From corsets to Twitter in three quick decades

From corsets to Twitter in three quick decades

Unlike most science fiction, it is the interaction of counterintuitive exponential trends that will dominate the future – which is why so much futurology is wrong


ABSOLUTELY NOBODY HAS a gut-feel for what exponential growth is really like. We are just not wired for that sort of intuition. As human beings we are very good at comprehending trends that are linear – like a steady hill, the trend keeps climbing in a straight line. If we turn on the water to fill a bath and then leave the bathroom, with a bit of experience we can easily anticipate when to go back to turn off the water because we know the bath will fill at a steady rate. Likewise, if we are driving along the road at a fixed speed, we rely on the fact that in two seconds we will have moved twice as far as in one. That is the sort of prediction the human brain is intuitively amazing at. But we are terrible at imagining exponential explosions. When something explodes – not just gunpowder, but the popularity of a new toy, the number of people using the internet, a swine-flu epidemic – it is a fundamentally different type of progression: The larger something is, the faster it grows even larger.

That sounds as if it ought to be very simple to understand, and intellectually it is. If you are told that something will double every year (just as the number of transistors on the very first integrated circuits did for over a decade) you can easily handle the idea: after one year it will be twice, then after two years it will be four times, then eight times, then sixteen times and so on. Easy. It is only when it is pointed out that therefore after ten years it will be over a thousand times larger that the trend becomes a bit surreal. If someone then adds that after twenty years it will be more than a million times larger, it starts to feel absurd. Yet that is exactly the type of explosive growth that we are going to focus on throughout this book. And it is the exponential nature of the selected trends that makes the enormity of their eventual impacts on our lives difficult to grasp.

Even the more farfetched science-fiction stories based on the premise that It Is Possible So It Will Happen – the ones with flying cars and undersea cities – usually assume linear not exponential progress. The reason sci-fi writers tend to do that is not lack of imagination but because ironically it is only linear predictions of the future that feel intuitively believable to their readers. Most people (including politicians responsible for very-long-term planning) simply cannot handle exponential.

Yet despite the problems imagining it, the reality is that the changes over the next thirty years will be inexorably exponential because they will be dominated by the cascading explosions of everything from computer chips to available communication bandwidth to recording capacity to number of web sites. What is more, the progressive doubling will also force the overall rate of the international community’s progress – just not as fast. The better the computers a biologist has access to, the faster the modeling that can be done of complex new drugs – so medical research will speed up. As will engineering. As will the rate of progress in science and technology generally. And modern architecture. And teaching. And new forms of the Arts. In fact, pretty well everything.


What ‘exponential’ feels like

It is, of course, very easy to get carried away. Many forecasters seriously underrate the role that psychological factors play in determining which aspects of society actually progress. Similarly, many scientists and technologists, as well as some politicians, tend to overestimate the rate of general progress because they underestimate the stabilizing impact of the past. I have taken all those factors into account. Yet despite the inescapable grip of the past and society’s patchy adoption of new ideas, the fact remains that the rate of overall progress throughout the next few decades is nevertheless going to feel extraordinary.

When Queen Victoria was still on the throne, my grandmother was a young lady squeezed into a corset so tight she could almost place her hands around her whole waist. A lifetime later she told me that when she was a child she had believed the moon was made of cheese yet she had lived to watch astronauts walking on its surface – and that my generation would see as much change in our lives as she had in hers. She was slightly wrong. The likelihood is that we will see vastly more. She never sent a fax or left a voicemail or ever received unsolicited email – for her, spam was a form of processed meat. She never reheated something in a microwave oven, or tried to set the clock on a VCR. She never owned a CD collection, let alone downloaded a music track for her iPod. And she never captured a birthday party on camcorder, or looked for her cell-phone instead of searching for a clean public phone-box.



Achieving change is relatively easy. What is difficult is substantially altering those changes from what will most-likely occur anyway. Despite what many chief-executives and politicians want to believe, it is actually surprisingly difficult to change the ‘default’ future – at least in a deliberate and substantial way. In practice, the future is kept remarkably stable because psychological factors combine with Legacy Effects (processes from the past that still tie into how today’s world works so cannot easily be altered). If you think about it, without such relative stability our society would be so chaotic as to be almost impossible to live in.



She never paused a DVD to answer the door, or recorded something trivial using the miniature digital camera on her mobile, or relied on her Sat Nav to guide her through a complex set of road junctions. And she never accessed broadband internet to order groceries, check the weather forecast, make a free video-call to a friend in another country, or download a missed television program – each using a personal computer more powerful than the huge mainframes of the 1980s. All these things she missed. They only took off within the last thirty years. But the rate of those transformations in lifestyle that we all now take for granted is completely misleading. The next three decades will feel nothing like that.

They will be far more intense. Almost every aspect of the world economy will be revisited, reconceived, reborn. By 2040, even our most fundamental assumptions will be coming under scrutiny – what we consider to be ‘thinking’, or ‘real’, or ‘mortal’. Yet, as highlighted in the final chapter of this book, throughout the 2020s and 2030s, the very genuine danger of major disruption will be ever-present. Progress has turned into something of a race against chaos. And for many it risks increasingly feeling like a full-blown revolution.

There is an unspoken truth about the exponential trends underlying the world economy. Even if everything goes as well as conceivably possible, the changes of the next thirty years will not be equivalent to the revolution in everyday-living seen since President Reagan and Prime Minister Thatcher were in power. They will be equivalent to the changes seen since Queen Victoria was in power.