Friday, July 30, 2010

Riding the Exponential

Thanks, and please only take it once. Please re-post the link if you don't mind helping out. Read on if you want to know more about why I'm asking, but fair warning, I wax a bit philosophical.

Having entered the world of parenthood I find myself wondering more and more often about the future that awaits my son. This led me to that very simple question above and as I asked myself, I came to realize that it only mattered so much as to what I believed. It was far more important  as to what our society as whole thought. It is our shared belief that is critical since we -as a collective- ultimately shape the future. Pew recently did an extensive poll on what people thought the year 2050 would be like, but I was curious what those connected to my social network thought.

My initial expectation is that there will be about a 50/50 split in responses. My intuition, however, is that as our future unfolds, there will be more and more people that are optimistic.

You can count me among those already optimistic, because even though I believe we've been headed down the wrong path for some time and even though things seem more overwhelming and more polarized than ever. I have many more reasons to be optimistic. This isn't because I believe the answers to all our problems are already out there, it's because I know that they exist as demonstrated by those pivotal points when our society used its great power to create fundamental change. And for these few moments in time, it's all about riding the exponential.

For some, the concept of exponential growth might be familiar and understandable, but for others it might have a very unclear meaning. Try thinking of it this way. When you are in a car taking an exit ramp that turns, the corner often starts out gradual and then becomes more and more sharp as you come to the end. If you kept the same speed in that corner, you'd feel greater and greater force from the turn. So much so, that you usually need to slow down to keep the tires on the road.

A roller coaster doesn't have to obey those rules though. That's what makes them so much fun. Since they cling to the track and make use of this force to do loops and spirals. Roller coasters allow you to actually feel more of that exponential, which makes it thrilling for some and terrifying to others. So what are these things we've done right and what makes them exponential?

Technology is an obvious one. In 1972, 38 years ago, calculators looked like this.

For the majority of the 4,000 years before that they looked more like this:

A mere 20 years ago we used computers like this:

And just four years ago this was one of the hottest phones:

In just the last few years smart phones that run powerful applications have exploded onto the market and by this time next year they're expected to account for half of the cell phone market. These phones make use of a range of sensors and communication mediums that are radically changing how we interact with the world and they are fully capable of far more than what has already been dreamt up.

The interesting thing about exponential growth is that the amount of change looks pretty flat when you look at the last few years or even periods not long ago. But if you look at the entire time window, the line pitches straight up at the end. Here's an example showing the rate of change over the entire history of homo sapiens.

The point I'm trying to make is that we are already riding an incredible exponential and we need to start learning how to make more sense of what it all means. By the time my son reaches the age of maturity, the change we've seen in the past 20 years will appear as flat to him as the last 100 years were to us (and we think a lot has changed in 100 years). It only grows from there as well. If I am so fortunate, my grandchildren will have a nearly unimaginable range of tools immediately within their reach.

Having developed so many tools in the decades before us, the next few years will really be about learning how to apply them. Right now there is a big tension between having incredible social connectivity and yet almost zero civic connectivity. Not that it is completely impossible to have some civic connectivity now, but more often than not we have no idea what our government representatives support and they, in turn, are often uninformed of their constituents concerns.

The networked world has reached a tipping point however, and I believe this civilian connection is going to start taking shape. From simple polls like the one in this post to detailed sites with all the data, models, and descriptions needed to describe the problem as well as the solutions, policy, and legislation. Linking this all together will be no small challenge, but the tools are finally maturing. All we have to do is start developing that vision of how to use them.

I'll try to keep fumbling through my examples and pointing to cool things already out there, but any thoughts and feedback are always appreciated.


Tom Fiddaman said...

Maybe I'm just a pessimist, but I'm not sure that I buy into this curve.

Certainly there have been and will continue to be advances. But much progress has come at the expense of depletion of sources and sinks, like fossil fuels and climate. I don't think it's a foregone conclusion that tech will outrun the consequences of externalities.

Our problems are not only environmental. Tech also has a lot to do with social problems from rising inequity.

Sitting on the lower limb of a hockey stick, it's extremely difficult to tell whether it's really exponential growth, or a logistic that just hasn't passed its inflection point yet.

Bruce Skarin said...

Thanks for the comment Tom, I don't think it's unreasonable to be pessimistic, just as long as you aren't 100% so. Our technology has indeed pretty much created every severe crisis we face today so it's quite possible tech will not outrun the consequences of externalities.

I think the real question here is what do we do? Do we just continue business as usual and wait for some global disaster that takes us back to some agrarian state? Do we clamp down on growth in a totalitarian way? Or do we embrace technology to reform the entire system?

Unlike the guys at Breakthrough Journal, I'm not saying that technology by itself is going to fix these problems. It is the combination of social and technological change that can see us through.

The fact that we can innovate gadgets so quickly is just one example of what we're capable of. Now that we have all these tools, how can we use them to address both the material and social problems?

It's again reasonable to pessimistic about whether or not our current society is capable of such change. As I've advocated for big political changes, the most constant criticism is that not everybody is we'll informed or educated enough to appreciate technical solutions. Yet this is only a generational issue, just like the flat earth, racism, gay rights, etc.

Jay has continually repeated that we simply must educate kids with System Dynamics, or perhaps more generally, critical thinking skills. Even though it's been a tough road, I still believe that if a critical mass can be reached, we can and in reality must find a way to navigate the future we've created.