Note 1: If this is a revolution, what kind of revolution is it?

As I mentioned in the about page, my hope in starting this blog was to not only take note of the progress and potential of these new technologies, but also to talk to the makers and the shakers that are bringing them to us. It still seems to me that there’s a lot more punditry devoted to this subject than coverage, a lot more time speculating on What It All Means than talking to the scientists, entrepreneurs and inventors about what the hell it is they think they’re trying to do.

But the one thing everyone seems to agree on is that this might indeed be a revolution in human development, and I’d be a fool not to use this space to help track and clarify my own thoughts about this stuff — not the least so that I can ask better questions. So consider this the first in a series of occasional post it notes to mark points to ponder. One big question that’s swirling through the back of my mind as I try and dive into where all this future tech might take us:

1) If this is a revolution, is the Industrial Revolution our best guide as to how it might go?

I’ve just started The Second Machine Age (fuller discussion to come) but the very first whiz-bang chart they hit the reader with in the first chapter is one tracking human population size over the past 8,000 years or so — e.g., 7,800-odd flatline years of plagues and pox, and 200 or so years of skyrocket, once the Industrial Revolution gets underway and science and technology combine to deliver us, yea unto 9 billion or so people, if the UN’s on the ball. Historical World Population Graph

Most of the critiques I’ve encountered of the idea that all this new technology will be truly revolutionary rely, implicitly or explicitly, on the idea that the Industrial Revolution is our best model of what’s to come — sure, old jobs go away, but new ones we can’t even imagine right now will arise to replace them. 200 years ago, nearly everybody was a farmer, now less then 2 percent of the workforce suffices to grow enough food to feed triple the population, etc. That’s what happened when we came up with the steam engine to do our weaving and plowing for us, that’s what will happen again when we come up with our little algorithmic engines and Mechanical Turks to do our thinking for us.

But is one revolution the best guide to another? I’ve been listening to a podcast on that very subject, as it happens (shout out to Mike Duncan’s Revolutions) and while there’s certainly parallels to be drawn between say, the American and the French revolutions, or the English and the Russian — the overthrow of monarchy, to take the most obvious example — once the revolutions got underway the powers that drove each, the little chaos butterflies that determined their fates (the “and all for a want of a horseshoe nail,” type stuff that can determine the courses of battles and wars) were quite different, and so were the lasting (or not so lasting) effects on their societies. The pessimistic side of me can’t help but note that pretty much the entirety of economics as a discipline arose during and studies the world shaped by the Industrial Revolution — it’s a rare rare thing to even have access to any kind of data that would allow one to peer back beyond the past 250 or so years.

“Past performance is not an indicator of future results,” the Wall Street prospectuses say, and no investor truly believes.


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