US President Barack Obama’s first term was absorbed by dealing with the Great Recession. I hope that in his second term he will be able to devote more attention to the “Great Inflection.”
Dealing with the Great Recession was largely about “Yes We Can” — about government, about what we can and must do “together” to shore up the safety nets and institutions that undergird our society and economy.
Obama’s inaugural address was a full-throated defense of that “public” side of the unique public-private partnership that makes the US great.
However, if we’re to sustain the kind of public institutions and safety nets that we’re used to, it will require a lot more growth by the private side (not just more taxes), a lot more entrepreneurship, a lot more start-ups and a lot more individual risk-taking — things the president rarely speaks about. It will also all have to happen in the context of the Great Inflection.
What do I mean by the Great Inflection? I mean something very big happened in the last decade. The world went from connected to hyperconnected in a way that is affecting every job, industry and school, but was largely disguised by post-9/11 and the Great Recession.
In 2004, I wrote a book, called The World Is Flat, about how the world was getting digitally connected so more people could compete, connect and collaborate from anywhere. When I wrote that book, Facebook, Twitter, cloud computing, LinkedIn, 4G wireless, ultra-high-speed bandwidth, big data, Skype, system-on-a-chip circuits, iPhones, iPods, iPads and cellphone apps did not exist, or were in their infancy. Today, not only do all these things exist, but, in combination, they have taken us from connected to hyperconnected.
Now, Craig Mundie, one of Microsoft’s top technologists notes, not just elites, but virtually everyone everywhere has, or will have soon, access to a hand-held computer or cellphone, which can be activated by voice or touch, connected via the cloud to infinite applications and storage, so they can work, invent, entertain, collaborate and learn for less money than ever before.
Alas, though, every boss now also has cheaper, easier, faster access to more above-average software, automation, robotics, cheap labor and cheap genius than ever before. That means the old average is over. Everyone who wants a job now must demonstrate how they can add value better than the new alternatives.
When the world gets this hyperconnected, adds Mundie, the speed with which every job and industry changes also goes into hypermode. “In the old days,” he said, “it was assumed that your educational foundation would last your whole lifetime. That is no longer true.”
Because of the way every industry — from healthcare to manufacturing to education — is now being transformed by cheap, fast, connected computing power, the skill required for every decent job is rising as is the necessity of lifelong learning. More and more things you know and tools you use “are being made obsolete faster,” added Mundie. It is as if every aspect of our lives is now being driven by Moore’s Law and this is exacerbating our unemployment problem.
In their book Race Against the Machine: How the Digital Revolution Is Accelerating Innovation, Driving Productivity, and Irreversibly Transforming Employment and the Economy, Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology write that for the last two centuries it happened that productivity, median income and employment all tracked each other nicely.