Reboot: How to Adapt to a New Tech Environment

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How can you demand innovation, creativity and radical rethink if you can't even imagine it?

We all know that the future is coming – and it's coming fast! The question is, how to deal with it. Actually, that isn't the only question. We might also ask the following:

  • Whose future is it? Apple's? Google's? Amazon's? Facebook's? China's? Someone else entirely?
  • How will it affect us? Loss of jobs? New opportunity? Financial gain? Financial ruin?
  • What can we do to prepare … or survive?
  • How can we attempt to answer any of these questions while doing whatever we have to do in the present?

Of course, these aren't questions that can be answered right now because the jury's still out on whose future will prevail. An article by Brad Stone that appeared on BusinessWeek in May discusses Google's development projects beyond the well-known Google Glass and driverless cars. These projects are, in some cases, only rumors but are all exciting:

  • Wing 7: An airborne turbine prototype that generates power to be sent back to earth
  • High Altitude Balloon Broadband Transmitters to Network the Whole World: In April 2013, Google chairman Eric Schmidt told Business Insider that by the end of the decade, "everyone on earth will be connected to the Internet." This is presently impossible in the areas of the world that have no cell connections and poor landline infrastructure.
  • Inflatable Robots
  • Stretchable Electronics

Some of these (and other) rumors seem improbable and may well be, but this does not mean that they, and other improbable technologies, are not actually in the process of development. After all, the driverless car seemed improbable until we actually saw one.

Stone writes that Google X, the code name for Google's development lab, seeks to be an heir to the classic research labs, such as the Manhattan Project and Bletchley Park. While Google X's management, lab director Eric "Astro" Teller and Google co-founder Sergey Brin, want to duplicate the well-known success of AT&T Bell Labs and Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center (PARC), they're hoping their developments will bring Google the financial rewards that the UNIX operating system, C programming language, graphical user interface, object-oriented programming and Ethernet networking never brought to AT&T or Xerox.

While Apple's known projects sound rather mundane compared to Google's (it is constantly said to be close to releasing a breathtaking computer driven watch or television), it must be remembered that Apple is paranoid secretive and generates its own ideas of what it thinks the public should want. That it does very well; so far, consumers have gobble up everything this company puts out. They could be major drivers in future technology as well.

And of course, not all innovation is happening in the USA. We don’t know about China's new product development but we do know that its manufacturing giants are preparing completely automated robot-manned factories. With the knowledge needed for this transformation, their potential for the use of robotics in any area is limitless.


In the June issue of Wired Magazine, editor Bill Wasik writes about a DC-based company called SmartThings, which has developed a hub to link together intelligent objects in a home or factory for total task automation. Wasik describes the home of SmartThings owner Alex Hawkinson, where more than 200 objects, including the garage door, the coffee maker and his daughter's trampoline, are all linked to a SmartThings system.

"His office can automatically text his wife and tell his home A/C to start powering up … This is the language of the future: tiny, intelligent things all around us, coordinating their activities. Coffeepots that talk to alarm clocks. Thermostats that talk to motion sensors. Factory machines that talk to the power grid and to boxes of raw material. A decade after Wi-Fi put all our computers on a wireless network – and half a decade after the smartphone revolution put a series of pocketsize devices on the network – we are seeing the dawn of an era when the most mundane items in our lives can talk wirelessly among themselves, performing tasks on command, giving us data we've never had before," Wasik writes.

I had a home controller unit called Waldo, circa 1980. It was a circuit board for an Apple II that connected to a Radio Shack x-10 device that controlled lights, radios and just about anything plugged into the electrical system. Waldo allowed the user to schedule ons and offs. That seemed pretty cool to me at the time, but the SmartThings system can integrate hundreds of things into one intelligent network.

"What’s remarkable about the future isn’t the sensors, nor is it that all our sensors and objects and devices are linked together. It’s the fact that once we get enough of these objects onto our network, they’re no longer on-off novelties or data sources but instead become a coherent system, a vast ensemble that can be choreographed, a body that can dance," Wasik writes.

Wasik may be referring to our homes, but that system is likely to be a lot bigger than that as we increasingly become more interconnected, informed and data driven. (Big data is a big part of this too. Read more in Big Data's (Big) Future.)

The future really is starting to sound like science fiction, and I haven't even touched on some of the more disruptive technologies, like 3-D printing and nanotechnology. The question, of course, is how to adapt to such a new environment. One recent book that provides a very good starting point in preparing us for the great unknown before us is Mitch Joel's "Ctrl Alt Delete: Reboot Your Business. Reboot Your Life. Your Future Depends On It." Joel divides the book into two sections: The first is on "rebooting" businesses, while the second is about how individuals can "reboot" themselves.

So how can we reboot ourselves? Joel quotes Avinash Kaushik, Google's digital marketing evangelist:

The Web has been around forever and yet it is not in the blood of the executives who staff the top echelons of companies. Make no mistake, they are smart, they are successful, and they want to do better, but the Web is such a paradigm shift that if it is not in your blood, it is very difficult to imagine its power and how to use it for good. How can you demand innovation, creativity, and radical rethink if you can't even imagine it?

This is a profound statement because it doesn't just apply to the executives of whom he speaks; it applies to each and every one of us. We cannot see how to use the newest technologies to benefit ourselves and prolong our productive careers without immersing ourselves in them. Just as we cannot really understand the power of Facebook without making it a part of our lives, we will not be able to understand the potential of 3-D printers, home control systems, location-based marketing apps, and whatever else comes along without becoming knowledgeable in their use. Joel recognizes the importance of this immersion and spends the rest of the book exploring what must be done and the ways to do it.

What Joel wants is what most of us want: A career with longevity. His path (like mine) may not have seemed straight along the road, but his history shows that he did not let industry changes or technological paradigm shifts end his career. He adapted and was usually ahead of the curve.

He ends the book by telling the readers "I wish you longevity." I wish my readers the same. (Read more about how to adapt to technological change in As Technology Changes, How to Avoid Becoming Obsolete.)


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John F. McMullen

John F. McMullen lives with his wife, Barbara, in Jefferson Valley, New York, in a converted barn full of pets (dog, cats, and turtles) and books. He has been involved in technology for more than 40 years and has written more than 1,500 articles, columns and reviews about it for major publications. He is a professor at Purchase College and has previously taught at Monroe College, Marist College and the New School for Social Research. MucMullen has a wealth of experience in both technology and in writing for publication. He has worked as a programmer, analyst, manager and director of…