Exponential High-Tech

The most crucial example of how deeply-reinforced systems become unsteerable is the explosive growth of High-Tech, whose implications and side-effects are now effectively unstoppable.

Where things start becoming fascinating is when you consider how established and reinforced a hugely innovative global system like High-Tech has become.

At its root, High-Tech is being driven by a deeply-embedded Rule of the global economy that back in the 1960s was merely an observation.  Only a few years earlier, computer circuit-boards were covered with rather large individual transistors, resistors and diodes.  The circuitry to record a single computer-bit occupied about 35 cm2.  But then “integrated” circuits became available with several electronic components all on the same chip of silicon.

In 1965 the co-founder of Intel, Gordon Moore, pointed out that there was a pattern to how computer power was now growing.  Fifty years later, as we all know, we call it “Moore’s Law”: The computing capability of an integrated circuit doubles every two years.

That deceptively simple Rule is now built into the strategies of almost every corporation, government, regulator – whether they know it or not.  It has become a self-fulfilling prophecy.  Physics dictates that it cannot possibly go on forever, naturally.  But I have worked with many of the key players in this unfolding drama, and I assure you, governments around the world will pay almost anything to keep the doubling of High-Tech every two years going on for as long as possible.

And this is where everything starts getting very positive – and very negative.

The first problem is that as human beings, our brains are superb at imagining linear growth; it is how most things in our everyday experience operate.  But we are all terrible at imagining exponential growth – in other words, the larger something grows, the faster it grows even larger.

Imagine that I touch the tip of my finger to my nose and, the further I move my hand away, the greater the complexity of the best computer chip available in a given year.  For 1960, my finger is one centimeter away from my nose.  For 1961 it is two centimeters away.  If progress had continued at this rate, then even by 2040, I would just be stretching my arm out to its full length.

Yet in reality, to represent the complexity that the electronics industry expects computer-chips to have in twenty-five years’ time my finger would need to be further away than the orbit of Saturn.

The difference between an arm’s length and the orbit of Saturn is the difference between “linear” and “exponential” growth.  Most progress is linear.  The trends that will dominate everyone’s future are all exponential.