Google and the End of Information Age

The other day , a 25 year old friend of mine seemed to be having a quarter life crisis. He felt his days in the world were over. No, he is not terminally ill. In fact he is a health freak and in pretty good shape. After my initial concern he said his problem was his career. Now, he is an ace website designer in silicon valley, makes a 150 grand per year, owns two houses, drives a BMW, has half a girlfriend and is under no immediate threat of losing his job. I was intrigued. What was going on?

He said, “I should have listened to my dad and become a nuclear scientist”.

“That’s a nice thought but just look at yourself. You’re no scientist!”, I mocked.

He said, “check google” and left.

That was no clue at all. There’s 256 billion megabites of data on the internet. How on earth was I to decipher why his life is over from that gynormous haystack. I followed my instinct. I first typed the words: ‘How to make an atom bomb’. I assumed that’s what neuclear scientists do. There were one million, fifty thousand listings. I was still clueless. So I typed the words: ‘How to design a website’. This time there were 27 billion listings. Staggering! And that’s when it all started making sense to me. The point my friend was making was simple. If I wanted to learn how to make a website there are 27 billion places I could learn from. To learn how to make an atom bomb, there are just a million. Website designers are far easily replaceble. It’s no Nuclear science to figure out why a website designer would feel his days are over.

(Sorry rocket scientists, there are 121 million listings for ‘how to make a rocket’ thereby making me rethink — ‘it’s no rocket science’).

Information is everywhere. It’s the most ubiquitous thing on the planet. Information is no longer an asset and can neither be protected nor leveraged. Apple, despite inventing and patenting every aspect of the iPhone, had no competitive edge from ‘knowing’ how to make it. Android and Samsung replicated the functionality in less than 2 years. I’m not sure if my friend’s career is over yet or not, but what I am sure of, is that the Information Age is. My friend no longer has a competitive adavantage in ‘knowing’ how to make a website. His only advantage is…let’s get to that in a bit…

To understand my friend’s predicament it is critical to understand the three stages of the world economy and how that has a profound effect on us, our jobs and our future. Information age was preceded by the industrial age. The paradigm of the industrial age was simple. If you had money, you could set up a large factory, employ large machines, increase production, reduce costs and become richer. And more production meant more profits. This paradigm was made redundant with the dawn of the information age. With easy access to information and technology to the masses, companies could no longer survive by just producing more. They needed to distinguish their products. The ability to distinguish in market place created a need for protectiting and leveraging properitory technology, information and patents. Information and knowledge became the most critical assests.

So what has changed now?

Computers, telecommunication technologies, and the internet have literally transformed our world. We have generated more new information in the past 30 years than in the previous 5,000. The half-life of knowledge is now just 2 to 3 years. Product life-cycles have shrunk from several decades to several months.

It is not just the rate of change that has changed, it is also its very nature. Traditional change was evolutionary with incremental modifications in processes and structures. Current change by contrast is non-linear, more revolutionary than evolutionary. Mobile phones killed Pagers overnight, touch screens made buttons redundant and digital cameras made Kodak nearly bankcurrupt.

With information being ubiquitous and no longer providing a competitive edge, we are now entering the new phase of world economy, the Creative Age. The creative age is all about using the ubiquitous information creatively and imaginatively. The old tool of the information age, ‘regressive trend analysis’, has given way to the new mantra of ‘progressive inspired imagination’.

Consider this, in 1977, Ken Olsen, the founder and CEO of the once formidable Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC), stated, “There is no reason for any individuals to have a computer in their home.” Similarly, IBM Corporation had told the inventors of mouse that IBM would not even consider a product called the ‘mouse’. DEC is no more and IBM is out of the personal computer business.

These organizations were victims of the regressive analysis trap of the information age. They depended on past information to assess future possibilities. Unfortunately, they failed to imagine the future, thus losing out on their core competencies. Anyone blind to the need for creativity and innovation is blind to the world around us. The past is no longer prologue to the future. The demand is shifting from people with experience to people with ideas. Recently, a dear friend of mine with an outstanding 20-year record in sales and marketing went for an interview with a leading e-retail start-up. The first question he was asked by his 28 year old interviewer was — “given your age, how would you fit into our corporate culture’’. A 20s CEO is a common phenomenon in a world where past knowledge and experience are being seen as barriers to creativity.

And that brings me back to my web-designer friend. He has nothing to worry….if he is creative. It doesn’t matter if I or a million other people learn how to make a website using tutorials on the internet. The only thing that will save my friend’s career is his ability to make every design so unique and so creative that people go to him for stuff they cannot find on google. In fact, his biggest coup may lie in his ability to imagine, innovate and create websites of the future (which will probably never be accessed using desktops or for that matter, Google itself). Creativity cannot be googled. And it’s the only thing that will make or break us in the years to come.

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A communication specialist, an entrepreneur, writer and a serial innovator. An MBA by education, he has worked across 17 countries in 5 continents.

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Siddhartha Swarup

Siddhartha Swarup

A communication specialist, an entrepreneur, writer and a serial innovator. An MBA by education, he has worked across 17 countries in 5 continents.

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