Buckle up, this is going to be a wild ride.
The pace of change over the past few decades is only set to accelerate in the coming years, as improvements in biology, medicine, spaceflight, manufacturing, software continue to change and change the foundations of society, economics and politics. We at Nerdshala cover these innovations pretty much daily, but we rarely get a chance to step back from the frantic pace of funding announcements and startup product launches to see what all these changes ultimately add up to. .
Thankfully, London-based writer and entrepreneur Azim Azhar is here to add some direction. they just published The Exponential Age: How Accelerating Technology is Transforming Business, Politics and Society, and has been a long time author of exponential view Newspapers and podcasts. I recently hosted a Twitter space for a live discussion about Azhar’s book and the meaning of the world, discussing everything from genetic engineering to data privacy laws and shifting global economies. Highlights from our hour-long conversation are compiled below.
This interview has been edited and abridged.
Danny CrichtonHow did you start writing your newsletter? exponential view?
azeem azhari: I started this newsletter six years ago when my company was acquired. I’m sure there are many founders on this Twitter space, and some may have been through the process of acquisition, but it’s a weird thing, because you find yourself wearing someone else’s clothes. It’s familiar, but it’s not familiar and it’s not you. So I just started writing a newsletter for some of my friends. I’ve been writing newsletters on the Internet since 1996, and so this has always been my kind of cozy blanket.
At the time, it was strange situations, magical technologies like this aside, and the feeling that maybe stuff wasn’t going the way we expected. I think newsletters have become a product-market fit for as many founders I think, for the same reason. It took off, and it took my life. I spent a lot of time reading about technologies and the political and economic theories that surrounded them and our societies. Eventually, it started to add up to a thesis that we are actually at a special time in history, with lots of opportunities, but also lots of risks, and it turns into the book, exponential age.
kristen: You talk about the rise of silicon, genomics, batteries and custom manufacturing, but these are all relatively new technologies in the context of human history. Why is this “exponential era” just beginning?
Azhari: These technologies are expensive when they debut, and although they are improving at these double-digit rates, they are still expensive, and it takes time for them to become cheap enough to become more ubiquitous. Once they start becoming ubiquitous to all complementary businesses, you need to make them more widely real to the economy and the rest of the people living in society.
So while we’ve had chips from the late 1960s, the moment where billions of us had access to computing really only happens after the iPhone shipped and smartphones took off. This was roughly the same period as renewable energy began to compete with conventional fossil fuels.
I think it’s just compound interest phenomenon. With exponential technology improvement, things start to get pretty boring, and you have to build up a profit for a few years, sometimes a few decades, until the next year’s growth is really meaningful.
The point at which I think we can say that we are entering the exponential era is somewhere between 2013 and 2016. In 2012, many of the world’s biggest companies were still the companies of the bygone era, car companies, oil companies, power companies, but as of 2016, all the world’s biggest companies were this world’s Tencents and Apple. In 2012, less than half had real-time access to supercomputers, regardless of how many people were carrying a smartphone. By 2016, that was reversed.
kristen: We have all these new technologies, but we also have what you call the “exponential gap” between what technology allows us to do and what society is ready to handle. can you talk about it?
Azhari: Of course the challenge here is that technology provides all these incredible capabilities, and we really would be nowhere without it. But technology and social norms are closely related to each other.
This is precisely when the rate of change of technology adaptation is within the range of the rate of change of adaptation to laws or regulatory bodies or social institutions such as the habits around the dining table. But when technology has gotten to this extreme point, which I think it’s done over the years, and it changes so rapidly, it’s like one of those three-legged races you did in kindergarten. Will happen. Or junior school and your friend runs a lot faster than you and you are left behind.
Technologies are adapting and developing incredibly rapidly, but our institutions are – by their design – very slowly to change. I mean, if they changed too quickly, they wouldn’t be institutions, they would be fads or fads. And the problem is, for most of us, our daily lives are really governed by those informal customs and habits, and really by formal rules, institutional rules and laws, whether we like it or not.
The challenge here is not so much about the technology, it is the exponential gap, which if left undiscovered will actually begin to destroy the happy functioning of society.
kristen: You mention in the book the French historian Fernand Broudel, who wrote about many things, but showed the extraordinary regularity of medieval life in some of his works. You can live 60-70 years, and nothing changes socially, culturally, politically or economically. You were born, you worked on the farm, you continued to work on the farm, you kind of retired from the farm, but nothing that changes.
In the exponential age, everything changes all the time, and I’m curious how do we handle the cognitive load of all that?
Azhari: The load is too big.
You know, Nerdshala was partly my watch on what was going on here. I’ll give you an example. While writing the book, I mention a Romanian company called UiPath, which does automation software. When I wrote the first draft, UiPath was valued at a billion dollars, and it got there really, really quickly. By the time I received comments on the first draft, which was a few weeks later, UiPath’s valuation had reached $7 billion. By the time I got the final draft in my editor, the valuation was $10 billion, and I’m going to have to convert it to text. Then just before the draft went to press, I called the editor and I said, “Listen, they’ve gone public on the NASDAQ at a valuation of $35 billion. And we just have to go in and change that number.” It really encapsulates the kind of cognitive load I’m writing about.
I have to take that burden on myself, but that level of cognitive load is being largely borne by people because we clearly don’t have the psychology or brain geography to deal with these exponential changes. We’ve never encountered UiPaths, or Ubers, or DoorDashes that grow incredibly fast. As Braudel points out, we observed that things change very linearly and often cyclically and in understandable ways. So we are not suited to the kind of technology sector that we have built in the last 30 or 40 years.
kristen: You’re talking about a lot of rapidly improving technologies, but on the other hand, there are a lot of technologies that one would have thought would improve rapidly and not. I’m curious what you think about some of the limitations of technology development and what this means for your thesis?
Azhari: I think the question is really about where are the core technologies that lend themselves to such fundamental learning rates and kind of compatibility. That is, they can be combined and integrated with other technologies, which makes them more powerful. Technologies that can be modular and decentralized are those where the learning effects become more pronounced.
So we wouldn’t expect hydroelectric dams, for example, to exhibit that kind of effect, we wouldn’t expect massive aircraft to exhibit that kind of effect, because of the complexities involved there.
I guess one question I’m interested in is what happens when the prices of these fundamental technologies start to drop to effectively zero. I know it’s strange to any of us who recently spent $2,000 on a new MacBook Pro, but effectively, compared to where we were born, computing costs essentially right now. is null. And you can see that it creates all kinds of opportunities all around it. Our ability to create energy from renewable energy, our ability to manipulate the biosphere, whether through protein engineering, or gene engineering, and our ability to make stuff through these techniques of 3D printing. What happens when those costs drop to zero?
kristen: In the book you make an argument about how in the industrial age, there was this kind of globalization, but with the fast moving era, we are seeing a kind of “shifting”, which has accelerated with COVID-19 . I’m curious why we are seeing that movement of productive forces?
Azhari: Many of the technologies we talk about are ones that don’t depend on huge supply chains. Wind power and decentralized rooftop solar and virtual, grid-scale batteries are created by networking the batteries within electric vehicles, all of those things without shipping hundreds of millions of barrels of oil halfway around the world.
You’re starting to see this in places like South Australia, where decentralized solar power is shifting that state away from coal. But you can also look at techniques like bowery farming for high-intensity, vertical urban farms, which would essentially cut an area into a mini skyscraper that could be placed right in the middle of a city or town and provided food. locally, so that you’re not optimizing your food for the supply chain, you’re only growing it locally and powered by renewable energy (also see our review for today) vertical farm)
Then there is cellular agriculture, which would deliver artificial meat and would not even require farms of cows and could be highly localised. 3D printing gives us only one thing — we don’t need a factory miles away, you can just start making things. All of this creates the ability to do more locally and be less dependent on global supply chains.
This is an incentive for local people, but another incentive is the recognition of a competition in the digital space between nations. Since I wrote the book, China’s Cyberspace Administration (CAC) has taken tough measures to regulate that country’s Internet industry, and I think interestingly, new data privacy laws have also been introduced that Even more stringent than GDPR. Europe. One of the key lenses behind China’s data privacy laws is about technological sovereignty.
So I think there are dual forces of technologies that enable production and consumption in local that are not so heavily dependent on global supply chains, along with this move towards technological sovereignty. Together, they begin to uncover some of the logic that policy makers have felt towards globalization and begin to make an argument for doing things more locally.
The Exponential Age: How Accelerating Technology is Transforming Business, Politics and Society by Azeem Azhari
diversion books, 2021, page 352