Opinion: Speeding up innovation to slow us down

In these times of rapid and disruptive technology change, it feels like we can never keep up. Just as we get used to Facebook, along comes Twitter. Tomorrow it will be something else.

The introduction of game-changing technology is typically followed by settling-in periods. The appearance of computers and the Internet were punctuated by decades of experimentation and adaptation. Innovations like e-mail, e-commerce and Web search crept in slowly and achieved mass adoption only after a cultural inflection point.

But the present rate of technology-driven change is far beyond anyone's capacity to digest it, never mind settle in. In the era of always on, always new, where change has become a constant, we have plenty to choose from but lack the attention to make use of it all. As the buffet line becomes longer, it is confusing at best and debilitating at worst.

The capacity of humans to productively focus on more than one task at a time degrades significantly after two tasks are introduced simultaneously. We can talk on the cell phone while driving, but by adding a third activity -- say putting on makeup -- reaction times diminish to the equivalent of driving drunk.

Social media is keeping a heavy foot on the accelerator, with more drunks than ever at the wheel. Low barriers of entry and crowdsourcing enable the introduction of innovation on top of innovation overnight. The challenge has become to determine how fast we can go without it all becoming a blur.

So, I expect our next great leap to be toward simplicity of design and economy of activity -- whether it is identifying appropriate friends for your social network or finding a local babysitter. Simplicity is about to replace complexity as the next innovation tipping point.

A good example of simplicity in technology is the Google search engine. Google's stripped-down approach, featuring a single search box on a blank page, has proved far more popular than the busy, all-in-one home page approaches taken by Microsoft's MSN or Yahoo's search pages. The search results of all three are roughly the same, but it's the simplicity factor that makes Google more appealing to most people.

And as tools like Google suggest, we must increasingly rely on machines to help us sort through all the noise. Enter the simple, personalized era of human-computer interactions.

Here is what it will ultimately look like:

Your computer desktop or mobile browser presents you with a simple question when you open it up in the morning: "What can I help you with today?" Your (voice) response might be something like, "What is the best route for me to get to work today?" You then get a quick audio response, along with a map and GPS routing that is sent instantly to your car's computer screen. As you drive to work, your computer has some suggestions for you, knowing your profile, preferences and even your mood. Through wearable devices with built-in sensors, your network can "sense" how you feel and even offer help. Maybe you are sad due to the loss of a loved one, and having picked up on your pulse, breathing and brain wave activity, your computer suggests a song or a remembrance that helps to soothe you.

And rather than you having to search for the right auto mechanic by relying on endless recommendations and location matches, your network wades through all the information for you and identifies the perfect shop for you -- at the exact moment when your brakes start to go.

Even more exciting is the ability for computers to help you make the right moral and ethical choices. For example, If I need to choose whether to send my kid to public or private school, my computer can instantly present the facts and dilemmas. The computer can compile my opinions on the matter and connect me directly with a good person to help me make the decision -- from a neighbor to a local principal.

And there are numerous other ways a smart, sensory network can help us focus on the important stuff and not waste our time on grappling with the technology itself. Instead of giving money to a nonprofit group that we know little about, for example, our cash and volunteer time could be funneled automatically to a cause that matches our distinct interests, talents and financial wherewithal. Ultimately, we won't have to keep checking our e-mails, Facebook and Twitter feeds. Instead, they will alert us only when something is worthy of our attention.

So don't worry about keeping up with the Joneses. The fast-paced, innovation-driven future is about to slow down to human speed. And the next quantum leap in technology will, ironically, free us from the need to catch up. In the meantime, be sure to keep your seat belt securely fastened.

Paul Lamb is the principal of Man on A Mission Consulting and founder of the Stride Center.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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