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The rate of technological change is now exceeding our ability to adapt

Steve Jobs’ Apple launched the iPhone in 2007– a vintage year for technology. Photo/Getty Images

A decade on from the revolution of 2007, the pace and rate of change are exceeding our capacity to adapt to new technologies.

Recently, I was trawling through some files on a dusty portable hard drive I’d forgotten about and came across a technology time capsule of sorts.

The files were videos I’d taken on a Handycam 10 years ago, when I accompanied a series of Kiwi tech entrepreneurs to Silicon Valley for a tournament of Segway Polo – a bizarre sport popularised by Bay Area nerds, including Apple co-founder Steve “Woz” Wozniak.

We arrived shortly after the launch of the iPhone and one of the videos shows us excitedly heading to the Apple store to buy the amazing new device, which at that stage was available back home only through parallel importers. 

Elsewhere, there are fragments of video shot on the Apple and Google campuses, geeky discussions about Wi-Fi networks and server protocols. At one point, Rod Drury, who had just listed his accounting software company Xero on the NZX in a $15 million share float, arrives to join a polo game, facing off against none other than the Woz himself.

The decade since I shot those videos has gone by in a blur of exponential change in the technology sector that has fundamentally altered our lives. But I’d forgotten just how important 2007 was, anchored by that iPhone launch, until last week, when I was strolling to work along the Wellington waterfront listening to the audiobook version of Thomas Friedman’s new book, Thank You for Being Late. “There are vintage years in wine, and vintage years in history. 2007 was definitely one of the latter,” explains Friedman, who gained fame for his earlier book The World Is Flat, about the impact of globalisation.

Thomas Friedman.

Alongside the iPhone, 2007 also saw the debut of Amazon’s Kindle, which revolutionised e-book sales, and Google’s Android operating system, now running the majority of the world’s smartphones.

It was the year when microblogging site Twitter was spun off on its own platform and Airbnb was conceived. GitHub, the go-to site for open-source software projects, was launched and Change.org, which has powered massive petitions for all sorts of social and political issues, went live. Development started on IBM’s Watson supercomputer, which combined machine learning and artificial intelligence for an incredibly powerful new form of deep analytics. The year saw a massive drop in the cost of DNA sequencing due to the introduction of new technology, and the start of exponential growth in uptake of clean-energy technologies, such as solar panels.

Intel in 2007 unveiled its “high-k” (Hi-k) transistor technology that ensured the continuation of Moore’s Law – which predicts that the number of transistors on a microchip roughly doubles every two years. That fuelled the upward march in computing power.

All of these things – and Facebook’s move the previous September to open its social network to anyone aged 13 and older, made 2007 a “pivotal junction in the history of technology and the world”, argues Friedman.

We are now living through the “age of accelerations” underpinned by those converging technological advances put in motion a decade ago. The pace of change (speed) and rate of change (exponential) are in many cases exceeding our capacity to cope with change.

In the past week, I’ve talked to scientists about the potential to use gene drives, an advanced form of genetic engineering, to kill off our entire population of possums, and to a lawyer heading to the US to try to figure out the legal framework we will need to have in place here before the roads are full of driverless cars.

In the space of one decade, we are dealing with change that previously had taken a generation to adapt to. Friedman thinks we will be okay and I agree. Harnessed properly, that exponential change will hold the answers to many of our big problems, including our belated action on climate change.

But as the Wellington bureaucrats marched on to work around me on the waterfront, I wondered how our Government will deal with the accelerations of the next decade. My Silicon Valley home movie is a reminder of just how quickly things are moving.  It’s thrilling and a bit frightening. Embrace it, but, in doing so, hold onto what you value most.

This article was first published in the March 25, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener. Follow the Listener on Twitter, Facebook and sign up to the weekly newsletter.