The Information Age

Today we are living in a world where technologies change faster than society can catch up. We are witnessing companies that failed to respond to new technology then vanished. We are seeing people that failed to learn new skills then become unemployed. We are seeing some economies thrive when others decline in front of our eyes. That is the reality of the “Information Age”.

In the past few years, thousands of companies all over the world have disappeared and millions of people have lost their jobs. Even well-established technology companies could not escape this situation when technology changed. Among the top computer companies in the 1970s, only IBM remained. Many software companies in the 1990s also disappeared after the dot-com failures. Recently we are seeing Nokia, Blackberry, Ericsson, and Sony quickly lose market share to Google and Apple when they failed to transition from manufacturing focus into software focus. Who know what will happen next in this highly competitive market?

Technology destroys companies and creates new ones. It creates challenges and opportunities. For example, with the Internet, thousands of newspapers and magazines have ceased to operate but it opens new opportunity to online newspapers and blogs. A newspaper editor complained: “Nobody read newspaper anymore, it takes 12 hours to get something printed but it only takes 5 minutes to get news into online newspapers and 2 minutes to put on YouTube. We cannot compete with this type of technology.”

The same thing also happens to printed books as the number of printed books declined by 40% but the numbers of e-books is getting more popular with millions of downloaded into Kindle or iPads. Today only few people listen to music on radios but most download and listen to music on their MP3 or smart phones. Ten years ago, on-line stores were just a business concept but today 35% of people in the world buy things via online stores and make online market become the fastest growing segment of the economy with value over $100 billion dollars each year. It is predicted that printed books and physical stores will disappeared within the next ten or twenty years.

Rapid technological change has taken the entire society to new situations where most people have not fully understood its impact. Many leaders do not know about the opportunities as well as its challenges. Since some cannot cope with the change, they ignored it and continue their own ways until their companies are eliminated. Some leaders only see this as opportunity to be exploited and seize it without really understand it well enough. The fiasco of stock market crashed and the financial crisis are few examples of this situation. Generally society failure and economic collapses when adopting technology has come from a combination of both ignorance and exploitation.

In this Information Age, efficiency and speed are the rules as things are changing and evolving quickly. Looking forward, we can expect that technology change to continue at faster pace as more societies are adopting technology. This means more new technologies will be developed, more products will come out which will lead to more challenges for both society and individuals. New situations, new challenges, new opportunities, new exploitation and ignorance will continue as some societies will thrive and some will decline as people cannot deal with them appropriately and effectively.

Not long ago, the world witnessed the steam engines, the electricity, the telephone, the automobile, and the railroad, etc. These technologies had changed people's lives and society profoundly. Some countries adopted them well but others ignored them due to the vision of leaders whether technology is an opportunity or a challenge. Historically, most inventions of the 20th century started in Europe but thrived in America as European governments did not considered them important. For example, when the concept of airplane was developed Lord Kelvin, the head of British government's technology declared: “Nothing heavy than air can fly, an airplane is an illusion.” Since the most powerful nation at that time ignored aircraft technology, it gave the opportunity to the U.S to build the first airplane and then dominated this market. An opportunity lost for Europe but a gain for America.

Today we are seeing the proliferation of integrated circuits, personal computers, mobile phones, etc. But the key different is the speed of change. According to Moore' Law, computing capacity double every 18 months that leads to new offerings that coming out every two years. These new technologies change the way people works, business operates and society operates. The iPhone, iPods, iPad, PC, Twitters, Facebook are changing society in an unprecedented way and influence the way many companies are doing business.

To succeed in this fast changing world, it is important for society to engage in the understanding of these technologies, knowing its impacts and participate in the development of new technology. To do that, the entire education system should change to focus more on Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM). Students should be taught early about technology so they can understand how these developments can be used to benefit society and its people. It is urgent that educators and leaders need to determine how to go forward in this rapidly changing world.


  • Blogs of Prof. John Vu, Carnegie Mellon University