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Why Things Always Get Better

2013 July 28
by Greg Satell

It often seems like we live in a cursed age.  All of the major economies have hit hard economic times, atmospheric carbon is the highest in recorded history and the spectre of terrorism looms over everything.  Still, even as our problems appear to be unprecedentedly large, we are able to muster the power to solve them.

Foreign Policy magazine proclaimed the first 10 years of the 21st century to be the best decade ever.  Global incomes are rising, while poverty is falling and has been for decades, emissions in the US are dropping and even violence is on a downward trend.

So what gives?  In each generation we seem to face almost insurmountable hurdles, but we emerge living longer, richer, healthier lives.  The answer, obviously, is that we are able to create solutions faster, through technology and innovation, than problems emerge.  The story of how we do that is probably not what you’d think, but it’s inspiring nonetheless.

The Moore’s Law of Everything

In 1965, Intel Cofounder Gordon Moore published an article in Electronics Magazine noting that the complexity of integrated circuits was increasing at an astounding rate.  At first he predicted that it was doubling every year, but later revised it to two years.  A colleague noted that this implied a doubling of processing efficiency every 18 months.

It is this last figure that has been most commonly known as Moore’s law.  In 2006, researchers at MIT released a paper that made it clear that, in actuality, rate of increase in processing efficiency was not limited to integrated circuits or transistors, but in fact had been a constant trend since the 19th century, long before Moore was even born.

By now, it’s been well established that there are a variety of digital laws that promise accelerating returns in everything from storage to bandwidth.  What’s more, the effect has become observed in areas as far flung as genomics and energy.  It seems that in every field of human endeavor we just continue to get exponentially better all the time.

Some observers, most notably Ray Kurzweil, have predicted that these trends will lead to a technological singularity, where advance becomes nearly instantaneous and technology takes over.  However, merely charting progress doesn’t explain how it happens.  To gain insight into that, we need to go not to Silicon Valley, but halfway around the world.

The Curious Case of Tasmania

Tasmania is a small island off the coast of Australia.  It used to be connected to the mainland through a land bridge, but about 10,000 years ago it was submerged under the sea, cutting off all access and communication.  The people of Tasmania were on their own.

As Jared Diamond described in Guns, Germs, and Steel, this not only cut off Tasmania from advancements that Australians came up with after the split, the people there actually regressed, losing much of the technology that they previously knew how to make.

He also observed that the largest and most populous continent, Eurasia, was also the most advanced in every area and that its East-West orientation allowed for easier sharing of new innovations.  Each one of these advancements built on that which came before, so an improved plow in France could someday be modified by a Russian peasant 1500 miles away.

However, increases in technology have a potentially disastrous side effect:  an explosion of population.  More people need more food, which can destroy of farmland and lead to famine, war and poverty.

The Population Bomb

By the late 18th century, it became clear that population was increasing at an alarming rate and it was then that British economist Thomas Malthus first published his famous Essay on the Principle of Population which predicted that the rate of population growth surpassed society’s ability to support it.

Nearly two centuries later, two researchers at Stanford arrived at similar conclusions and their book, The Population Bomb, became a runaway bestseller.  Again, they warned that either we find a way to control the population or face a dystopian future of famine, war and poverty.

Scary stuff, except that, of course, it never happened.  In fact, as I noted above, we are richer, healthier and less violent.  How can that be?  As Samuel Arbesman argues in, The Half-life of Facts, we continue to progress not in spite of the growing population, but because there are more people to innovate.

More people means more scientists and more entrepreneurs, more brains with new ideas who can more easily find other, like-minded people to collaborate with.  Research suggests that technological growth is highly correlated with population growth and even that immigrants have a positive effect on the prosperity of the host country.

The Strength of Weak Ties

It seems strange to say that population is related to technology.  After all, take a look at the teeming slums of Mumbai or the favelas of Brazil and the first thing that comes to your mind probably won’t be high tech.  When we think of scientific breakthroughs, we usually imagine small groups of highly educated people, working in isolation from the world.

Historically, major advances were attributed to lone geniuses like Einstein, or small teams like Watson and Crick.  In fact, recent research suggests that teams who work in close geographical proximity are the most productive, even a flight of stairs can reduce effectiveness, so that itself limits the amount of people involved.

However, in 1973 a sociologist named Mark Granovetter published a paper that indicated that there might be more to the story.  He found that when people were looking for a job, they most often found it through an acquaintance rather than a close friend.  Usually, these seemed to be chance meetings, rather than directed searches.

This phenomenon, known as the strength of weak ties, has become well established and the examples of Einstein and Watson and Crick actually bear it out as well.  Einstein studied in Germany, the center of physics at the time and Watson and Crick, working at Cambridge, were able to stumble across research that proved pivotal to their discovery.

So great advances often combine both elements:  Close collaboration and the opportunity to stumble across people who have access to useful knowledge through second and third degree links.

Why 140 Characters Are Better Than A Flying Car

It’s interesting to speculate what someone living in 1950 might think of us today.  Although we have not colonized distant planets and don’t drive around in flying cars like the Jetsons, we clearly live in a world vastly transformed by technology.

In fact, as I’ve argued before, what we have today is better than flying cars.  While earlier technologies helped us overcome physical constraints, digital technology is transforming our mental faculties.  In fact, it is enhancing many of the conditions that created an accelerating technological environment in the first place.

When I first moved overseas in the late 90’s, I was cut off from America.  Communicating with friends and family back home was expensive and cumbersome.  Now that I’m back, technologies such as e-mail, Skype and Twitter make it as easy to keep in touch with friends and business associates overseas as I do with people across town.

I am also meeting and collaborating with people online that I would have never had a chance to know before.  I can even gain access to knowledge in other languages through online translation.  In other words, I am to stumble over people and knowledge to a degree that wouldn’t have been possible even a relatively short time ago.

And that’s why we can expect life to continue to get better.  While earlier technologies allowed us to master energy and matter, newer advances are giving us something far more valuable: They are unleashing the power of human potential.

– Greg

10 Responses leave one →
  1. July 28, 2013

    Greg,

    I’m getting less optimistic about things getting better as I grow older I see the same old struggles between freedom and control play out all through my life ad all through history.

    We also have to consider (as you have blogged) about value – what makes us happy?

    Are we happier and better off now than at other times in history and will the future be any different or just a “1984” “Brave New World”.

    For the first time in history we have technology to connect millions interactively but has human nature changed – will this lead to fantastic freedoms and quality of life for all or will it be used to create feudalism on a scale never before possible.

    [Reply]

    Greg Reply:

    That’s an excellent point Martin, but I don’t think there is a straightforward answer because there are two countervailing trends. Firstly, we have more access to the prerequisites of happiness (i.e. we’re less likely to be poor, sick etc.). Although the last few years have been tough in developed markets, we’re much better off than a generation ago and globally, even the last 10 years has been a big improvement.

    However, on the other hand, we’re more connected and that creates problem. Work intrudes on life more often. We’re less secure in terms of privacy and the world generally is more disruptive.

    Interestingly, one of the hottest topics these days is the “Happiness Economy,” I wrote about it here: http://www.digitaltonto.com/2013/the-economics-of-happiness/

    – Greg

    [Reply]

  2. July 28, 2013

    Greg,

    I’ve missed your writing and do adore the positivity you espouse here. I’m polarized myself. The human condition is capable of monumental feats of great beauty and selflessness and such abhorent depths of depravity. Often depending on your view.

    The much lauded Arab Spring, catalyzed by the tools of technology/access, has caused oceans of ink to spill about the overthrowing of tyrants, the increase in womens rights, self-determination and democracy. The election of the Muslim Brotherhood then throws the same pundits into a tail-spin. The situation unravelling on the streets of Cairo (and Damascus) seems to suggest, as history has shown often, that freedom isn’t always as free as you’d hope.

    I have recently read Eric Schmidt’s treatise on the future. It has its moments of self-congratulatory BS but it largely paints a very positive picture. At its heart is the eternal struggle between the rights and needs of the many pitted against the opportunities of the individual. The state versus the individual. From all your own years in Eastern Europe you can hear the stirrings of Dostoyevsky and Kafka in what Schmidt writes about.

    Thanks as always for elevating the discourse.

    [Reply]

    Greg Reply:

    Thanks Hilton.

    The Schmidt book was indeed good, but I disagree that it presents a positive picture. My take was that it portrays a continual arms race, with governments, corporations and people (especially hacktivists) using technology in disruptive ways.

    Social media was used to disrupt in the Arab Spring, but digital technology is regularly used to oppress in China, Iran and other places. He also foresees corporations, like Booz Allen Hamilton, taking expertise they develop for 1st world contracts and then offering their services to 3rd world dictators.

    In a similar vein, commercially available encryption has become more powerful, but using it can be a signal that attracts greater surveillance, as would the absence of a digital footprint.

    Another book worth reading is The End of Power by Moses Naim. Where he says that “Power is easier to get, but harder to use or keep”

    – Greg

    [Reply]

    Hilton Barbour Reply:

    No denying the polarization in Schmidt’s book (and thanks for the Moses Naim reco BTW) but my read is his point was about “choices”. Beneath your positive view lies an inherent requirement for scrutiny and accountability from all of us. That the Eric Snowden’s of the world might actually be the archetype we see (and celebrate) more of in the future. Technology has a genuine ability to dissolve centralized power and fuel genuine egalitarianism…if we WANT and CHOOSE that as individuals. Perhaps the more apt phrase is “Who is going to watch the watchers?”

    [Reply]

    Greg Reply:

    These days, everybody is a watcher:-)

    – Greg

  3. Jerry McCann permalink
    July 29, 2013

    This post brought to mind Stephen Jay Gould’s thesis in Full House that evolution moves toward, and is fed by, diversity. The concepts of “weak ties” and diversity are close cousins. After reading the piece I was then struck by the comments taking on a social and/or political character in contrast to your technological and scientific driven approach.

    Your article illustrates that technology and science have proven in the long run (and often in unexpected ways) to trump social and political factors. Religions and political ideologies have a long history of striving to suppress diversity in favor of conserving the righteous path. That history also shows that the path to the eventual triumph of technology and science is very long and very painful (just ask Galileo) but inevitable. Sooner or later human nature can’t continue to deny a good thing.

    I’m sure that no matter how warm the first fire-builders were they at first got the cold shoulder from many of the rest of the clan for bringing that dangerous stuff into the cave. Thanks for drawing the bigger picture on the wall.

    [Reply]

    Greg Reply:

    Thanks Jerry. I’m actually a big fan of that book, which is what first got me interested in mathematical statistics.

    – Greg

    [Reply]

  4. July 30, 2013

    Hi Greg –

    I have a question for you unrelated to this blog entry. Just read your article on Google that included Chromecast. My question is – what prevents Google from upgrading the wifi radio in Chromecast to LTE/4G. Is it cost, technology, bandwidth, business model, regulatory or something else?

    Google has reported interest in “over the top” programming. LTE would eliminate the need for even dumb pipes from cable operators – it would truly be disruptive.

    Thanks,
    Derek

    [Reply]

    Greg Reply:

    Derek,

    That’s a very good question and to be honest, I don’t know the answer. If I had to guess, however, I would say that they don’t want to deal with the mobile operators, who are pretty aggressive when pursuing their pound of flesh. There is a pretty restrictive regulatory environment regarding frequencies and bidding for bandwidth is expensive.

    However, this is just speculation. I don’t haven’t talked to anyone at Google about it.

    – Greg

    [Reply]

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