The Future Is Exponential – So?

I recently read “Abundance” by Diamandis and Kotler, and their discussion of exponential technologies, technologies that grow so rapidly it’s hard to keep up (for example, even now, a scientist needs to narrowly specialize in order to do meaningful – that is, novel – work).

expon1The problem, however, is to really feel what exponential is. We often see the hugely curving graph where it grows skyward faster and faster, and get (possibly) very scared. However, like the journey of 1,000 miles beginning with the first step, exponential functions – in the short term – are manageable.

Take for instance inflation. Four percent a year doesn’t seem too bad – since it’s only over many, many, years that the terrible effects are seen. For example, using the ‘Rule’ of 72, a four percent increase compounds about every 18 years. So eighteen years from now your $3 loaf of bread is $6. At 36 years, it’s $12. 54 years? $24. And should you happen to be a child reading this and live 90 more years, you will have seen five 18-year doublings, or 32 times that original bread, for a $96 loaf!

Of course, this is simplistic. Inflation is not nearly so cut and dried, and we actually have widely varying years, with some years high and some low. Currently, the annual rate in Canada is around two percent, but according to this chart, 1974 had over 12% inflation!

However, the key points here are:

  • Over any given time, the exponential graph is self-similar (like a fractal). In our example, remove any labels or legends, and a graph of each 18 year-period in the example would look exactly the same, with the same curve.
  • It is only over time the exponential nature reveals itself in all its scary glory. Think of it this way: Someone born 36 years from now will be quite used to $12 loaves of bread eventually reaching $24 while growing up, whereas all of us currently alive will be able to say (likely quite annoyingly) “I remember when bread was under $5…”

For these reasons, exponential technologies can sound ominous and scary, but in the short term, they are manageable (as is inflation most years…) The key is to remember that as you live longer, you will see acceleration, and so should prepare for it.

The takeaway from all this? The irony is that when people age and are less likely to embrace the new, that is exactly when they must embrace it the most. Anyone who starts a sentence with “I remember when…” is highlighting they’ve seen enough of the graph to notice the uptick – and that’s precisely when they need to dig in and keep their thinking ability limber and abreast of changes.

On the bright side, working to keep yourself mentally alert in anticipation of exponential growth isn’t a bad thing for your brain or your health…

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