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Why I have trouble keeping up with the pace of technological change

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, right, gets an overview of a Tesla Model X 75D semi-autonomous electric vehicle by Tesla sales adviser Genny Carter, left, before a test drive at the Capitol in Olympia. Inslee was test-driving the car to highlight his state’s role in testing and developing autonomous-vehicle technology and to tout the environmental and safety benefits of the vehicles.
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, right, gets an overview of a Tesla Model X 75D semi-autonomous electric vehicle by Tesla sales adviser Genny Carter, left, before a test drive at the Capitol in Olympia. Inslee was test-driving the car to highlight his state’s role in testing and developing autonomous-vehicle technology and to tout the environmental and safety benefits of the vehicles. AP

The new book by Tom Friedman, columnist for The New York Times, has a crazy title but smart idea. “Thank You For Being Late” refers to how he likes others to be late for appointments, because he has learned to appreciate and use the unexpected minutes. The book is one long reflection on future challenges, but an early chapter helped me understand the anxiety I feel with some changes we experience.

Friedman claims that as technology increases, humans struggle to keep pace. Where we once had a generation or more to adjust (to electricity, the steam engine, cars or washing machines), today that’s not true. Technology changes that affect our lives happen every five to seven years, but humans still need perhaps 15 years to adjust fully. That means we’ve never finished “adjusting” before the next change.

He describes it in a graph. The X axis is time, the Y axis is rate of change. Now draw an upward sloping curve, verging on looking like a hockey stick, which stands for technology. Next draw a gently sloping upward line, standing in for human adaptability. We have reached a point where the technology curve has passed and is higher than the adaptability line. Friedman says that not only are humans struggling to adapt, but the means to govern or manage the changes that technology brings are lagging.

Think about driverless — now called autonomous — cars. A few years ago, the prediction was that we would have them in 10 years. Now the expectation is that many could be on the road by 2020, three years from now. But how will insurance firms handle them? How will cities adapt infrastructure?

The solution, according to Friedman, is to learn faster and govern smarter, both of which will be massive challenges.

In the short term, this helps me realize that when I feel overwhelmed with products, processes, information or behavior changes sparked from technological advances, I understand what’s going on: I’m a human on the the adaptability line, moving more slowly than what’s happening around me.

So, obviously, I need to learn faster and manage the world around me smarter.

I guess 2017 will be a busy year.

Nancy Napier is distinguished professor, Boise State University; nnapier@boisestate.edu. This column appears in the February 15-March 14, 2017, edition of the Idaho Statesman’s Business Insider magazine as part of a special section on technology. Click here for the Statesman’s e-edition, which includes Business Insider (subscription required).

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