How Our Exponentially Changing World is Challenging People and Organizations

Source: David Bray, PhD

January 9, 2017 Last week, I traveled to Dubai in a non-work capacity to meet with private and public sector representatives regarding how they, as companies and as a nation, can keep up with the exponential technological changes and significant social changes happening in our world. While in Dubai I shared these thoughts in a personal capacity outlined in this post.

Our world is experiencing exponential changes. These changes include a rapid increase of network devices on the face of the planet and an ever-increasing amount of data globally. These changes also include a rapid decrease in the cost and increase in the global accessibility of advanced technologies to the 7.3 billion human beings on the face of the planet. To put the amount of change in context:

  • Last year in 2015 there were approximately 14 billion network devices relative to 7.3 billion human beings on the face of the planet. That’s up from just 7 billion network devices two years earlier in 2013. By 2022 there could be 75 billion or more network devices globally relative to 8 billion human beings. Also by 2022 the estimates are 85% of the humans on the planet will be connected to the internet, up from a tad less than half at the moment. 

    This is not linear change, this is exponential change. Some statistics report that we humans went from less than 2% of the planet having a mobile phone in 2001 to more than 95% of households having a mobile phone by 2015. 
  • At the same time, if you take all internet addresses that could be addressed by Internet Protocol version 4 (IPv4), of which we ran-out of such numbers in 2015 (there are approximately 4.3 billion numbers), and if you put these into a physical space the size of a beach ball – how big is Internet Protocol version 6 (IPv6) which is what we’ll be adopting over the next 5 years? 

    The answer: the size of the Sun. Over the next few years, with regards to the internet we’re going from the beach ball, IPv4 with 2^32 addresses, to the Sun, IPv6 is 2^128, in terms of network address space. 
  • The amount of data on the planet is also increasing exponentially. In 2013 there were 4 zettabytes, i.e., approximately 4 billion terabytes of data on the face of the planet. To give a sense of scale, the U.S. Library of Congress’ holdings are 10 terabytes. So 4 billion terabytes is the data equivalent to about 400 million versions of the U.S. Library of Congress. Now admittedly probably a sizable portion of that data are copies of the same files, cat photos, or online videos – however with the amount of data on the planet doubling every two years, we will increasingly face a challenge of making sense of all the new data being produced and stored. 

    By 2022 estimates are there will be 96 zettabytes, i.e., the data equivalent of approximately 9.6 billion versions of the U.S. Library of Congress, on the planet. Some estimates peg this as more data than all human eyes see in the course of a year – and additional estimates peg this as more data than all human conversations we have ever had as a species with each other times two.

Again, this is not linear change, this is exponential change.

At the same time these massive changes have happened, I have to step back and wonder if we as members of the public have not been fully prepared or forewarned for the seismic shocks associated with such an exponential era. This is where on this personal blog I need to make an important note: The following are personal perspectives; nothing below represents the views of any current or past professional organization for whom I have worked. 


1. The World

Exponential changes will increasingly make inexpensive technologies available to just about everyone on the planet, meaning individuals half-a-world away can now compete with each other business-wise in a global marketplace. On the one hand, a global marketplace is great, enabling those with ideas to collaborate with each other regardless of physical distance. The challenge is when it comes to work tasks, if one individual needs to earn a higher wage to maintain to higher cost of living vs. another individual who doesn't need to higher wage to maintain their cost of living, the individual needing a higher wage potentially may not find work.

There are some economists who believe that ultimately, even if there is an initial period of disruption where individuals used to a higher standard of living are disrupted by pricing mechanisms of the global marketplace – that ultimately everyone will be used to a shared standard of living globally and this will then begin to “raise everyone’s boats”. We might need to take a hard look at this unproven belief, since most economics does not assume a world with finite resources. 

While perhaps one day we’ll be able to start mining resources from asteroids in space – however for now if we assume one planet going from 7.3 billion to 8 billion human beings – do we have enough resources on this planet to sustain multiple generations of individuals wanting to all enjoy a high standard of living? Increasing efficiency of technology only goes so far. If we cannot achieve the ideal frictionless case of the Second Law of Thermodynamics, then anytime we try to expend energy to bring physical order, we’ll create additional entropy. Imagine the amount of entropy produced by 8 billion human beings and 75 billion network devices on the planet in 2022.

2. People + Training

Just as exponential changes will make inexpensive technologies available to just about everyone on the planet these same changes will rapidly increase and diminish the need for different types of jobs. By now everywhere in the world has started to feel that certain jobs that used to be a sure, safe way to earn an income now are seeing less demand and may even be vanishing as exponential changes to our world make that type of work no longer needed. At the same time, demand for other jobs, for example serving as machine-learning specialist, are growing at rapid rates. Even these currently in-demand jobs might only have a period of five to eight years before something else replaces them. Not too many people write web pages by coding HTML by hand any more.

Such dramatic change calls into question the view from that last century that if you went to college and received a four-year education, this was sufficient for a good career and a good standard of living for the rest of your life. Nowadays, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, by the time someone graduates from a four-year college, approximately half of what they learned no longer up-to-date and has been replaced by new knowledge and new advances in technology. We need to think of education is an on-going process for life if workers are going to remain competitive in a global market place.

Back in 2009, I wrote a suggestion that we might want to hold an open competition to see who could write a website or app that allows individuals to specify they currently work in a field or profession X, they would like to get the training and skills to work in a field or profession Y, and then search the web for community college and online course offerings to help these individuals retrain from profession X to Y. There are existing codes maintained by the National Institutes of Standards and Technology (NIST) that could be shared to jump-start this competition to help individuals retrain and maintain viable skills in our rapidly changing world.

3. Organizations + Adaptability

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