I've been leafing through my 40th anniversary special issue of Smithsonian magazine, which is dedicated to "40 Things You Need To Know About The Next 40 Years."
For the anniversary, the magazine polled its preferred contributors and experts and gathered what's really a bunch of predictions about the future. Some you might have contemplated, but many you hadn't.
At least I hadn't. And while many are unprovable, the arguments are compelling as they are provocative. Here is a sample of the way some folks are seeing the next four decades.
World War III will begin (in space). Jellyfish could completely take over the world's oceans. A medical lab will fit on a postage stamp. Thousands of new species of life will be discovered. Home stereo will be replaced by hyper-real acoustics. More people will go hungry.
Reading these projections (which range from pedestrian to convenient to downright scary), what I kept thinking about was how all of these eventualities will become understood and managed largely through the management of information.
But this is not another cheery letter from the editor. The rate of change and global macro surprises (economy, environment, poverty, pick any) that are arising are compressing time, and it's coming courtesy of endless networked connectivity and the ability to capture and analyze data from the moment it is created.
I guess that begs the question of whether things are happening faster or we're simply seeing things in more depth and closer to real time. Nobody seems to complain anymore about things that are "like watching paint dry" unless it's some failure of technology (or perhaps Congress).
It means we need to increasingly use information to proactively monitor and manage our own states of affair. And as we learn more, more eventualities present themselves to threaten our old conclusions.
It almost says, "Brace yourself, be flexible and ready for change and new ideas." We've been editorializing lately on opportunities for entrepreneurs, for new technology practices and approaches. Products and services are assimilating at a rate that calls for constant adjustment and reflection.
These changes affect not just vendors, but every worker who increasingly needs to manage his or her own future by keeping their eye on which roles and personal responsibilities are dying out while others are opening up.
Here's one corollary, in a very important area. I've lately had occasion to interact and learn from a lot of health care professionals for educational reasons, and every one of them says (at some point), that it's now incumbent on individuals to manage their own health outcomes and not just passively be told where to go and what to do about personal health. I'll bet many of you have heard the same. The risks, they say, rise rapidly if you don't take charge and study your own condition.
The same applies to our jobs and roles, where the skills of information management are going to be valuable, lucrative or not and increasingly transitory for (my prediction) the next four decades. Skills that are common to data and information management and analysis are going to emerge and become important -- right up until the moment they are automated and recede into infrastructure like everything else that has.
Smithsonian magazine's executive editor said of his latest edition, "The idea behind this special issue is to get a better feel for the consequences of what humanity is up to, and to anticipate whatever's next."
That's an adequate summary and, depending on how you look at it, a huge responsibility or opportunity or liability. And despite our information skills and automation the future looks surprisingly subjective and situational for individuals navigating the workplace of the next 40 years.
(If you're interested, for a time, Smithsonian is letting readers download this issue for free from its homepage -ed.)