Trying to make sense of the future is difficult. To quote Tim O’Reilly, the author of “WTF?: What’s the Future and Why It’s Up to Us”; “Everything is amazing, everything is horrible, and it’s all moving too fast. We are facing a set of paradoxes today.
It is complex
The magical technologies of today, and choices we’ve already made, decades ago, about what we value as a society, are leading us down a path with complex contingencies, unseen dangers, and decisions that we don’t even know we are making.
No Ordinary Disruption
“No Ordinary Disruption” points out quite correctly that technology is only one of four major disruptive forces shaping the world to come. Demographics (in particular, changes in longevity and the birth rate that have radically shifted the mix of ages in the global population), globalisation, and urbanisation may play at least as large a role as technology. And even that list fails to take into account catastrophic war, plague, or environmental disruption.
The future comes in fits and starts, and it is often when times are darkest that the brightest futures are being born.
Everything is mapping
We need a map. When an entrepreneur or venture capitalist goes to work each day, he or she has a mental map of the technology and business landscape. They put the world in categories: friend or acquaintance, ally or competitor, important or unimportant, urgent or trivial, future or past. For each category, we have a mental map.
Each entrepreneur, each inventor, is also an explorer, trying to make sense of what’s possible, what works and what doesn’t, and how to move forward. Creating the right map is the first challenge we face in making sense.
Before you can understand how to deal with AI, on-demand applications, and the disappearance of middle-class jobs, and how these things can come together into a future we want to live in, we have to make sure we aren’t blinded by old ideas. We have to see patterns that cross old boundaries.
History is a map and is a wave that moves through time slightly faster than we do. Mark Twain is reputed to have said, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.” Study history and notice the patterns. Look for repeating patterns and ask yourself what the next iteration is going to be.
Move to the fringes
It is almost always the case that if you want to see the future, you have to look not at the technologies offered by the mainstream but by the innovators out at the fringes. This is a key lesson in how to see the future: bring people together who are already living in it. Science fiction writer William Gibson famously observed, “The future is already here. It’s just not evenly distributed yet.”
The map or the road
Train yourself to recognise when you are looking at the map instead of on the road. Mapping is difficult. Reality itself is fundamentally unknowable since what is, is always mediated by our nervous system.
Language itself is a kind of map. Our experience is shaped by the words we use. Recognising when you’re stuck in the words, looking at the map rather than looking at the road, is something that is surprisingly hard to learn.
Look at companies
Look at companies or group of companies that best exemplify the next wave of technology. “Unpacking” the lessons of that company can help you draw your map of the future.
Spot the unicorns
1. It seems unbelievable at first. 2. It changes the way the world works. 3. It results in an ecosystem of new services, jobs, business models, and industries.
Tune in to the signals
Try to tune in to very different signals by watching the innovators who did what they do out of love and curiosity, not a desire to make a fortune. Radically new industries don’t start when creative entrepreneurs meet venture capitalists. They start with people who are infatuated with seemingly impossible futures. Find seeds of that future, study them, and ask yourself how things will be different when they are the new normal. What happens if this trend keeps going?
Law of Conservation of Attractive Profits
Consider Clayton Christensen’s Law of Conservation of Attractive Profits. When one thing becomes commoditised, something else becomes valuable. You must ask ourselves what will become valuable as today’s tasks become commoditised.
“What happens if this goes on?”
Look at restaurants, food, artisans. Look at what rich people do today.
Moore’s law and government
Moore’s Law has an alarming consequence for governments. If government’s slow, change-resistant technology procurement processes mean that it is five or six years behind the private sector, the three or four exponential generations of Moore’s Law that have passed will make its capabilities ten times worse.
Whole sectors of the population are now led by vastly divergent maps. How are we to solve the world’s most pressing problems when we aren’t even trying to create maps that reflect the actual road ahead, but instead drive toward political or business goals?
The famous IBM CEO remarked that he saw no need for more than five computers worldwide. He was wrong by 4. For all practical purposes, there is now only one computer. Google is now running on well over a million servers, using services distributed across those servers to deliver instant access to documents and services available from nearly a hundred million other independent web servers—to users running on billions of smartphones and PCs. The Network is the Computer.
Collective intelligence applications are no longer being driven solely by humans typing on keyboards but, increasingly, by sensors. Our phones and cameras are being turned into eyes and ears for applications; motion and location sensors tell where we are, what we’re looking at, and how fast we’re moving. Data is being collected, presented, and acted upon in real-time. The scale of participation has increased by orders of magnitude.
Google’s search engine is the pervasive neocortex of the information economy, a critical component of the global brain that the Internet has become, connecting billions of humans with the data and documents we collectively create.
Some of the questions from the book
- What happens when products to cost less every year but do more?
- Is the smartphone is becoming a remote control for real life?
- What happens when on-demand is becoming a universal consumer expectation?
- What happens when you augment people?
- Is jobless the same as workless?
- What happens when you are managed by algorithms (and you don’t understand the algorithm)?
- Are we becoming an “algocracy”?
- Whose black box do you trust?
- What happens to companies when everything becomes digital?
- What are the combinatorial effects of new technology (without digital photography, would there be Amazon, eBay, Etsy, or Airbnb)?
- What is the impact of “thick marketplaces,” a critical mass of consumers and producers, readers and writers, or buyers and sellers?
- Does an online service and the organisation that produces and manages, need to become inseparable?
- Are we all inside the application? Are we all the new synapses for the global brain?
- Will the labour market become like Lyft and Uber or Wallmart and McDonalds? Why do we regulate labour?
- What does history tell us about winner-take-all (the French revolution might be worthwhile studying)?
- What if, an AI was more like a multicellular organism, an evolution beyond our single-celled selves?
- What if we were not even the cells of such an organism, but its microbiome, the vast ecology of microorganisms that inhabits our bodies?
- What happens if we ban “thin value” and business exist to serve human needs?
- Why do we treat purely financial investments as equivalent to real business investment (only around 15% of the money flowing from financial institutions actually makes its way into a business investment)
- What happens startups are beginning to turn away from the financial market casino and trying to build real businesses again?
- What happens if we move from measure ourselves on shareholder value to metrics around job growth or income growth?
- What happens if we dampen the impact of super money?
- Are we measuring the right things? For example, if you take down your clothesline and buy an electric clothes dryer, the electric consumption of the nation rises slightly. If you go in the other direction and remove the electric clothes dryer and install a clothesline, the consumption of electricity drops slightly, but there is no credit given anywhere on the charts and graphs to solar energy, which is now drying the clothes.
- What will the impact of basic income on the creative economy?
- When technology moves far faster than the education system, what happens? Read “Robot proof“
- Should we introduce a golden share? In The Entrepreneurial State, Mariana Mazzucato details the role of government in funding the innovations that are embodied in products such as the iPhone, pharmaceutical and agricultural innovation, and the new private space race. She makes the case that startups commercialising government-funded research should pay royalties into a “National Innovation Fund” or issue a “golden share”—an undilutable percentage ownership to the public—precisely in order to capture a portion of the value as and if created.
- What is the essence of the Maker movement? Making for the joy of exploration. Making to learn. The idea is that if we really want to have mastery over our tools, we have to be able to get inside them, understand how they work, and modify them.
- The role of social capital (contextually dependent know-how, which is valuable when shared by a critical mass of people)
- Should you forget about disruption, and instead to work on stuff that matters.
- Should you pursue something so important that even if you fail, the world is better off for you having tried.
- Should you create value for your communities and your customers as well as yourself?
- Should you create a self-reinforcing value loop with and for others?
- Who will have the money to buy tomorrow’s products in an increasingly automated world?
- Should we mitigate against the enormous economic losses from pollution? (China has estimated these losses to its economy as 10% of GDP)
- Should we radically change our economy to cater for 9 billion people?
- Should we change from “we need jobs” to “we have a job to do”? What happens when “work,” not “jobs,” becomes the organising principle for our map of the future labour economy.
Ultimately is all about this
Moral choice, not intelligence or creativity, is our greatest asset. Things may get much worse before they get better. But we can choose instead to lift each other up, to build an economy where people matter, not just profit. We can dream big dreams and solve big problems. Instead of using technology to replace people, we can use it to augment them so they can do things that were previously impossible.