Electricity got its first commercial use in the telegraph in 1837, and by 1870 it was coming into use for street lights and industrial machinery, but it had yet to appear in private homes. It took about a century for electricity to reach its full potential.
Why so long? Engineers had to resolve complex challenges posed by this revolutionary new energy source. Entrepreneurs fought for a piece of the emerging market. There was a long-running battle between alternating current (AC) and direct current (DC). (Thomas Edison was a diehard champion of DC.) Patent lawsuits proliferated. Government took forever to adapt with laws and regulations needed to assure safety, access and competition. Financial markets had to raise vast sums to fund generation plants and a network of distribution lines.
Everyone with any sense could see that electricity would remake the world we live in, but it was not possible to imagine how it would all work out, anticipate the challenges and adjudicate the conflicts quickly. Also, it took a long time for industry to conceive and produce the myriad machines and consumer products that were made possible by electricity -- and which boosted productivity and economic growth to unprecedented levels.
We are today wrestling with a similar challenge as we attempt to envision the potential applications of digital technology, anticipate the challenges and adjudicate conflicting interests in order to achieve its full potential. We are now caught up in the "gadget phase" of the digital revolution, awaiting the latest new tricks from Silicon Valley. But gadgets are not the main story.
The core challenge is using digital technology to boost productivity -- like electricity did. How do we quickly translate the creative genius of digital technology into useful applications in industry and commerce? How do we harness the new power and bend it to our will? In sum, how can we grease the skids and accelerate the march of technology to get our economy growing?
We know the technology revolution augurs great progress, but how can we step it up? This challenge is so big that government must take the lead -- fostering broad-based collaboration of business, science, academia, entrepreneurs, engineers, government and risk capital to hasten the interconnection of all computer-based systems we depend upon, expanding the Internet of things, making fast Internet access available to everyone, and minimizing silos of proprietary software in favor of universal service and accessibility. In particular, we need to encourage more rapid infusion of advanced technology into our two most stubbornly inefficient sectors - medicine and education -- where it is urgently needed.
But the first task is to recognize the fundamental challenge -- accelerating the process of integrating advanced technology into our economy to boost productivity. This will be a highly complex undertaking demanding buy-in from many. In a year, we will have a new President. He or she should immediately convene a high level commission representing all affected sectors to develop a comprehensive plan to accelerate the digital revolution, realizing its potential to boost economic growth. Electricity took a century; we cannot afford to wait that long for this.
Jerry Jasinowski, an economist and author, served as President of the National Association of Manufacturers for 14 years and later The Manufacturing Institute. Jerry is available for speaking engagements.