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Surviving a Technological Transformation
by Dr. Walt Warnick on Tue, 2 Sep, 2008

The life of every person in the world today has been shaped by successive technological transformations. The printing press transformed communication and education, beginning in the mid 15th century. Sailing and navigation technology of the late 15th century allowed Europeans to learn about other continents, beginning the global network of trade. Metal tools and firearms technology of the early 17th century enabled Europeans to colonize other continents and spread the fruits of European technology around the world. Railroads transformed transportation beginning in the early 19th century, and the telephone transformed communication in the latter part of that century. The automobile transformed transportation beginning early in the 20th century. These are but a few of the notable transformations that profoundly reshaped the way people live.

Today it is the Internet transformation, especially the Web. As a leader in making the Web work for DOE science, OSTI is embedded in the Internet transformation and OSTI itself is being transformed. Our dual core mission -- getting DOE results out to the scientific community and beyond, and getting the community's results into DOE -- has not changed. But the technology we apply to that mission has changed a lot. By carefully adopting Internet technology, and even pioneering new advances in that technology to meet our needs, OSTI achieves its mission better than ever before and has achieved a series of impressive "firsts."

I think all of us at OSTI would agree that getting this far has not been easy. If there is one word that describes what it has been like to be embedded in the Internet transformation, it is "turbulent." In this regard, the Internet transformation is much like the technological transformations that preceded it. Those embedded in transformations find themselves in a rapidly changing world which challenges them to find their own way through unchartered territory. They must be fiercely agile to maintain their place, or they will fail. Such has been the experience of OSTI.

While OSTI's achievements have been significant, the history of other technological transformations shows that we will continue to be challenged to adapt to the Internet. Our transformation means that OSTI must be constantly adjusting, adapting, and struggling to find the right path forward, or we will soon be left on the ash heap of history. Our mission has always been to share knowledge to promote science. The internet allows us to do this better, faster, at a lower cost per transaction. But OSTI will fail if we cannot continuously adopt and adapt to the Internet transformation as it is going through its life cycle. The life cycle of a transformational technology is an S-curve of growth, with a long, slow incubation period, followed by an exponential explosion of growth, then a slowing into a long tail of mature, modest development. The Internet is in the explosive phase, with a host of new sub-technologies that we are just beginning to explore.

We are looking hard at a number of innovations. We are poised to add online commenting on Information Bridge reports, in effect making every report a potential blog. We are just beginning to carve out our role in non-text data. See http://www.osti.gov/dataexplorer . We are developing a product to showcase DOE's educational content, at both the K-12 and college levels, including an innovative learning level search capability that is in development. Science Conferences Proceedings taps only a few percent of the available content. Worldwidescience.org content is mushrooming, while Science.gov is looking hard at federal educational content, following OSTI's lead.

Another characteristic common to all technological transformations is that it is impossible to reliably anticipate the future beyond a few years. While we may be assured that we will be challenged to adapt to evolving technology, the specifics are largely unpredictable. One thing for certain, however, is that there is no going back.

 

Walt Warnick

 

Other Related Topics: milestones

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About the Author

Dr. Walt Warnick's picture
Dr. Walt Warnick
Former Director, U.S. DOE Office of Scientific and Technical Information