The Sound of Progress

Had you been trying to read this post a mere 15 years ago, you first would have had to dial in to the Internet, triggering an unmistakable sound.

This week, the radio program “Take Two,” on Southern California’s KPCC, ran a wonderful segment on bygone noises (starting around the 43-minute mark here)—from the pings of a modem to the blips of old video games to the woman on the phone who used to tell us the time.

Image credit: Tara Nova
Image credit: Tara Nova

We enjoyed the audible journey. But if it hinted at something larger, it was the pace of change (a topic weve tackled before). One notable quality of the sounds—and a similar set of sounds featured recently in Wired—is that they are from a mere 20 or 30 years ago.  The world is changing so fast that even Millennials are experiencing a powerful sense of nostalgia and wonderment over the recently bygone.

Born in Austria in 1909, Peter Drucker certainly understood the relentlessness of change. The soundscape of his youth would have included many sounds that are no longer with us: the din of hand-cranked sirens (blaring through a war-torn Europe), the clattering of newsroom typewriters (from his journalism days) and the clacking of ticker tape (from his time in banking).

But Drucker was rarely given to displays of nostalgia. When he referred to the term, it was usually in the context of disapproval—as in “naïve nostalgia,” “futile nostalgia,” and “nostalgic delusion.”

Instead, as a “social ecologist,” Drucker was engrossed with trying to understand what was happening now and what would happen next—making sense of the dramatic change unfolding in the world. “Every few hundred years throughout Western history a sharp transformation has occurred,” Drucker explained in Managing in a Time of Great Change. “In a matter of decades, society altogether rearranged itself—its worldview, its basic values, its social and political structures, its arts, its key institutions. Fifty years later a new world exists.” He added, “Ours is such a period of transformation.” He did not expect it to be over until about 2020.

In Drucker’s view, the great change of our times was that we became a knowledge society. What triggered it?

Drucker admitted it was pure speculation. Some would point to the invention of the computer. Others would point the rise of Japan as a non-Western economic power—which signaled that the knowledge economy was a global phenomenon. “My own candidate would be the American G.I. Bill of Rights after World War II, which gave every returning American soldier the money to attend a university,” he wrote in Post-Capitalist Society. “The G.I. Bill of Rights—and the enthusiastic response to it on the part of America’s veterans—signaled the shift to the knowledge society. Future historians may well consider it the most important event of the 20th Century.”

What do you consider to be the most transformative technology or policy of the past 60 years—and why?