In ancient China, when familiar words and ways of thinking no longer accurately described the realities of the day, philosophers spoke of the need to "rectify names" so that concepts would correspond to the new order of things.

This is one of those times. Developments in science and social organization are altering the world profoundly -- too profoundly for conventional habits of thinking to grasp.

History suggests that mankind rarely understands revolutionary change at the time it is coming about. When concepts eventually catch up with the pace of change, new definitions and descriptions are applied: the Agricultural Age, the Bronze Age, the Industrial Revolution were named long after the fact.

So if we are in such a time of transformation, what kind of age is it that we are entering? What do we need to know and do about it?

I am not here to offer a definitive analysis of the global trends now under way, but to survey the present scene -- in Emerson's words -- from "an original relation to the universe." In this time of profound change, one of the hardest adjustments to make is intellectual adjustment. We must discard outdated habits of thinking and make room for new possibilities.

Just how different is this era we have entered?

From one point of view, it was the 19th century's radical intellectual, ideological, spiritual, moral and social revolutions that shattered the "eternal verities." In a way, we have not fully adjusted yet to those epic events.

Today's -- and tomorrow's -- revolutionary changes are of a different nature. They are characterized by greater size and speed; they are both centrifugal and centripetal in their impact, dispersing yet concentrating activities, influences, and decisions.

First, the very material substances that surround us in everyday life are being transformed. Physically, synthetic materials make objects lighter, stronger, more durable. But they are changing societies and economies too, because their emergence affects supply and demand for natural raw materials. One new material substance -- ceramics -- has led researchers around the world to superconductivity, which in turn may profoundly alter one foundation stone of all human activity: energy. Another such foundation -- food -- no longer limits by its production the possibility of world population growth. Biotechnology in agriculture has stood Malthus on his head.

The same scientific progress that has altered the nature of these basic substances has also accelerated the speed of human transactions. Time and space are calculated in ever-smaller units. Success in every field depends increasingly upon how quickly ideas can be transformed into reality. The speed at which information flows has already created a global financial market. Markets are no longer places, but electronic networks.

Along with these alterations in substance and speed have come changes in magnitude. Scientific, economic, political matters are global in dimension and enormous in extent. They are outstripping the traditional means by which governments dealt with them. The amount of money that changes hands in the global financial market in one day exceeds $1 trillion -- more than the entire budget of the U.S. government for a year. Such flows transcend national boundaries and can overwhelm rigid economic policies. Manufacturing processes similarly are becoming global in scale. I recently saw a snapshot of a shipping label for some intergrated circuits produced by an American firm. It said, "Made in one or more of the following countries: Korea, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Singapore, Taiwan, Mauritius, Thailand, Indonesia, Mexico, Philippines. The exact country of origin is unknown." That label says a lot about where current trends are taking us.

The thread that runs through all these things is knowledge: its discovery, its rapid transmission as information and the education needed to use it. Access to ideas, no matter where they are developed, becomes the key to scientific and economic progress.

For example, the growth sector for employment is the "service sector," particularly in finance, data processing, software, engineering and management consultation. "Services" is a misleading designation. These activities are centered on ideas, but have all the characteristics of the production of what we traditionally call "goods." So it is time, as the ancient Chinese would have recognized, for "a rectification of names."

Changes in materials, magnitudes, knowledge and the speed of its dissemination: the opportunities offered by these changes are immense -- and America and other open societies are beautifully situated to make the most of this era ahead. But there are troubling implications of change to consider as well. Emerson would put it down to his principle of "compensation" -- no aspect of progress comes free of some drawback.

For many nations, the emerging era means new problems. Countries that cannot or will not compete in the global marketplace and interact with ideas from other societies will find themselves falling behind the advanced innovators and producers. Some of those countries may be able to absorb what the innovators develop and may register moderate growth. But the quality and technological content of that growth will remain limited by the inability of such countries to adjust to rapid change.

Other nations -- single-commodity countries and agricultural and industrial subsistence economies -- are in danger of becoming marginal participants in the "Information Age" economy, living as in eras past. Some lack the human and physical infrastructure to create and exploit economic opportunities. Others are held back by the inflexible nature of their political and social systems.

Yet even those that fall further behind economically can partake of some of the fruits of the new age -- fruits that unfortunately are not sufficiently forbidden. Wars in the Third World are being fought with increasing sophistication and firepower. The spread of modern technical skill coincides with the modern resurgence of age-old ethnic, religious and communal conflict. Beyond the Iran-Iraq war, we see fighting in Sri Lanka, ethnic conflict in Fiji, the devastation of Lebanon, Sino-Indian border tensions, the New Caledonia and Cyprus disputes, the continuing Arab-Israeli conflict.

Such tensions have always been part of human history. What is new is the heightened possibility that they will become wider and more deadly conflagrations through the misuse of relatively sophisticated weaponry. In the Iran-Iraq war, we see how readily available on the world arms market are missiles such as the Exocet, the Scud and the Silkworm. And many developing countries are becoming not just purchasers and users -- but adept manufacturers -- of military hardware considered highly advanced only a few years ago.

We have long feared the dangers of nuclear proliferation. Now we face a worldwide diffusion and use of chemical weapons -- thus breaching the international moral consensus of more than half a century. But this growing capacity to acquire or produce and employ such weapons unfortunately is not the whole story. Violence itself is undergoing a qualitative change, as terrorists and narcotics traffickers spread new forms of destruction around the world. We now recognize the long, tough battle we are fighting with these modern-day barbarians, equipped with effective weaponry and uninhibited by traditional norms of civilized conduct.

Drawing from the example of science, we must create a more just and decent social order from the elements of our understanding. Human society has no unique or preordained social pattern. Our God-given goal is to fulfill ourselves through the social and cultural institutions that we ourselves create, and to leave this world a better place than when we entered.

The writer is secretary of state. This is excerpted from an address before the World Affairs Council of Washington on Dec. 4.