Why Things Always Get Better
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.