Wednesday, August 03, 2022

The Loss of Distance and Justification to Worry

Historically distance has limited what we must worry about.  Our cave-dwelling ancestors only had to worry about being heard, seen or smelled by predators or enemies in their immediate surroundings. 

As time went by large human armies could retreat and separate themselves by 100 miles, which during the Roman era equated to 5 days of marching.  That meant they didn't have to worry about a battle happening for at least 5 days.  Today it is different. One hundred miles equates to mere seconds. The security of distance has died.  Today, we must worry about wider circles.

A hypersonic missile can reach the other side of the earth in minutes.  As a result, nations and their military commanders must now make critical decisions in seconds. In some ways this might reduce worry - as the object of concern happens before we even know it.  It does, however, highlight the existential risk that results from the death of distance and our need to pay attention to wider circles.

As the speed of communications, information and movement increased, so also the justification for worry.  Threats beyond the mountains and over the horizon now concern us.  Today, competition and threats can be instant, global and projected via satellite.  Cyber attacks, information operations and social engineering campaigns, disinformation, reputational attacks and election interferences can all come from locations anywhere in the world.  Again, distance has lost its defensive value.

Paul Virilio, a philosopher of speed that I quote routinely, wrote at length about the impact of speed and distance (or the lack thereof) on society.  He wrote that speed compresses both time and distance. Where once it took information in the form of a letter nearly 6 months to arrive on the other side of the world, a chat message today can now arrive instantaneously.  Today's near real-time communications has already changed how nations are governed, markets operate and commerce is conducted.  The irrelevance of distance, and the un-human time frames involved mean humans are quickly giving way to automation, AI and algorithms in these processes.

Compressed times and distances also mean businesses must operate at an operational tempo that surpasses human capabilities.  To support real-time digital interactions, organizations will increasingly need to compete with and depend upon automation and artificial intelligence to deliver exceptional experiences, make decisions and deliver products and services at the speeds required by today's consumers.

Increasingly, in a world of compressed times and distances, humans will be the inventors, designers and managers of systems and processes, rather than the operators.  Operations will be measured in milliseconds, a speed where only the machines can deliver - so don't you worry about it.  

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Kevin Benedict
Partner | Futurist at TCS
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***Full Disclosure: These are my personal opinions. No company is silly enough to claim them. I work with and have worked with many of the companies mentioned in my articles.