I have been a follower of Azeem Azhar. I love his weekly newsletter which describes a wide range of exponential trends. Hence picking up “Exponential: How Accelerating Technology Is Leaving Us Behind and What to Do About It.”
Lots of books about exponential
The expectations were high. However, the book competes with a lot of books about exponential. He explains that technology is unpredictable. Sometimes moving slowly, sometimes causing rapid and seismic transformations. Where human society is the ultimate ‘complex system’; it is made up of countless, constantly interacting elements – individuals, households, governments, companies, beliefs, technologies.
He writes about the ‘exponential gap’. The chasm between new forms of technology – along with the fresh approaches to business, work, politics and civil society they bring about – and the corporations, employees, politics and wider social norms that get left behind. Many people outside of the world of technology make no effort to understand it nor to develop the right response to it. Politicians frequently demonstrate a fundamental ignorance about even the most basic workings of mainstream technologies. That is a big problem. Because the impact of technology on society is profound.
Inevitably the book covers Moore´s law (more powerful), Wrights law (everything cheaper), network effects, globalisation, diffusion, acceleration, technology layers reinforcing each other, S-curves, etc. Technologies such as solar, genetics, synthetic biology, energy storage, 3D printing, AI and quantum computing are jumping far beyond Moore´s law by a factor of 500 or Moore (this is a word joke). Using examples such as Amazon, Tesla, Facebook, PayPal, Microsoft, Google, eBay, Alibaba, Tencent, Salesforce, Netflix, and the winner takes all economy we have created. Entrepreneurs who understand blitzscaling, and creating monopolies. The corporate giants of the future will take increasingly dominant market positions, both within and across sectors.
The book II
The book also covers the move to more local production (3D, vertical farming), the role of cities, the future of warfare, cyber security, computational propaganda. disinformation, homophily, drones, hacking, IoT, autonomous systems, brain-computing interfaces etc. As he explains, for every new attack surface, there is a new attack method. Technology is giving access to a lot of attack surfaces (starting with you as a person). As a result, The world is getting spikier.
When al-Qaeda operatives attacked New York and Washington in September 2001, it fell to the US military to respond. When Maersk and Mondelez were hit by cyberattacks almost two decades later, corporations mounted the first defences. The US military formed its Cyber Command in 2010. Britain only launched its own National Cyber Force – an amalgam of its military, top spies, codebreakers and defence scientists – in 2020. Governments are too slow.
We are no longer just living in a period of exponential technologies – but at a time when these technologies and their effects are a defining force in our society. We are hopeless at understanding exponential growth. The gap between our institutions’ capacity to change and our new technologies’ accelerating speed is the defining consequence of our shift into the Exponential Age.
Our institutions cannot cope
For all the visibility of exponential change, most of the institutions that make up our society follow a linear trajectory. Codified laws and unspoken social norms; legacy companies and NGOs; political systems and intergovernmental bodies – all have only ever known how to adapt incrementally. Stability is an important force within institutions. In fact, it’s built into them. As a result, there is a gap between the speed of technological and social change and the speed of law, tax and governance. In general, governments have been caught off guard by the rapidity with which the Exponential Age titans have grown.
The digital infrastructure undergirds much of our personal, political and public lives. If this infrastructure is exclusively owned and operated by private firms, we will increasingly cease to be fully-fledged citizens. We will be mere consumers.
The impact on work
Exponential is impacting the way we organise work. Azhar takes a benign view on the impact on jobs in the future. It might be no har to read “The end of jobs“. The book also warns about the surveillance culture within some workplaces (half of 239 large corporations were monitoring the content of employee emails and social media accounts). Technology allows for Taylorism on steroids.
Impact on media
Before the internet was widespread, media was controlled by a small number of TV, radio and newspaper outlets. They talked; you listened. The internet has set our public sphere free. And yet, paradoxically, that same public sphere is increasingly concentrated in a few people’s hands. Businesses, most notably those that use data to sell advertising, have become addicted to our digital trails. But this creates a problem: we are all being profiled on the basis not just of our behaviour but also of our demography. In the Exponential Age, what gets measured gets managed. And in a data economy, we are the ones being measured.
Extremism and data economics
The algorithms have discovered that the best way to do that is to promote progressively more borderline and extreme material. Videos about vegetarianism led to videos about veganism. Videos about jogging led to videos about running ultramarathons. YouTube may be one of the most powerful radicalising instruments of the 21st century. The data economies of the Exponential Age are radicalising us and dividing us – limiting our ability to be good citizens.
Impact on the public sphere
The emergence of new, private rule-makers – whose growing power amounts to the privatising the ‘public sphere’. Private companies now make the laws that define our lives. Our public conversation takes place on private platforms. The most intimate details of our personal lives are bought and sold for profit. It is the privatisation of the way we interact with one another. It is the encroachment of markets into our private lives.
We are in a race
We’re in a race not just to limit the new rule-makers influence but also to return power to somewhere it will be exercised openly – to put exponential citizens, acting in their collective interest, in control.
A plea for commons
The commons are the things that are shared communally – the fish in international waters, or a forest that is shared between a community. The political economist Elinor Ostrom won a Nobel Prize in 2009 for her work demonstrating that the commons – our shared resources – can be well-stewarded without the need to privatise them or, indeed, nationalise them. In Ostrom’s view, the commons are vibrant and self-governing, a complex system that can thrive because it is governed by a patchwork of formal and informal norms. Imagine a world where data resided in data commons. Commons approaches can also be used not merely to share assets but to produce them. Read “Doughnut economics“. A plea for the commons.
The open-source software that powers the engines of web servers and other key internet services is one. No one owns open-source projects; there are no managers in charge, and no one can prevent anyone from contributing or spinning up an alternative project. The best example of such a peer-based commons is Wikipedia: In many cases, commons-based projects have proven to be more successful than commercial ones.
It is not all bad news
- Within a decade, computer power will be 100 times cheaper than it is now.
- A dollar spent will buy you at least 100 times more computing power than you get today.
- A decade from now, renewable electricity from solar or wind plants will be five times cheaper and perhaps more – likely a quarter of the 2020 price.
- The batteries used in electric vehicles will probably be a third of the price they were in 2020.
- A decade from now, human genome sequences will be approaching a dollar apiece.
- Soon you might have access to hospital-grade diagnostics from your neighbourhood pharmacy.
- Cheap wearable devices and regular testing of your blood and microbiota might allow doctors to catch many conditions before they become serious.
- A decade from now, scores of nanosatellites providing real-time sensor data might help us keep track of our natural resources.
- Scientists plan to map and track every single one of the 3 trillion trees on the planet to better understand rates of deforestation – which will be critical in managing our carbon budget.
- Vertical farms could reduce our dependence on water and other resources, all the while providing healthier, more nutritious food to our cities.
- Exponential technologies can help us tackle human crises like climate change. But the technology alone is not enough. Without the right governance, they may still lead us down the road of overconsumption and environmental catastrophe.
In short, we are entering an age of abundance. This ultimately leads to near free (Chris Anderson wrote a book with the same title about this).
It is about power
The biggest concern is the dramatic shift in the locus of power that exponential technologies bring about. We need to rethink the relationship between citizens and society, particularly surrounding the role of the market in our lives. That is the key message. This is ultimately private vs commons and the speed at which we respond. We need a new capitalist manifesto.