The J Curve

Saturday, September 04, 2004

Accelerating Change and Societal Shock

Despite a natural human tendency to presume linearity, accelerating change from positive feedback is a common pattern in technology and evolution. We are now crossing a threshold where the pace of disruptive shifts is no longer inter-generational and begins to have a meaningful impact over the span of careers and eventually product cycles.

The history of technology is one of disruption and exponential growth, epitomized in Moore’s law, and generalized to many basic technological capabilities that are compounding independently from the economy.

For example, for the past 40 years in the semiconductor industry, Moore’s Law has not wavered in the face of dramatic economic cycles. Ray Kurzweil’s abstraction of Moore’s Law (from transistor-centricity to computational capability and storage capacity) shows an uninterrupted exponential curve for over 100 years, again without perturbation during the Great Depression or the World Wars. Similar exponentials can be seen in Internet connectivity, medical imaging resolution, genes mapped and solved 3D protein structures. In each case, the level of analysis is not products or companies, but basic technological capabilities.

In his forthcoming book, Kurzweil summarizes the exponentiation of our technological capabilities, and our evolution, with the near-term shorthand: the next 20 years of technological progress will be equivalent to the entire 20th century.

For most of us, who do not recall what life was like one hundred years ago, the metaphor is a bit abstract. So I did a little research. In 1900, in the U.S., there were only 144 miles of paved road, and most Americans (94%+) were born at home, without a telephone, and never graduated high school. Most (86%+) did not have a bathtub at home or reliable access to electricity. Consider how much technology-driven change has compounded over the past century, and consider that an equivalent amount of progress will occur in one human generation, by 2020. It boggles the mind, until one dwells on genetics, nanotechnology, and their intersection.

Exponential progress perpetually pierces the linear presumptions of our intuition. “Future Shock” is no longer on an inter-generational time-scale. How will society absorb an accelerating pace of externalized change? What does it mean for our education systems, career paths, and forecast horizons?


  • Interesting to speculate about, but I think you're getting close to the realm of science fiction by suggesting that the next 20 years will see as much technological change as the past 100.

    At some point (and I think we're close to that point) the rate at which new technology is developed becomes limited by the rate at which the infrastructure for the prior technology is deployed. The Internet was an amazing transition, but it did not happen in a vacuum: it depended upon the fact that there were already millions of PCs in the country, ready to be linked on a WAN.

    If you look at the history of the 1900's, the networking revolution came late. The changes which arguably had the biggest impact on daily life were revolutions in transportation (the airplane, cheap cars, etc.) and agriculture (green revolution meant fewer people needed to produce each unit of food), enabling a great migration into the cities and suburbs. Transportation, at least, is now mature and unlikely to produce another revolution in the near future. The migration into the cities is now complete (and maybe even starting to reverse).

    While all the ramifications of the Internet/networking revolution aren't yet apparent, I think it is naive to assume that just because you happened to live through a major world-changing technological revolution in the past decade, we're going to get several more in the next 20 years.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 5:32 AM  

  • FUTURE SHOCK: "A sense of shock felt by those who were not paying attention." [Michael Flynn, ANALOG, Jan 1990. Coined by Alvin Toffler, Future Shock, 1970]

    --Jonathan Despres

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 2:33 PM  

  • ALEPH: A point or state where an infinite amount of information is stored and processed (As in the Omega Point). [Mitchell Porter]

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 2:34 PM  

  • It is very difficult (at least for me) to compare "amounts" of "progress".
    I followed both Internet and Biotechs evolutions and had the opportunity to be prepared for them. My last paper was about in silico bio-research (I don't like the bioinformatics term) and the one I am writing is about quality control of the same.

    For those fields I feel confident to discuss about amounts of innovation. Not progress, except if one consider that the accumulation of huge databases unused by the larger part of a scientific community should be accounted as progress. Some of my estimated colleagues are even afraid of them, feeling that they have lost the opportunity to catch the train. Limits appear within users, not technique and innovation. Universities are often unable to teach what is "in". Bioinformaticians, with a master degree, unable to build a Web site, with superficial knowledge of XML, ignorant of what XSLT is, unable to build a process graph to explain an algorithm (I don't even imagine that one of them could crate a new algo), is what I interviewed when we were ready to offer jobs. Many of their profs didn't knew what XSLT is! Astonishing!

    A simpler situation:
    Two years ago I had to deal with ~400 e-mailed messages per day. And ~70 phone calls. That's over. I couldn't handle them AND do my job. Most of my e-mail is handled by bots now. Selected messages (less then 20/day) are read out aloud as I am Netsurfing or writing comments on other peoples blogs ;-).
    I used to listen some music :-(

    We are at a saturation point as users. And we do create saturation at certain points, the available resources lacking despite their availability and probably because of their cost. Orkut could be an illustration of this. The market seems to be unable to sustain efficient tools for free service and those available collapse.
    On the other hand users try to stop the diffusion of technologies; this is the case with GMOs in Europe. People just don't want them.

    Solutions will come, but such drawbacks seems to be more and more frequent, slowing down the process of implantation of the new technologies. They may bend the exponential curve.

    By Blogger Antoine Vekris, at 5:42 AM  

  • Just seen on /. today about life as it was 100 years ago:

    Alien54 writes "Irving Vermilya is one of the legendary geeks from the dawn of the electric age. Beginning in 1903, at the age of 13, he helped set up an extensive private telegraph line in his hometown of Mount Vernon, New York. In order to use the line, individuals had to learn to send the dots-and-dashes of Morse code, and also interpret the clicks of the telegraph receiver. (The receiver clicks were loud enough to be heard throughout a room, so you could constantly monitor the traffic on the line.) By around 1907, this telegraph setup had been extended to 42 locations, forming a kind of party line, where everyone connected could listen in as they wished to the two-way telegraphic conversations. See the original full article here. Sounds vaguely similar to guys running around setting up wifi networks."So, how do we measure progress? Percentage of people with running water in their houses? (should we count the US only, UK only or the whole World? First measure would shows great progress, as illustrated by the parent post, second -- probably not so great, third -- very much so-so...).

    Or should we measure progress based on the top-of-the-line proof-of-concept demonstrations? If yes, then the referred article about public electronic chatrooms in 1907 adds an interesting datapoint.

    Paul B.

    By Blogger Paul B., at 10:18 AM  

  • Old Cola: Great points. In stark contrast to accelerating change in technological capabilities, human behavior and human capacities evolve at a relatively glacial pace, and so adoption and acceptance are a different issue entirely. Politics and emotion are effectively timeless. Jaron Lanier spoke recently about the “spiritual panic” that increasing numbers of non-scientists are feeling.

    Given the exponential pace of technological progress, history is increasingly decoupled from the present – as the present is from the near future – shortening our forecast horizons. Seems that modern business strategy requires a synthesis of both the stasis of human nature and the dynamic disruption of our technologies.

    Paul B: You raise an interesting issue – when do you start the clock for a technological change? Conception? Prototype? Mass adoption? When did the Internet “happen”? Many writers and bankers used to point to Netscape’s IPO.

    Often this origination nuance of history is a retrospective rationalization by the winner du jour. And it’s a chronic issue with exponential change. For almost any issue, the “knee in the curve” occurred in the recent past, and history before that seemed pretty flat. But, of course, there is no knee or inflection point or “hockey stick” in an exponential curve (when plotted on log paper, this more obvious). Roll the clock forward 5 years, plot again, and the perceived “knee” on a linear graph will have moved forward 5 years.

    So companies that are successful today, can usually point to an event in the recent past (usually their formation or product launch) and label it as the seminal event that led to the "knee" in the curve.

    By Blogger Steve Jurvetson, at 4:24 PM  

  • Poetic alliteration. Me likes.

    "Exponential progress perpetually pierces the linear presumptions of our intuition."

    Josh Wolfe

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 4:51 AM  

  • I suppose "proof of concept" is the starting point either with or without a functional prototype.
    Lag time 'till the availability of an industrial prototype.
    Implementation period for the time needed to clearly define the market [and blast off the predictions :-)]

    By Blogger Antoine Vekris, at 9:26 AM  

  • I'd posit that this most pose an interesting problem for venture capitalists. If technological innovation is increasing at an exponential rate, and the ability of people to understand/integrate new tech into their lives remains stagnant, the time between formation of IP and widespread market acceptance must be growing. This was clearly shown in the dotcom era. In the next couple of decades, if a nano/gene/bio company is born virtually overnight, and proceeds to run at a high burn rate, how long will the venture community wait for market acceptance of new products?

    By Blogger chrisfolk, at 9:58 AM  

  • Steve, let me leave you 2 thoughts among many inside me:

    1) About social adaptation to the acceleration of changes, I wouldn´t really worry about that. For various reasons:
    A. Because there is so many and so different societies expossed to these changes, that it is simply impossible to build up a homogene idea. You were just refering to Occident in your post. Which is fine as a valid refference. But certainly China, The Asian tigers, India and other so different societies and cultures are as well dealing with this, and surely they will adapt differently.
    B. Because whether you try to foresee this, little you can do about it. It is like a river course.
    C. Finally antropology and other humanistic sciences showed that they cannot make "preventive" research. I mean study the present and past in order to make a bet about the future and start doing something on those fields on which things seems not to be auspicious. Maybe this is the reason why they seem so "useless" for the "hard science" researchers.

    2) About technological capability as the gear of change and not companies and products anymore, that shows to me what I believe it is the TRUE change about a future.

    Imminent change is not to be experienced directly fromn the studies on the genome or proteins, AIs. The impact of that advancements will not be viewable at global scale immediately. Methinks.

    The first time it is recored that the world Globalization has been used is in a quote from the dairy book of a merchant in the 1500s. He talked about the benefits of trading with products from the new continent like potatos. And he called this new rising eon of commerce: globalization.

    Today we are witnessing a posible huge change of perception in a midlle term. We are mutating from the Gold Rule (the one with the gold rules) to the Technology Rule.

    The overinflation of the value of money and this mediatization of economy in which the money in itself has become a value to be traded rather than used as a means of trading, I think it is finally going to collapse. Along the 20th century it showed its worst flows and now it has a competitor standing as a possible replacememt, at least at high escale (big corp. and billions of dollars): Technology.

    Something or some company will be first valued for the technology inherent to it. No matter the value in dollars. Money has (nowadays) lost all sense of measure to value things as it has become a value in itself as I said before. So tomorrow it will no longer matter how much does Microsoft (i.e) values in terms of money but how much technology does it have inside it.

    These concepts may be difficult even to imagine from here (a world replacing money as the meter of value for technology) but I foresee it is the next true breaktrough. Sorry if I am saying something for you Palo Alto guys that maybe truly obvious there ;-) Or on the contrary if I am saying something very silly to you.

    ...You know, here in Argentina we still talk about potatoes and how to trade them for colored mirrors with the old continent.

    Ah well...! Kisses and thank you, Steve.

    By Blogger Gisela Giardino, at 12:09 AM  

  • “this most pose an interesting problem for venture capitalists… the time between formation of IP and widespread market acceptance must be growing.”chrisfolk: I don’t think the time to mass adoption of novelty is growing in absolute terms. Widespread adoption of successive technologies (e.g., radio, tv, internet) seems to have accelerated over the past 100 years, but perhaps it is saturating. In any case, human adoption is not changing as quickly as technology itself, and so it is a governor on accelerating change. Some implications:

    • Invest in PeopleAs investors, we have to focus on the human dynamic. We don’t invest in a technology, but a particular business (with particular people who will execute) with a strategy to overcome the latencies of mind.

    • Forge the FutureAlan Kay has said that the best way to predict the future is to invent it. But the time lag from invention to implementation becomes more relevant over time. Ray Kuzweil also observes that as an entrepreneur, he has to predict what the world will look like when he ships, not when he conceptualizes a product. So if it takes two years to get to market from concept stage, it is important to take exponential trends like Moore’s Law into account. This can affect the technological ecosystem from a competitive substitute perspective.

    • Life is FleetingThe flip side of rapid growth is rapid obsolescence. Just as a business can grow more quickly than ever before, so too can it die (and with it, the company if it is wed to one business). All businesses will die if you think long enough in the future. Corporate flexibility and reinvention, from business definition and scope to work organization, becomes more important over time.

    • The Internet’s Effect”This was clearly shown in the dotcom era”Not from a long-term perspective, if I understand your comment. A good idea can spread more quickly over the Internet than had ever been possible before in the physical world, where manufacturing and distribution fundamentally limit the rate of product adoption. It is a wonderful substrate for the realization of intellectual property value.

    Looking back in time, market cap can serve as a very rough proxy for market adoption. From first product launch, it took Hewlett-Packard 47 years to gain a billion dollars’ worth of market capitalization; it took Microsoft about 15 years, and Yahoo about 2 years.

    Gisela: One of the conclusions I take from this: Information is the economy. The basis of competition for most companies, from Wal*Mart to Merrill Lynch, will revolve around the way in which they process information. All real long-term GNP growth will come from improvements in information processing (including the information systems of biology).

    Your comment also raises the issue of an unfortunate side effect of technological exponentiation: the growing polarization of the rich-poor gap. Perhaps the role of long-term thinking and philanthropy will have to shift to the beneficiaries of these trends (e.g., the Bill & Melinda Gates foundation).

    By Blogger Steve Jurvetson, at 3:44 PM  

  • I think your extrapolation that the future growth of all economics is information is a premature conclusion. No doubt to regular net users, bio-tech researchers, and vc's that is the current reality, but this reality doesn't even reach probably 75% of the world's population (my rough guess). The reality for many of the 4 billion people that my estimated 75% figure represents is a daily struggle to get enough food to eat, and some form of shelter. Information alone will not feed, house or clothe these people. First, you have to bring the infrastructure to them.

    As I believe Steve mentioned, 100 years ago there were 144 miles of roads in the US. The developing world is like that now when it comes to basic infrastructure, much less information technology. Until we decrease the gap between the two cultures, information alone will not replace the basics of food, clean water and real shelter. (Never mind the vast field of conflict resoltution, which the industrialized world is not much better at the non-industrialized world...)

    Why is the developing world important to this dialogue, because it is the greatest potential harbinger for global change (if we give some creedence to the greater population numbers = greater innovations theory...). Most likely someone from the industrialized world will be the one to help bridge the gaps.

    Perhaps some bright young mind will design a solar-powered, low cost personal communication device built that can network with minimal infrastructure which will radically decrease the information gap between the haves and the have nots. I'm ready for that moment to happen. Until then, as Gisella said, some people will debate how to trade potatos for...

    Thanks for having a forum for discussion...

    By Blogger ducatisti22, at 1:48 PM  

  • well put. One could argue that it's a question of timing not ultimate trajectory, but that misses your point. The variability in the pace of progress is very real, and the acceleration of information age economies seems to be widening the gap.

    Some of the greatest near term business opportunities are in cheap distributed power generation (e.g., solar cells on plastic), water purification, and wireless connectivity. And we are seeing a number of great entrepreneurs in these areas. But there are some remaining problems, in global health for example, that remain troubling (as per the end of my last comment here).

    By Blogger Steve Jurvetson, at 10:04 PM  

  • I do embrace new technologies and know the web from HTTP to CSS pretty well. But when somebody hands me a new mobile phone I'm first completely lost... And the person handing me the phone isn't specially tech savvy and still uses it without any problems - like tv remote controls 20 years ago.

    I guess what I'm after here is that we don't have to wonder how people will react - instead we can just look at mass market and see. Yep - people just use the stuff. Ten years ago not many would have seriously talked about taking photographs with mobile phones, and now people just do it. Today not many talk seriously about using brain waves for computer input, but in ten (or 20 - tuff to predict the future :-) years time people will just use it.

    And the adaptation is often unnoticeable. Ten years ago I wouldn't have had heard of you, but now it's all natural that you are ol' mate from the ET :-)

    By Blogger kasimir-k, at 8:21 AM  

  • Yes, it's interesting. Good job.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 10:49 AM  

  • I do not need to say much, though I often write much more. The fact is that this is a dangerous time. Every time has its dangers. These dangers are either taken care of during the natural course of events or by assiduous human effort. The first problem that we face is that there is no more room for expansion in this world, so the population must come down. A one-child policy should voluntarily be accepted by the people of the world. Second all companies and countries must commit themselves to furthering the interests of the human species as a whole. New genomic technologies that are going to screen DNA and thus decide the course of a person's life based on that fact ought not to influence decisons by governments and cooperations. Extremely important is the fact that university education should be available as freely to people as school education is today. I think people all over the world should put greater effort in learning mathematics, which is going to seep quite keenly into our lives.

    The dangers that we face are many. There was a time when the leaders of this world had to respect the masses. Today the masses can be eliminated with technology. Chemical and biological weapons can effectively destroy millions of people. All a leader has to do is to apply the genetically-engineered disease and deny any medical help to the dying. The power of the mob will amount to nought when such weapons shall be used. When robots shall become widespread in the future, the people will be forced to capitulate to the demands of the powerful. In the future people will fight for their survival, as the power of the powerful grows.
    The truth is that people bring their own doom by by choosing not to learn more by saying that the knowledge of higher science, mathematics and technology is not for them.
    Posted by Jasonstarwalker of Youtube

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 1:37 AM  

  • Posted By jasonstarwalker

    I differ in opinion with those who think that this century will not see as much change in 20 years as the entire last century did. All the tools for such a growth are in place. And unless we are killed by an asteroid, war, or by global warming, things are going to move at an exponential rate( which is in its most basic form given by the mathematical equation f(X)= e^X ). And the conventional computers and supercomputers are going to be replaced by the new breed of quantum computers which are going to make conventional computers look mind-bogglingly worse than snails. But googies are in the bag too : we are going to live much beyond our normal lifetimes, perhaps even 200 or 300 years near the end of this century.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 1:55 AM  

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