a lifelong pursuit—and not optional. (Obviously, instilling, or at least not killing, curiosity from about age ZERO is part and parcel of the New Age and goes against today’s grain. E.g., Parent Goal #1: Don’t kill the curiosity with which the child is born! As Picasso put it, “Every child is born an artist. The trick is to remain an artist.” Please ponder that one.)

*It is commonplace when discussing education (frequently described as National Priority #1) to obsess on math proficiency and, more broadly, STEM (Science Technology Engineering Math). STEM is, no doubt, significant to a landscape being transformed by technology, though I favor the formulation labeled STEAM, or steAm. (President John Maeda of RISD coined the new flavor.) The “A” is for Art, or the arts. “The arts” are to some extent “what’s left” as AI/robotics vacuum up traditional high-end occupations. Consider the world’s most valuable company—Apple. While its “T” (technology) is exceptional, it is the “A” that has made all the difference—or, rather, the A ingeniously blended with S, T, E, and M. (As Steve Jobs once bluntly and characteristically put it of Apple’s eventual relative domination, “Microsoft never had the humanities or liberal arts in its DNA.”)

*In general, in the age of stupendous technology change, the “soft” attributes will be more important than ever. This is true of invention/innovation (see Apple reference above) and abetted by the networked nature of development and execution; for the foreseeable future, development and execution are “soft” arranging and managing tasks.

*Education redux. The (very) good news: Education is busily re-inventing itself and leaving the ed establishment in the dust! You might say that all schooling will become de facto home schooling—and will effectively start at birth. Educational resources are increasingly available on the desktop (or whatever we’ll call it); and, ho hum, we ain’t seen nothin’ yet. MOOCs/Massive Online Open Courses of every flavor are rising—networks will create their own spontaneous and encompassing educational “system” as a vehicle like TEDx is illustrating. Traditional education models will more or less disappear—some forecast only a dozen surviving universities as we know them today within a couple of decades. (This seems, and doubtless is, extreme—but the fact that it can be imagined and seriously discussed is jaw dropping.) And, I repeat, this encompasses the 1st 10 years of education, not just tertiary/tertiary+ ed. Young students can/are reinventing education and the human interaction/convergence processes, unbeknownst even to themselves, at the speed of light; gaming, for (one big) example is not a sideshow—it is the show. Emphasis on ed will shift from ages 5-18 or 22 to ages 2 to 82. Redux redux: The idea of and shape of education per se are erasing all that’s come before—the shape of the delivery vehicle and the idea of education-is-forever-for-all.

*GRIN/Genetics-Robotics-Informatics-Nanotech. Overwhelming transformation is hardly just AI/Robotics or the likes of 3-D printing/personal fabs, which have de facto underpinned much of the commentary above. Change, entrepreneurial activities and early adoption in the “G”/genetics and the “N”/nanotech arenas are accelerating. In fact, the 25 year horizon may border on the unrecognizable. The good news—above—is that we will be rewiring the entire economy/nature of existence into a flexible format capable of adjusting-adapting 100X more rapidly than is the case today. And in 25 years the likelihood is non-low that genetic adaptations to deal with genetic adaptations/nanotech may well be standard fare. A great deal of the “G-stuff” is proven—the issue is the pattern of implementation. Among (many) other things, as “G” options accelerate/ multiply, religious conservatism versus scientific aggressiveness, with war and peace mixed in, portend high odds of a global donnybrook.

*Government has a large role to play, like it or not. E.g., government-funded BASIC-research and development is a major-league necessity—which is growing, rather than diminishing. Government’s historical role in research has routinely been underestimated, but will be especially true if the cataclysmic changes likely in universities blow below-the-waterline holes in those universities’ R&D funding models. Hyper-capitalism, in general, leads to paper-thin profits, which lead to disinvestment in BASIC R & D—e.g., the likes of Bell Labs; this is already happening and is unmistakably accelerating. For another BIG thing, government also has to stay involved in social safety-net issues. As longterm employment evaporates, the services historically provided/funded by big companies will more or less disappear—see the current situation regarding pensions. Hence, government support will remain and become more important as the court of last resort. Add in, then, infrastructure, which is as important as ever—from the Internet backbone to highways and bridges. (And, of course and alas, defense—the world is and will likely stay far short of placid.) Acknowledging the limits, at times severe, of markets is imperative! (Anti-government ideologues must get this through their heads.)

*Governance. To a non-trivial extent, we have been globalizing/globalized for 500 years. But the emergent interconnectedness is of a different character. It is hard to imagine that fundamental systems of human governance will remain unchanged. The growth of interdependence to date, alas, has hardly eliminated wars—though overall human violence does continue to measurably decrease. Some have said that the global giant corporations have become the true, but shadow, system of governance—and there is significant truth to that. Yet I have argued above that a stable portfolio (such as the fictional but real “Global 1000”) of giants is unlikely to dominate in the mid- to long-term. What tomorrow’s UN will look like is unclear to me; the nation state is not likely to disappear any time soon, and the role of a stable technological backbone, among other things, would seem to necessitate its survival. But will categories such as “democracies” mean what they do today? Perhaps. Perhaps not.

*Downside. I have during my months of forced re-education personally moved from a position of deep pessimism to one of guarded optimism. We have survived discontinuous change in the past. The determining factor is always the same: Timeframe!! There is no doubt that the pace of change is accelerating—it has ever been thus. But arguably (inarguably?) there is a discontinuity in the rate of acceleration per se. AI, for example, like many of its predecessor “gamechanger” technologies, has been “on the verge” for 40 years. But now the cataclysmic moment may have arrived. (Add the “G” and the “N” into the mix—though they are perhaps a bit farther from the tipping point—and you have a case for true destabilization.) Will “everything be different” in 10 or 25 years? Perhaps. Will we adapt; history says yes, but common sense says there are no sure bets. Stay tuned!

[Also available: a PDF of this blog, with appendices. Revised 06 Jan 2012—CM.]

Tom Peters posted this on January 1, 2013, in Excellence.
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