The Future and YOU

July 1, 2008
Manufacturing Isn’t Going Away, Toffler Pointed Out, Any More Than American Agriculture Went Away A Hundred Years Ago
By Walt Boyes, Editor in chief

A good friend produces a podcast series called “The Future and You,” and I decided to steal the title for this editorial. The future is coming at us fast. In 1970, I read Alvin Toffler’s book Future Shock, and it kicked me into overdrive. In 1975, I read the late John Brunner’s novel, The Shockwave Rider, based on Future Shock, and I knew that what I wanted to be was an “encyclopedic synthesist.” I wanted to know as much as I could about everything I could, so I could construct patterns in what I was experiencing. Now, we call that a “futurist.” I’ve been sharing with you the patterns I’m seeing in the future of the automation profession.

Brunner accurately predicted the Internet and a completely interconnected society and invented the concept of the computer worm in The Shockwave Rider. His fictional society looks a lot like ours, with social, governmental and ethical complications that weren’t even on the radar of most people in 1975.

At the recent Rockwell Software RSTechEd event, I was able for the first time to meet and speak with Alvin Toffler. He’s now a subscriber to this magazine. What he and his wife and co-author, Heidi, predicted in 1970 and in their subsequent books has come to pass. The rate of technological change is expanding exponentially, and this change causes societal and economic disruption. We see it every day. We see it in the changes from Toffler’s “Second Wave,” or industrial society, and in his predicted rise of terrorism, to his “Third Wave” post-industrial, knowledge-based society. And, we see it in the changes between the generations that work in the automation field.

Change is accelerating, and our response to it must be correspondingly more agile and rapid, or we’ll find ourselves dancing to the wrong beat.

In his RSTechEd keynote speech, Toffler pointed out that the generations—now two— who have been raised with computers and MTV, multitask natively, while the rest of us are much more linear in our thinking. Other societal changes abound. And just as the rate of technological change is accelerating exponentially, so are the changes in the way we work and the way we live. Just think about what $4- a-gallon gasoline is going to do to the way we work. How close to work can you live, or can you work at home?

Even though the Democratic Party just selected the first African-American to be a major party presidential candidate (a sign of the societal changes since the 1960s), none of the candidates, as Toffler pointed out to me in our chat, has said anything about the changes in the society and the way wealth is created that have come from technology advances. Does that imply that our government is irrelevant or just responding to the wrong stimuli, or both?

We will find out, I assure you. We may not like what we find out, but we most certainly will have to live with it—just as like we might not like the changes in the way we work, or who we work for or where we will have to go to work, but we will certainly have to live with them.

The good news for automation professionals is that we are all deep-knowledge workers, and vital ones at that. We are the knowledge workers who can keep manufacturing working. Manufacturing isn’t going away, Toffler pointed out, any more than American agriculture went away 100 years ago. It is losing jobs due to productivity and globalization, but, as Toffler said, “All we have to do is avoid a few wars…” and we’ll see that tsunami of globalization I keep talking about go all the way around the world, and a rising tide raises all boats. Of course, a tsunami sinks those that aren’t prepared to ride the shockwave.

“See you later, accelerator!”