Exponential Unthinkable: Life in the Cosmic Kink
“Depend upon it, sir,” quoth the inimitable dictionographer and wit Samuel Johnson, “when a man is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.”
I’ve just been to the movies, or as near as I get to the movies since we launched C-PET three years ago. I’m flying back from Europe, mercifully upgraded, and before turning my attention to this think-piece viewed Inside Job, which despite its occasional tendencies to ape the Michael Moore school of cinematography gives not too bad a layman’s-eye-view of the Wall Street collapse, its precursors and sequelae. At least, over dinner with a fair splash of a not-bad Hermitage that was my take. So on my mind now, aside from wishing I could be Roger Ebert and do nothing else than watch movies and write about them, are such trivia as systemic risk, the eternal struggle of the short versus the long term, the anemic quality of what passes as leadership in both corporate and government sectors (sorry, guys), and what we might designate the Ivy League Perplex, or Cameron’s Law of Destructive Compacted Intellect: the more people who get involved in an enterprise and the smarter they are the less they seem able to avoid Groupthink 101. Just look at the rows of bankers lined up like coconuts at a shy during those Congressional hearings. Never, perhaps, has so much been unanticipated by so few to the detriment of so many.
Before we move on, two reflections. First, I’m all for regulation when we need it, and even more for self-regulation when we don’t, but neither of them is worth a cent unless we realize that Groupthink is Public Enemy #1 – if our goal is to build, ahem, sustainable value. What a surprise: the same elites spawn regulators and regulatees, and – even without the revolving doors that any sane, market-oriented, janitor would long since have jammed shut – elites are characterized by a general inability to harbor simultaneously two or more seriously conflicting ideas (Thomas Kuhn again comes to mind). And second: as the Japanese imbroglio has reminded us with sober force, what can go wrong will go wrong, and all the wishful thinking in the cosmos will not avail to prevent it. It seems that in 1896 there was a tsunami in the same region that was all of two feet different in height (at a point where they both reached well over 100 feet). They knew this when they built their Maginot Line of sea walls and installed their backup generators at ground level and all the rest. Catastrophic risks tend to be larger than they appear.
Back to my trip. Two key reasons for it. First, a visit to UNESCO HQ in Paris. UNESCO is a greatly undervalued stock in the human enterprise, a core opportunity for nonpartisan foreign policy for the United States, a meeting-point for the many global communities in science and the arts and culture and the social sciences and humanities and ethics . . .. Like it or not, we are now into a grand planetary effort on nearly all levels, in the context of deep disciplinary convergence. And they converge elegantly in Rue Miollis and Place Fontenoy. I was privileged to spend time with some of the smartest and most committed of people. The decision of George W. Bush that the United States should rejoin UNESCO was a surprise to pretty much everyone. I hope we are making the most of it to leverage the global conversation; not least about the dramatic impacts that emerging technologies will have in constantly reshaping the conditions for life on our planet.
Thence to London, meeting with a C-PET partner, an entrepreneur with far-sighted investments in core tech areas – because we need partners in this effort, both individuals and corporations, so we can scale. In Washington, private and corporate funding is directed to two standard ends: short-term policy impacts, and long-term ideology. Both are explicable and important. Taken together, they are proving disastrous. C-PET is neither ideological nor partisan, and is defiantly long-term in our thinking; quite unWashingtonian, indeed. So back to the theme of sustainable value. We need partners who are out for the long term, who get it, and who want Washington to get it – before it’s too late. (Seriously, call me. 202 607 3803.)
Point is that we shall need to leverage all possible resources, with global institutions and innovative leaders in the business community taking the initiative, if we are to get policy leaders to focus on the great unmentionable; the cliché in every room; that f-word; the future.
Advocates of the future confront three related tendencies.
The first we know well, the tyranny of tomorrow. The next election, the next vote, the next donor call: all powerful determinants of the decision-making machine. What is it, as we might ask, that concentrates our minds? Tomorrow, or the day after?
Second, the twin problems of risk and groupthink; and a very general tendency among us to discount future risk if to count it at full value has a high present cost (there’s a technical term for this: wishful thinking). Sad to say, the Wall Street example is especially telling here, as not only our elite financial institutions but both self-regulation (the ratings agencies) and non-self-regulation (the many responsible agencies) almost universally failed to anticipate something that with hindsight seems blindingly obvious. Bundling highly dubious loans into AAA securities and incentivising everyone in the system with short-term rewards looks as screwed-up a proposition as could be devised. Some sadly similar approaches seem to be emerging from the Fukushima story. Partly for this reason at C-PET we have a principle of cultivating outliers. “All articulate voices round the table, all the time.” On any issue, the smart deniers of conventional wisdom are the most valuable people in the room, precisely because they are the most uncomfortable to be with – and to reason with. Not because we feel a need to cater to minorities, or to be nice to crazies. But because their critique brings value into the knowledge network that is unobtainable in any other way.
Third, something more basic that contributes to both of the above. There is a widespread human tendency, with which we are all of us familiar, that can be simply expressed as the “kink” in the curve where the past meets the future The exponential line of human technological progress, long driven by information and for the past generation by the power of the chip, is kinked. It is kinked, inevitably, at the present. We look back and see it rising inexorably and constantly faster. We look ahead and (admit it) see it leveling off. There are many telling examples around us, not least the current valuations being placed on hot digital properties like Google and Facebook. I spent some time last fall at UBS in Switzerland – their executive development center at Wolfsberg – and gave a workshop on this very issue. We look back seven years and there was no Facebook. The idea that if we look forward seven years, or five, there may be no Facebook – or that the brand may continue but essentially as a commodity service lacking the capacity for economic profit – is unthinkable to most of us (though it was eloquently put last August at the Technology Policy Institute’s Aspen Summit by a smart iconoclastic analyst).
And why? Because the entire principle here is one of knowledge-driven disruption, at an exponential pace; not of the establishment of new, stable, corporate technology-based empires in the stead of the displaced old. Indeed, the point is broader. For most people, the “digital revolution” has happened; and it has bequeathed us Blackberries and iPads. Yet the revolution has barely begun. As if shielding our eyes from too bright a light, we cope with the Future Shock of which Alvin Toffler warned us (prophetically but as it turned out much too soon) by squinting. The curve has a kink. And it just happens to be today.
So back to Dr. Johnson. The sum of all fears does not lie in the next donor call, or vote, or even the next election. It lies beyond. 10+ years offers a good rule of thumb. That’s when current trends in technology, innovation, values, policy, risk will have delivered dramatic changes to our landscape, whether or not we are looking ahead. Will the explosion in field after field have brought about results that we would now regret? Robots that take away much of the market for unskilled labor? Devices that turn our children, and ourselves, into cyborgian zombies? Retail-level biotechnology that leaves every high schooler a potential bioweapons manufacturer? A world in which governments and corporations and leakers have ended our ability to keep data private? All serious possibilities, and most of them outcomes we would deplore. Will the United States be a second or third tier nation – as policies adverse to innovative research and development keep pushing us down the global pecking order and disenabling the creative enterprise to which we have become habituated? Or can we anticipate, mitigate, consider, and even plan?
Only if these and so many other possibilities concentrate our minds wonderfully, which is not going to happen until we de-kink the present and prepare for a future defined by exponential change.