The Technological Revolution – Lessons from 1770

The Industrial Revolution is over

The Technological Revolution – why everything must change.

Over the past 15 years there has been a lot of dialog over the impact of modern technology, the amazing pace at which it has evolved and general shock at the impact of the Internet and personal computers on our day-to-day lives/the way business is done. In fact, as I completed my research for this article I’ve constantly had to re-evaluate the current situation based on significant developments which have been announced. Yet despite the common appreciation for the significance of current events our government, big business, and the American people have been slow to react.

What we are experiencing now is not just an interesting blip…an increase in productivity. It’s a modern technological revolution which is every bit as significant as the industrial revolution. As was the case with the industrial revolution the adjustment will be equally significant. We are well into the early stages of the technological revolution and the window of opportunity is quickly passing during which the U.S. can change the way we operate while working to maintain our spot at the leading edge of the new social/political/financial structure that will eventually transform the global landscape. We are faced with an opportunity to not only maintain but strengthen our status as the world’s super power for another 100 years…but only if we adjust. Should we fail to take action, history will repeat itself and we will experience the same disastrous ramifications as late adapters during the industrial revolution.

Right now America is falling further and further behind every day. Luckily with powerhouses like MIT, Silicon Valley, Microsoft, Google, Dell and a plethora of brilliant individuals and infrastructure we have a slight advantage. We also still have one of the most diverse, motivated entrepreneurial markets in the world. It is full of creative, inventive, and driven minds but that market is losing steam where it counts. According to statistics recently released by AeA’s Cyberstates 2008 report, “U.S. high-tech venture capital totaled $16.9 billion in 2007, up by six percent”. The fact is large amounts of American capital is being invested in the high-tech industry but the growth rate, while positive, isn’t promising.

For America to ride the current wave we need to adopt, embrace, and acknowledge the new role of technology and the worldwide web (WWW). Our political policy and legal approach to internet/technological issues cannot cling to our old systems while stifling growth with regressive policies. We must embrace invention and focus on creating a culture that not only understands technology, but is driven by it. Already, every aspect of an average American’s daily life has been effected. We may not acknowledge it, but from entertainment to food distribution, our lives are now driven by modern technology, especially the WWW.

Now & Then – Modern Parallels

Parallels between the Industrial Revolution (IR) and what I’ve dubbed the Technological Revolution (TR):

IR: We saw trade explode. This growth was powered by the creation of complex rail and canal networks. Eventually, with the invention of steam power and the automobile we saw additional significant infrastructure growth.

TR: Computer processing speed is growing exponentially. In many ways the computer is representative of IR advances in steam power and electricity. Similarly, our cable/fiber optic/copper/wireless networks have expanded quickly. These networks are the transport infrastructure of the future. They are the roads, canals and rail systems that future commerce and parts of our social dynamic will depend upon.

IR: Massive growth in individual’s production capacity and a shrinking effect as the world became a smaller place.

TR: Similar growth rates and potential in production and productivity. In some instances what previously took hundreds of people to do can now be accomplished by a lone individual in a quarter of the time. The WWW has effectively duplicated the shrink effect the IR had on the world, only now instead of being able to travel to the next town over in an hour instead of a day…you can virtually explore or talk to the other side of the world instantly.

IR: The creation of a middle class. The empowerment of the average individual. An explosion in the options available to the common person when compared to the pre-IR world.

TR: Drastic changes in social power. A populace that switches jobs more often than it switches socks. A business environment where the typical social structures which dictated your professional focus and qualification [e.g. A college degree] have evolved into flexible, general, guides and amount to little more than training opportunities. A population of professionals able to pursue their diverse interests and able to constantly explore new opportunities. The TR has also created amazing opportunities for individuals of all backgrounds and ages [e.g. Facebook, Ebay, Winamp]. Individuals are no longer limited by age, professional experience, or other classic professional barriers.

IR: Major shifts in employment structures and viable business systems. The complete re-evaluation and reformation of certain components of the business sector [e.g. the creation of the automobile industry]. The simultaneous creation of major, alternative business structures previously never before seen.

TR: Drastic shifts in major elements of the business landscape. Major impact resulting from web-based automation all across the spectrum – from WalMart’s automated ordering system to a major shift in math-oriented careers such as accounting and finance where strictly formulaic/mathematical operations can and are now handled by computers. One such example is the automation of the stock market system.

These illustrations are just a brief snapshot. A taste of why I feel that we are truly entering a new global economic period.

Putting Things In Perspective

Even as a relatively tech-savvy individual I find myself regularly surprised by the technological advancements occurring in leading research labs and international markets. Here’s some information that might surprise you.

The Grid: CERN publicly announced the roll out of this data network (think of it as a parallel Internet) recently as part of their Large Hadron Collider project. It was developed in response to their need for a way to exchange the equivalent of 56m CD’s worth of data in a year. The Grid is estimated to be some 10,000 times faster than your current internet connection. This is possible by creating a new network based on state of the art technology instead of a system based around pre-existing networks and operating at the lowest common denominator. By combining modern fiber optics and routers with state of the art servers the increase in web performance is astounding. The Grid currently has 55,000 servers up and running and according to the Times Online expects to have 200,000 within two years. Users of the Grid would be able to download a full length film in mere seconds instead of hours.

Malaysia & Indonesia: Probably not a place that jumps to mind when you think about high tech centers, I recently found an article published by Computerworld Malaysia outlining a Broadband Over PowerLine (BPL) web company which is working on providing Internet access to 60 million Indonesian internet users. To be perfectly honest, I don’t completely understand what they’re doing, but as far as I can gather instead of conventional coaxial or Ethernet lines standard power lines are used. They are using a network of 400,000 mosques in order to serve the projected 60 million users. They claim that their users will be provided unlimited high speed internet connections with a 224mbps connection for approximately $1.60 per user. Compare that with Cox’s standard $50 package for a 7mbps connection with 3 mbps power post. The good news here is that the guys behind this project have inked a deal with US based STM Networks Inc. who will be providing 5 communication satellites.

Japan & Sweden: When I started exploring these concepts I had no idea about the BPL project (Posted March 28th) or CERN’s Grid project (posted April 6th). What I had heard was news of current internet practices and developments in Japan and Sweden. Articles like this one published April 4th by the BBC outlines what’s currently taking place in Japan. The article notes that for $35 you can get a 100 mbps connection. Again keep in mind that here in the U.S. Cox and other similar companies are advertising a 7mbps connection as blazing fast and still charging $40-$60. The article notes that 30% of Japanese subscribers now have access to these plans and that the Japanese government intends to see that expanded to 60%+ in a matter of years.

Meanwhile Sweden which has garnered a lot of media attention as a major hub for P2P networks like ThePirateBay.org and is known for its quality internet network articles like this one outline some of the current experiments being done. This article attracted attention when it mentioned that fiber network operator Karlstad Stadsnät provided a 40gbps connection to a 75 year old woman. The article also outlines plans to expand the service to a 100gbps connection.

FCC Standards & the U.S.: On March 19th Engadget, a major tech blog, noted that the FCC had finally updated it’s policy and official classifications for broadband. The good news is it raised the standard 384%. The bad news is that that raise brought the official broadband threshold to a pathetic 768kbps. Please note that throughout the article this is the first time I’ve so much as mentioned speed in kbps. For those not familiar with the breakdown a kb is a kilobyte. 1,000 kilobytes are in 1 mb or megabyte and in turn 1,000 mb are in one gb or gigabyte. According to the new FCC regulations any connection between 768kbs and 1.5 mbps is now designated basic broadband. It’s also important to note that download speed is often significantly higher than upload speed.

Comcast Corp. & American Broadband: After getting into a major tiff with the general public and the U.S. government over P2P throttling practices, Comcast Corp. changed their stance and has announced plans to offer a 50mbps connection (an upgrade from 16mbps). While a move in the right direction the 50mbps connection also comes with a $150 dollar/mo price tag according to a recent Reuters article. Even better news, however, is their announcement that they eventually plan to offer speeds in the 100 mbps and 160 mbps range. Unfortunately for us that $150 price tag is more than a little different than the $1.60 offering currently going live in Malaysia and Indonesia and still a long ways off of the $35 price tag in places like Japan.

Update – Gizmodo just reported here about new price plans being implemented by Time Warner as well as similar plans already in place in Oregon that are based on a [very minimal] base service with charge by the byte fees if you go over. In addition to having outrageously low minimums these plans are exactly the type of regressive pricing platforms, behavior and thought process I’m talking about.

The EU and P2P: One of the big issues in today’s tech talk is the issue of P2P (Peer-2-Peer) software like BitTorrent and tracker sites like the previously mentioned Pirate Bay. Major lobbying/watchdog groups representing the Movie Industry (MPAA) and the Music Industry (RIAA) have kicked up a lot of press for their lawsuits and ongoing battle with services like Napster and Kazaa. These services enable user-to-user file transfers. There has even been legislation introduced to block the use of P2P software, which has come under heavy fire because P2P networks themselves are not in any way shape or form illegal. In fact, they are used by musicians, software developers, writers, and every day users to distribute software. Even major corporations like the game development group Blizzard behind the online video game World of Warcraft (9 million+ subscribers) use customized P2P networks to distribute their software and updates.

A lot has changed over the last few months. RIAA in particular is getting creamed in court for their unconstitutional behavior, major music labels have dropped/discontinued their controversial DRM (Digital Rights Management) software and the EU announced its 15 million dollar investment/support for a next generation P2P start-up called P2P-Next which will focus on developing a state of the art BitTorrent platform which will allow both downloading and streaming online content. P2P-Next has already picked up the support of several major European players (e.g. the BBC).

Update – The BBC just posted this article about a looming fight between the BBC and ISPs over their iPlayer software which streams legal video. According to the report in its first 3 months over 42 million shows have been downloaded. Unsurprisingly ISPs are crying foul and petitioning the BBC to help offset the costs of expanding their pipelines to meet the increased demand.

Web Hosts – The Other Side Of The Coin

I’ve focused most of my attention and research on the consumer side of things. A lot of focus gets placed on making sure the virtual roads of tomorrow are large enough to keep up with demand but one element that is often overlooked is webhosting. It’s wonderful to have huge pipes, but at a certain level they’re pointless if you lack a pump that can keep those pipes full. In other words, after shelling out your $150 a month for Comcast’s 50 mbps, you pull up your friend’s website and go to download a custom made 50 mb music video he has created. If they’re hosted with a U.S. based webhost there’s a pretty good chance you’re only going to be able to download at a max of 300-500 kbps. The sad reality is that you’re probably realistically looking at a download speed closer to 40-80kbps. Say what you want about Apple and Microsoft, one of the things they have been fantastic about is securing high quality connections. I recently downloaded from Quicktime at 1.8 mbps. THAT is where the web needs to be and that is the level of broadband service we will need to stay competitive.

Security

It’s a problem we are all intimately familiar with. From viruses, to phishing, to identity theft, to hacked websites, security is one of the biggest obstacles to internet progress. Even seemingly harmless issues like spam can reap havoc on user adoption and the utilitarian value of future web development. It’s something that will need to be addressed and that we all need to keep in mind.

The Future

If we want to have any hope of maintaining our position as a world super power it is paramount that we embrace modern technology, foster it with investment, and ensure that it is not hampered by regressive legislation. We are in a time where we need to not only focus on building our infrastructure, but ensuring that American companies, products, and citizens are the best trained, most capable users in the world. As odd a concept as it may seem, the future of tomorrow’s America very well may depend on things like P2P networks, video gaming and the modern media.

The Industrial Revolution is dead. Welcome to the Technological Revolution.