While 2016 has been an annus horribilis overall (unless you’re a racist, in which case, it’s probably a magical time to be alive), it has a been a great year for books helping us attempt to understand the heady times we live in.
Most people would agree that we live in a state of rapid change. In their book Whiplash, Joi Ito and Jeff Howe call it “exponential times” due to asymmetry (small can now beat big), complexity (interconnectedness at scale) and uncertainty (our existing institutions haven’t evolved to handle current situation). This provokes many questions, but one immediate one is: will this continue?
In his book The Inevitable, Kevin Kelly answers this with a resounding “yes.” The book outlines the twelve technological forces that will keep the rate of change high for the foreseeable future. Kelly, an original Wired editor, is an accomplished writer and technologist, leading to spare sentences full of insight such as:
We are moving away from the world of fixed nouns and toward a world of fluid verbs.
In the intangible digital realm, nothing is static or fixed. Everything is becoming.
Technological life in the future will be a series of endless upgrades.
In this era of “becoming,” everyone becomes a newbie. Worse, we will be newbies forever. That should keep us humble.
Kelly’s thesis is that we are moving into a world called Protopia where there is a constant, steady accumulation of positive changes, but similarly an increase in new problems. The net is positive, so society advances. We all get mobile phones with the internet but have to listen to occasional idiots shout into their Bluetooth headsets while walking down the street.
Kelly’s book dives deep into the twelve forces and backs each up with a wealth of sometimes obscure information. Printing drove the number of word available from 50,000 in Old English to over 1,000,000 today! Dematerialization means that one kilogram of inputs produced $1.64 in GDP in 1977 and $3.58 in 2000!
These stats are neither cocktail party fodder nor petty stats, rather an attempt to demonstrate the inexorable march of technology and illustrate that we are nowhere near the end of the path.
Kelly also gets full points for offering predictions of what the future will look like – and acknowledging both that futurists are almost always comically wrong and he is essentially guaranteed to be incorrect. This leads to paragraphs like the following:
If you’d like to have a vivid picture of someone interacting with a portable device in the year 2050, imagine them using their eyes to visually “select” from a set of rapidly flickering options on the screen, confirming with lazy audible grunts, and speedily fluttering their hands in their laps or at their waist. A person mumbling to herself while her hands dance in front of her will be the signal in the future that she is working on her computer.
If you had to distill what this means for humanity, Kelly attempts to summarize it in a few sentences:
We are marching inexorably toward firmly connecting all humans and all machines into a global matrix. This matrix is not an artifact, but a process. Our new supernetwork is a standing wave of change that steadily spills forward new arrangements of our needs and desires.
His thesis is that networks represent a fundamental change in the distribution of power. A small group of terrorists called ISIS can use networks to take on all of Western society in a completely asymmetrical game. ISIS is small and geographically isolated but as they tap into networks like Facebook, Twitter, or Telegram a phase change occurs and a more complex organization with disproportionate reach emerges.
Ramo has one critical insight for policy makers: whoever has the biggest network wins. The reason, is that networks compress time, enabling the biggest network to sustain its advantage as its members save time, creating a virtuous cycle where the big get bigger.
This is a simple sentence but it has profound implications. Like Kelly, Ramo offers a few speculative suggestions, but his are focused on how America can create networks to maintain political advantage. (As a reader I love these; speculative narratives are a great mechanism for reinforcing what the author means)
Examples? Retool the NIH and global affiliates to create a network of learning centers. Membership in the network means you share info and get access to that of others. Or have the State Department create a digital currency (a la Bitcoin) backed by US dollars (not a al Bitcoin). Give the digital currency directly to people in need and simply cancel digital dollars if taken by middlemen/corrupt officials. The network trumps all and no physical dollars need ever leave America.
The book is thought-provoking as it is the first attempt I have ever seen to apply the lessons of the Internet to government policy. We’ve seen the use of the Internet to get politicians elected but I’d argue it hasn’t materially changed their policy. Ramo’s book portends a networked political future.
A complicated system has a lot of parts but is predictable (a jet engine) whereas a complex system has feedback loops between the components making it unpredictable (the weather). He shows how systems everywhere – the stock market, air traffic control, Toyota’s brake systems – have accumulated so much interrelated cruft that complex systems pop up everywhere.
He cites Danny Hillis (a favored practitioner and philosopher of all the authors) in stating: “Our technology has gotten so complex that we no longer can understand it or fully control it. We have entered the Age of Entanglement. . . . Each expert knows a piece of the puzzle, but the big picture is too big to comprehend.”
Arbesman cites example after example of modern complexity and then offers an approach for managing it. Essentially, look to biological systems and embrace the fact that you will not know how everything works:
We must work to maintain two opposing states: mystery without wonder and wonder without mystery. The first requires that we strive to eliminate our ignorance, rather than simply reveling in it. And the second means that once we understand something, we do not take it for granted.
If this sounds a little Zen-like, then you will hate the recommendations of Ito and Howe in Whiplash. They offer nine principles – each of which is almost a koan – to navigate the exponential age. Emergence over authority. Pull over push. Compasses over maps. Practice over theory. Resilience over strength. etc.
The lens through which they see the world is the MIT Media Lab; Ito is the director and Howe a visiting scholar. They consider it-not unreasonably-a window into a possible model for the future and have tried to distill what they have learned into a series of principles.
There principles are definitely the most controversial part of any of the four books mentioned in this post. Since they are offering a way to navigate the future they lack the tested empiricism of the other authors. You are left with a sense of “trust me” with some of their recommendations but I see several of them embedded in what has made my employer successful so I am more than willing to give them the benefit of the doubt.
I appreciate the authors’ humility when they closed their book with an admission that they’re not prophets but guides:
We’re not trying to sell you a way to organize your workdays or an exercise regimen, and we’re definitely not trying to make you believe in our vision of the future, because we don’t have one, other than a ﬁrm belief it will be very, very different from the world we inhabit right now. We do have an argument to make: Innovation isn’t about learning how to use social media to generate sales leads. And modifying a business for a networked globe will require more than buying fancy teleconferencing gear for your management team. Instead, we think it requires a deeper, more fundamental shift: an entirely new mode of thinking-a cognitive evolution on the scale of a quadruped learning to stand on its hind two feet.
There is an apocryphal Chinese curse that “may you live in interesting times.” We certainly live in interesting times and I’d encourage you to embrace it. These four books will help you do so.