#29: And there was light



Today’s post is brought to you by DONUTS (and written by Alec Liu). Not sure what DONUTS is? Well… stay tuned, you’re in for a treat.

I think we can all agree that things are changing. The problem isn’t that things are changing. The problem is that things are changing too fast. For thousands of years, change happened at an excruciatingly slow clip—and perhaps this is inherent to our human nature that nostalgia is incorrigibly linked with times where the pace of change was simply slower.

But today, we face of tsunami of change, built up from years of compounding interest. “Gradually, then all of a sudden,” is how Hemingway described going bankrupt, yet it is also another way to describe the societal debt burden of the current velocity of change.

Change pays no dividends to the slow and steady institutions we’ve built up throughout the history of civilization. Change doesn’t wait for us to get properly educated and learn new skills before it takes our jobs. Change doesn’t wait for us to reduce our footprint before it warms the sky. Change doesn’t wait for our cultural norms to accommodate the embrace of our true selves. Change doesn’t wait for the political establishment to step back and figure things out. Change doesn’t wait for the poor to become rich or the rich to become old. Change simply does not wait.

In the past, we still had time because change was slow. Change was slow so we had time to adjust.

As earthly humans, the sun has always been our god and it’s when we learned to create our own sun that we became kings.

In a dark world, light is both power and productivity. For thousands of years, the only way to produce consistent light was with fat, usually animal fat, which, as you can imagine, was extremely valuable. A person might have to work for months to make enough money to buy enough cow fat to make a candle that could stay lit maybe a couple hours. Incidentally, light was only used in the most dire of situations.

Over time, however, our ability to produce light became far more efficient. Whale fat, or blubber, was far cheaper than cow fat, for instance. But it would be the discovery of kerosene that truly punctuated the equilibrium. Kerosene was cheap enough so that maybe you could work a couple hours and be able to buy enough light to last until dawn. Suddenly, the previously unproductive hours after dusk became a catalyst for change, change at the speed of light.

Change was accelerating. But that was OK because now, we owned the light, and as owners of light, the light of god, we were kings.

But this is also the story of the king and the chessboard:

The king was a big chess enthusiast and had the habit of challenging wise visitors to a game of chess. One day a traveling sage was challenged by the king. To motivate his opponent the king offered any reward that the sage could name. The sage modestly asked just for a few grains of rice in the following manner: the king was to put a single grain of rice on the first chess square and double it on every consequent one.

The deal that the king made with this sage, clearly a mathematician, and in turn, one who speaks for the universe, is much like the deal we as humans have made with the steady march of change, a deal signed at the birth of the Cognitive Revolution. It’s the Moore’s Law of humanity. And humanity is change.

In the last century, our ability to extract and leverage oil would perhaps push us off the proverbial cliff and onto the slippery slope that is change at an unfathomable pace.

The productive capacity of burning oil meant that we now could feed billions of people while creating the tiniest of microprocessors to calculate the biggest of problems. It meant that we could move the goods all around the world while building robots to make them for us. Meanwhile, we were ever-connected through little supercomputers we keep in our pockets, bouncing light and signals off satellites in space, which we put there with rockets.

But as much as those are accomplishments, they are also signs, signs that we as kings, are arriving at the end of that chessboard.

That doesn’t mean that things are ending.

It simply means that everything is about to change.

P.S. Be sure to check out my colleague Sterling’s piece on the age of technological deflation.

P.P.S. Asimov’s short story, the Last Question is also a fun read, just leaving it here.


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Delightfully indulgent.

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