Archive for March 3rd, 2011


The Future Has Ceased to Exist. Outlook: Incremental.

March 3, 2011

Likewise, the haircut has only been done "once before."

Normally, I would just link to a post like this (Bruce Sterling’s speech at Reboot 11), but it has been pointed out that Sterling’s work demands a post of its own instead of being a single-line lead-in to a bunch of arguably great songs. So a post you get. It’s long. Be careful what you wish for.

The future ain’t what it used to be. We’ve all been promised so many things: jetpacks, cars that run on tap water, an internet that operated like a shopping mall, fiber optic lines everywhere, personal robot assistants. None of it happened. In fact, nothing like that will happen. The biggest innovations are behind us. Not the largest number of innovations but the large, life-altering innovations are now something we can only look back on.

How does the future look now? Bruce Sterling says “Think small:”

[Speaking to the management of Fiat] “So if you’re going to revive this old car, you’re going to revive the next car that came after that car?” And he said no. This was an important issue and they spent a lot of time thinking about it. What they were doing was, they had introduced the Fiat 500, and they were watching the demographic groups who had picked up on the Fiat 500. And they were looking at post-consumer alteration of the Fiat 500, and then they were going to professionalize that, right?

In other words, there were young, soccer-hooligan tough guys who toughed out their Fiat 500, special little hub-caps and so forth, racing stripes. So they were going to do that.

And then there was the women’s group who liked the Fiat 500 because it was cute, and they were doing cuter versions with anime dangling dolls on the rear view mirror, and maybe some hot pearlized pink.

In other words, they were going to move the Fiat 500 into emergent demographic groups. This was the way forward. They were looking for emergent consumer groups and they were going to move the car into their social space year by year.”

This is what the future is. Specialization. The spread of everything via the internet and other cheap forms of technology has turned innovation into a succession of incremental gains. It’s hard to create industry titans from percentages and it’s even harder to predict a business’ sustainability. It’s the long tail in full effect: more people than ever are buying stuff — they’re just all buying different stuff.

Sterling is somewhat apprehensive about this, but more instructively cautionary than arm-wavingly panicky:

“I thought this is a really clever idea. I thought I’m in a society that’s going to do a lot of this. And I thought this is a terrible and scary paradigm of the future. Because it’s very difficult for us to construe that kind of activity as progress.”

He’s right. We don’t view that as progress any more than we would find shopping for paint exciting. There may be millions of colors to choose from but sooner or later it’s going to end up on the walls. And then you’ve got to live with it.

In the future, we'll all be doing whatever the hell it is you do in whatever the hell this thing is. Daily.

Tyler Cowen (of Marginal Revolution, in an interview with National Review Online) sees the future the same way — as a long plateau:

“The U.S. has seen a slowdown in the growth of median wages since the 1970s because we have eaten all the ‘low-hanging fruit’ in technology, education, and resources…  [E]ver since those gains were realized, our productivity, and hence our average income, has slowed its forward march, leaving us on a technological and economic plateau… Our more recent innovations, like the Internet, improve our quality of life but don’t show up in the material measurements of Gross Domestic Product.

So radio, flush toilets, electricity, and automobiles — a lot of very basic inventions — have spread to almost all households. [The fact that] they’ve successfully spread means the rate of growth must slow. And other than the Internet, there has not been a comparable breakthrough in technology for quite some time.”

In other words, it’s probably more exciting to be a consumer in this day and age, but not nearly as exciting to be an entrepreneur. Or an employee. There are no limits to where these tiny innovations will eventually take us, but it might be a really long (but diverse!) trip. The big stuff has already been done. The little stuff is harder to quantify:

Bruce Sterling:

“Everybody for 200 years… has known what progress means. They know what it means to be progressive and they know what it means to be futuristic.

You get more scientific knowledge, you create more tools, make more jobs, you master nature, you get more power, cheaper power, you struggle for a better life for your children, you’re looking for health, prosperity, material security, shelter, bigger, faster, stronger, knowing more. Everybody knows that’s progress. That’s not what we’re going to get.”

It sounds very nearly dystopian. It isn’t, at least not in the micro view, where the playing field for creating and marketing goods has leveled appreciably. However, in the macro view, the outlook is still very grey:

Tyler Cowen:

“…when I hear people express extreme optimism about the Internet, I say, we’ve had it in mature form for about ten years. Macroeconomically speaking, those are about the worst 10 years we’ve had since about the 1930s. I don’t blame the Internet for that — that would be ridiculous. But nonetheless, it’s yet to really kick in as a major positive moving force at the economic level. It has just a small amount. The best is yet to come.

Look at electricity in human history — it took a few decades for electricity to really revolutionize the American economy. And the Internet will be the same. At some point in the future we will arrive at a new era of low-hanging fruit.”

There’s a key phrase in Cowen’s statement, one that doesn’t get aired until much later in Sterling’s piece: “The best is yet to come.” Despite all the negative aspects of the innovation plateau, the fact is small bits of brilliance are still being created daily. In fact, life for most of us keeps getting better, even when infographics say otherwise:

[Tyler Cowen, discussing “threshold earners,” or earners whose career path has been abandoned to work in fields that are more personally meaningful or make them happier, rather than just pay higher:]

We’re seeing society grow more rapidly along the happiness or utility dimension than we had expected, and seeing it grow more slowly across the jobs-and-revenue dimension than we had expected… we’re taking a lot of our social dividend out in the form of happiness or utility — which, by the way, is harder to tax… We’re going to have slow growth and persistent, fairly high unemployment.”

The ugly news is that we’re slowly pulling out of an economic dive here in America. The bad news is that a lot of brand new jobs won’t be available. There’s no new industry popping up to absorb the losses. Worker productivity continues to increase despite the lack of workers and “business as usual” has come to mean running a “no-fat” operation.

That takes us to now. This is what we’re dealing with. Where are we going?

Bruce Sterling:

“I want to talk about the next decade… What it’s going to feel like to live through the next ten years. It does not feel like progress. However, it does not feel like conservatism either. There’s neither progress nor conservatism, because there’s nothing left to conserve and no direction in which to progress.

So what you get is transition. Transition to Nowhere, as they would call it in the Eastern Bloc. Transition to Nowhere, a very common experience in eastern European states.

…The unsustainable is the only frontier you have. The wreckage of the unsustainable, that’s your heritage. And here it is. It’s the old new. You’re in an old new structure.”

There you have it. Nothing is permanent. Everything shifts.

In the coming years, all fonts will follow rules of perspective. Even Comic Sans.

There are several industries suffering through these changes: newspapers, television, motion pictures, music. All of them are handling it badly. They don’t want to have to deal with the way things are headed, much less the way things already are.

The tech world morphs even faster. Yahoo and Altavista fall to Google. Netscape falls to Internet Explorer, which in turn continues to lose marketshare to Firefox, Chrome and Safari. Friendster/MySpace/Facebook. Rhapsody and eMusic are falling behind Spotify and Pandora.

Everyone involved has to innovate faster, across multiple platforms and ship constantly just to avoid losing ground. Not much can be tabulated in millions any more. You’re always trying to secure another few hundred users or pageviews or whatever.

It sounds like a drag. It sounds like an echo chamber of self-defeat. How long can you stay ahead before the inevitability of the longer and longer tail casts you aside?

For some industries, it’s too late. The music industry is dead. Music is more alive than ever. That’s no coincidence. There are thousands of ways to cheaply make and distribute music. The major labels want nothing to do with this. They are completely opposed to the effort needed to incrementally increase their business. They have no desire to treat their customers with respect. There’s no light at the end of the tunnel here and “piracy” is just a scapegoat.

There cheap tools and outlets are there for the movie industry as well, but they’ve decided to follow the major labels down the same dark alley. While innovators run circles around them in terms of ingenuity and effort, the movie industry rests on its laurels and waits to be legislated back into existence. There’s the constant complaint that piracy prevents them from cranking out the $200 million blockbusters they feel audiences crave.

How would they know what the audiences actually want if they give them the same set of overblown sequels every year? The audience doesn’t necessarily want that, but they’re certainly conditioned to receiving it. Perhaps if they’d just scale things down a bit, they’d be pleasantly surprised to find that not every moviegoer is interested in watching shiny things explode.

They’ll die, too. It’s already inevitable. It’s said that you can’t go broke underestimating the taste of the common man. On the other hand, you can go broke fairly quickly by underestimating your own ignorance. And that’s just two major industries. Newspapers, book publishing, television. All of these are in upheaval as well.

Our descendants will mock us from the backlit sand dunes, taunting us with their achievement of "singularity."

So, if the biggest ideas have been done and the next wave is still years away, what do we have to look forward to? It’s tough to say. The tools are out there for nearly limitless creativity and interaction. Everything is cheaper and faster than ever. Digital storage may as well be free. It’s a great time to be alive.

But it’s also overwhelming. Too much choice is just as paralyzing as too little. Too many directions to go and the clock keeps ticking. The dotcom bubble put ideas in our head that if we took a few hours to set up a website, we’d all be millionaires. It created hundreds of temporary millionaires before everything reverted back to the mean.

What we have before us is the greatest equalizer in existence: technology. Look back no more than 5 years ago and the world was less connected. Now everybody has a cellphone, or increasingly, a smartphone. Even your grandparents. Even citizens of third world countries. The revolution will be televised? Not even close. The revolution will be streamed. The revolution will be tweeted. The revolution will be uploaded to a million pages every minute.

Look at the uprisings in Africa. Everyone has a cellphone. The government kills off the internet and the message still gets through. 500 million people have a website in common. Shrug off Facebook all you want, but no one else has that many users.

50 years from now, robot brokers will buy and sell your sorry ass hundreds of times a day.

But what about “making it big?” There’s no such thing anymore. There’s “viral” but that’s never a sure money-maker. You’ll be famous before you’re rich. You’ll also be discarded even more quickly. But the upside is this: rather than the domination of a few celebs for years at a time, it will be thousands of micro-celebrities expanding and contracting.

The same goes for ideas and innovation. Nothing will be built to last, but rather to service the current need. Everything will need to alter and morph to stay relevant. The next big thing is a thousand small things, each filling a niche.

Look at me. (Take a moment to admire my chiseled features and otherworldly blue-grey eyes, which stand in stark contrast to my hefty, arm-waving avatar.) I’ve got a small blog with a core group of loyal readers. They’re great people as well, more than willing to follow me down a 2,000+ word rabbit hole. I couldn’t ask for anything more than that. There’s a one-in-a-million chance that something from here will hit it big. But I could care less.

Maybe at some point, I’ll be writing for someone else. Until then, at least I’ve got my own soapbox that I can fill with whatever on no particular schedule. This leaves me time to spam out submissions to other websites, another side benefit of technology. Ten years ago, I’d have to print these out and mail them to each publisher, waiting 6-8 weeks for a rejection. These days I can get rejected in less than 24 hours, if need be. I might bitch about things now and then, but all things considered, it’s a pretty fucking great thing.

I don’t see this one-in-a-million chance as a disappointment. I see this as opportunity, which in this day and age is prone to knocking more than once. Sterling is right: it’s both liberating and frightening, all at the same time. There’s a lot more out there that is no longer under your control, and that’s hard to give up. But in exchange, you receive an abundance of information and the tools to make the most of it.

So do exactly that. Jump in.