Two Mega-Trends

Salim Ismael, founding Executive Director and Global Ambassador of Singularity University, recently identified one of the mega-trends of our times as follows (I’m paraphrasing):

There are those changes that are exponential, like Moore’s Law, the advancements in sequencing genomes, or global knowledge. And there are those changes that remain linear (or are so slow they can be treated as if they were linear), like government, traditional business or energy. Much of the conflict in the world today is a fight between things that change exponentially and things that change linearly. In this conflict, on which side would you like to bet?

This is a brilliant observation, and an exceedingly useful lens to look through to make sense out of our bewildering times.

I’d like to add another mega-trend, one that I think is just as useful and which I first came across in Being Digital by Nicholas Negroponte so many years ago. As old as that book is now, the observation hasn’t sunk in even remotely enough: every year, we use more and more bits instead of atoms (I wrote about this earlier): for example, instead of moving the atoms to drive across town to play chess with my friend on a physical chessboard whose parts had to be cut from a tree and processed and moved in a thousand ways, I download a free chess app onto my iPad and play against the same friend (or anybody else in the world) without moving any atoms whatsoever. This matters because when we move atoms, we fundamentally generate GDP, while when move bits, we don’t.

In cyberspace, economics – the discipline that asks what choices we make under conditions of scarcity – simply does not apply because bits can copied infinitely, at no cost, but at increased value because the information they represent can be used in more places. We can see it all around us: the percentage of our lives we deal with bits is increasing, and percentage of our lives we deal with atoms, is decreasing. Much conflict in the world today can also be explained by the fight between those who try to stop the growth of (free) cyberspace compared to (paid-for) meatspace, or who at least are trying to tie bits to atoms so that conditions of scarcity apply in cyberspace just as much as in meatspace. The trouble is that cyberspace  is putting economics out of business.

Ultimately, both rearguard actions will fail. And we end up with a truly New World that is going to be fundamentally different than anything that came before it. This New World very well may be less comprehensible to us today than being abducted by Martians then in one of those 1950 Sci-Fi movies, at least as long as the Martians have their Martian General Motors and Martian Napster hasn’t occurred there yet.

We do live in interesting times.