Good morning. And greetings to all of you. I am honored by your invitation to present some ideas related to the theme of this year’s Drucker Forum, “Managing Complexity.” However, when I was approached and asked to talk to you, my first thought was:
How can I possibly add anything to a Forum featuring so many worldwide experts on the subject?
Then, on second thought, it occurred to me that we are missing one big ingredient in our increasingly complex world: leadership. More and more, we are engulfed by a maelstrom of Information without being conscious of it, and we do not know how to deal with it.
Who is the leader who can help us find the floodgates to stem the deluge?
We are quick to pat ourselves on the back for having discovered myriad ways to mine Information. In doing so, we are really not so different from our ancestors in the Iron Age who discovered the metal ore and used it for what their culture valued most: tools and arms. Iron had been in the ground long before it was exploited this way. Similarly, Information existed long before we began to talk about the Information Revolution and Information Society, and before we learned to transmit Information over wires or wirelessly over the Internet or any of our other high-speed communications channels. However, there is a crucial difference between mining ore and mining data: When you take ore out of the ground, you exhaust it as a resource. When you mine data, it remains forever accessible. We may run out of water, energy and other essential properties within another 25 or 50 or 100 years. But we will not have a scarcity of Information; it is “there,” and it will always be there. It will not diminish in time; it will only increase. We cannot get rid of it. The great British mathematician Stephen Hawking once proposed that we dispose of Information by throwing the Encyclopedia Brittannica down a black hole. But shortly after proposing the idea, he reversed himself.
We simply cannot make Information vanish into thin air. Information is a constituent part of our universe. It is as old as life itself, perhaps even older. Go back to the Big Bang of 10 billion years ago, or rather to a later date when the atmosphere created by the initial explosion or implosion had cooled down sufficiently for the formation of nuclei. Eventually life appeared-an accident according to scientists, an act of God according to believers. Whatever.
Life was a single cell that housed two strands of molecules-phosphate-sugar chains, arranged in a ladder-like formation and coiled around each other-the famous double helix. The helix received a message-yes, Information-ordering the two strands to uncoil so that each would become the template for an identical ladder-like construct. Once this had been accomplished, the uncoiled strands reset into what were now two helices. The message was repeated. The helices kept multiplying. Eventually, Darwinian evolution took over, and there emerged viruses and bacteria, worms and insects, birds, fish, vertebrates, mammals-and, ultimately, homo sapiens. We do not know-and probably never will know-whether life, as a single cell, created the database out of which the original messages were sent or whether the message source, Information, came first and created life. Of course, life is a work in progress. It is not static. Who can predict what our descendants will look like a million years from now? Will the continued flow of Information change our anatomy and psyche? Perhaps those who follow us will develop two brains. Or given the poor quality of much of the Information we devour these days, perhaps our brains will atrophy, and we’ll end up with half a brain or none at all. Unfortunately, we are no longer conscious of the quantity of Information that floods our visual and aural receptors. We never seem to be surfeited. Like guests at an all-you-can-eat smorgasbord, we stuff ourselves with Information just because it is “there.” If you overeat you become sluggish and obese.
If you stuff yourself with nonessential Information, you risk becoming mentally obese and mentally sluggish. What is the saturation point? Few even ask. Most of us are so taken with the benefits of the Information Revolution that we overlook the deleterious aspects of uncontrolled volume and velocity of delivery. Who stops to ask whether all this Information-and its production is increasing by about 30% a year, according to UC Berkeley-is actually effective at solving the problems of the world? Does it really fill a vital need? Or is it just noise-and possibly even harmful in ways we cannot see or understand? The amount of new information stored on paper, film, optical and magnetic media doubles every three years or so. And all of this Information is being delivered faster and faster. Undoubtedly, this is useful some of the time. Often, however, the content suffers because of errors of fact or context or incomprehensibility. There are serious questions about privacy and civil liberties, and concerns about whether we are losing our aptitude for face-to-face social interaction when so much of our connection now comes online. And what is all this doing to our ability to focus? Just watch any 14-year-old schoolboy doing his homework while also text messaging, listening to his iPod, downloading a computer game and watching TV.
Meanwhile, what is this overflow of Information doing to our memories? Why make an effort to remember mathematical formulas, key dates in history, or verses of poetry if you can instantly conjure all of these things by clicking on your calculator or conducting a Google search? Efforts are underway to organize the vast amount of existing Information. But what we need most are leaders-leaders who understand that the Information Revolution is not about communication but about human behavior and human values. Just as 19th century reformers fought to phase out the excesses of the Industrial Revolution, such as child labor, we need reformers now to identify and put a stop to the excesses of the Information Revolution. That is a complex task, indeed.
But I have no doubt that you, as participants in this year’s Drucker Forum, are up to the challenge.
I wish you a very successful event.