These are my thoughts on how you can either be the victim or you can take advantage of disruptive technology. However, whatever you do, you cannot avoid it.
The concept of disruptive technology is not new. It is one of the founding principles of the United States and the American Dream. In fact, it is enshrined in our Constitution:
Article 1, Section 8, Clause 8 of the United States Constitution, known as the Copyright Clause, empowers the United States Congress: To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.
Alexander Hamilton, who has recently become so famous for his ability to rap, firmly believed that the key to success and prosperity was for America to be a manufacturer and a technological leader.
The recognition of the importance of technology and its ability to disrupt was one of the primary reasons that the North won the Civil War. Abraham Lincoln, the only President ever to get a patent, recognized the importance of technology immediately. On becoming President, he ordered that thousands of miles of telegraph wire be strung and, more importantly, that more railroads be built and that there be processes for trains to go on tracks of different gauges. He had routes plotted out for sending Union soldiers all over the country.
This foresight of Lincoln paid off in a startling manner when Ulysses S. Grant, in July of 1863, unexpectedly took the City of Vicksburg.
Upon hearing the news, Lincoln’s generals told him that Grant was in trouble because the Confederates could retake the city. He was told that it would take more than a month to march enough troops to reinforce Vicksburg. Lincoln, with a devilish smile, said, “Who said they were going to walk?” Secretary of War Stanton explained how the troops would travel by rail and the first troops would get there in less than a week.
The reinforcements were so successful that they ended the western campaign of the Civil War and gave the Union complete control of the Mississippi River. Lincoln’s foresight about how to use the new technology disrupted the traditional ways of fighting a war.
In my own life, my grandfather Sam constantly talked about staying current. He talked about the changes he had seen in his lifetime, being born at the turn of the century in a little village in Russia, not knowing what a train or a telephone or a car or a radio was, but by 1960 he was practicing law all over the world using telephones, television, radios, even primitive fax machines and electric typewriters, not to mention dictaphones, airmail, etc. He used to tell me that with these new inventions one secretary could now do the work that it took three secretaries to do when he first opened his law office in the early 1920s. He told me over and over again that in my lifetime I would see even more changes in life, law and technology.
He used to say that it’s not good enough just to keep up, you have to stay a little ahead. If you read some of my previous blogs, you’ll know that he was one of the first to use computer technology in a law office.
In the 1970s, when computerized legal research became possible, one Sunday he called me and said, “Forget about books. They’re old hat. Learn how to use this computerized research. It’s going to revolutionize the law.”
Over and over again, my grandfather warned me that one has to stay current. He himself was a voracious reader, not only of law journals, but also all the important publications of the day, including the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, Time magazine, Newsweek and The Economist. In his late 60s, he went to several conferences on international trade and law. At his death, he owned some stock in a Silicon Valley start-up.
What I am trying to say to anyone except those that are ready to retire is that, in order to keep employed, you are going to have to stay ahead of the curve. You will need to update your skills on a continuous basis. You will need to be prepared or to enter new fields.
Everyone will need a backup plan in case their industry or their portion of the industry is negatively impacted or even eliminated by a new technology.
Look at the industries that either are obsolete or have been replaced in the last twenty years, such as the production of camera film, pay phones, long distance calls, telegrams, typewriters, auto parts such as carburetors, and soon checks and numerous other banking services, etc. This is only a partial list, and every year the list will grow.
It is even better if you have multiple skills and degrees in more than one discipline, such as having a degree in law and another in management of information systems. Another example would be in MBA and management of information systems. Another example would be a degree in engineering and an MBA. You could couple a degree in accounting with all of the other disciplines already mentioned. The combinations are endless.
We owe it to ourselves and to our children to understand that the time when you could graduate from high school and get a good paying, family sustaining job without having any particular saleable skill has ended. Obviously, not everyone should go to college and not everyone should get a graduate or even a post-graduate degree, but everyone needs a skill and they need to keep their skill current.
In my next blog, I will discuss how this applies to child rearing. Again, I want to emphasize that technology is only going to become more disruptive, and you need to be constantly looking for ways to protect your earning capacity from the effects of disruptive technology.