Memo: The Timeline on Technology Adoption has Just Been Advanced

By Ken Smith, Stanford Center on Longevity

“How did you go bankrupt?” Two ways. Gradually, then suddenly.”―Ernest Hemingway

In the past decade, we have witnessed a dramatic leap forward in digital technology, but it is questionable whether our day to day lives have changed in proportion. Many of the activities of daily life – school, shopping, socializing, exercising, commuting, working – have only changed incrementally. The COVID-19 virus and societies’ response may be changing that in a hurry.

The gradual part of the change has been the creation of the technology itself. When I was part of Intel Research’s university labs in the early 2000’s, much of the work was around the idea of “Ubiquitous Computing” – the idea that computing is everywhere, all the time (as opposed to desktop computing, which was the standard at the time). The infrastructure for this vision has essentially been realized. Most of us now carry more computing power in our pocket than NASA needed to put a man on the moon. Cellular bandwidth is so good that we are annoyed when we have to wait 10 seconds for a video to load while we are walking in the park. GPS means that almost no one carries a paper map. In the past twenty years we have re-written what is possible.

The “suddenly” part is now upon us. With most of Silicon Valley’s offices closed, companies and employees are using existing tools like Zoom, Google Drive, Skype, and Slack to maintain productivity. Will these companies now reflect on the cost of maintaining large physical campuses on some of the most expensive real estate in the world? Will employees be willing to sit in traffic for hours to commute from affordable housing after experiencing an alternative? Will we be willing to risk infection by going to a medical clinic when we just had a remote appointment? Will we find schools to be more effective when we find we can leverage the best teachers in the world across thousands of students? The virus has us implementing the future, not just thinking about it.

We are walking through a one-way door. Cultural adoption of change is happening at warp speed and the only thing that is certain is that the world will never look the same again.