Posted by: rolfsky | August 21, 2008

macro patterns: 1000 to 100 years

Last week I started the first of a five-installment series of blog posts centered around trends I’m seeing in the world, marketplace and history. This is part of a larger project I’m working on, providing context to eBay executives around what the technology environment will be like in the next 3 to 5 years.

The “5 eternal human truths” from last week were trends and patterns that could be applied to any era of history; they are fundamental aspects of how humans interact in this world.

This week I’ll be focusing on some macro patterns that have been in effect for the past 100 to 1000 years. These macro-patterns have formed from our eternal truths bumping up against the physical world and each other.

If you create a technology that invalidates any one of these trends, you have a profoundly disruptive innovation.

macro patterns: ~1000 to 100 years

1) efficiencies of scale encourage consolidation of power

Hierarchical systems become a standard organizational structure because consistently interacting with a large group of people is difficult for many reasons. Beyond the pure logistical difficulties in maintaining working relationships, often personal and political reasons make communication difficult. In a world where control is power, hierarchical systems tend towards tighter control as internal communication is routed through defined and known channels.
Beyond communication, centralization has benefits for maintenance and construction which minimize ongoing resource expenditure. There’s a reason why large companies can often branch out into different industries well, the logistics of large project management are largely similar across wide domains.

2) smaller
The industrial age truly took off when we were able to produce machines which helped us build more precise machines. Before the standardization of nuts, bolts, screws, and gears, every machine was a one-off item of immense beauty and huge labor. Tools with tighter tolerances help you build products with tighter tolerances. Over time this pushes towards miniaturization because raw material cost always increases with volume.

3) faster / more
“Faster” relies on some of the same principles as “smaller”. Better-crafted machines and processes allow more accurate functioning which can run faster producing fewer errors. “Smaller” also leads to “faster” by virtue that you can pack in more “power” due to miniaturization. The new iPhone has approximately the processing power of a PowerPC from not to long ago. The PlayStation3 is a super-computer by many standards.

4) more connected, less wired
As communication technology increases in capability, face to face interaction is steadily decreasing while the total number of people we connect with is increasing. It would be tempting to assume that quality of communication is decreasing, but realize that all communication technologies are aimed at solving some deficiency with previous advancements.

5) rural –> urban –> suburban –> (urban?)
Everyone started “rural” because an immense percentage of human effort was expended in feeding our bellies, let alone these big brains we have on top of our shoulders. Advancements in farm productivity freed an enormous pool of labor which could only (efficiently) be utilized when clustered densely in urban areas. The availability of vehicle transportation in the United States encouraged dispersion away from the “difficulties” of city life to the vast tracts of unpopulated area available around urban regions. This trend is starting reverse as higher qualities of life are made possible by the efficiency of urban areas and those areas are no longer dominated by the industrial and factory work which originally created them.

6) knowledge is power
In a world where human resources are limited, control over the human resources (and the natural resources they use to create value) is the ultimate goal. Recent history (the 19th and early 20th centuries) drove tremendous efficiencies in the leverage of human resources through mechanization and automation. These efficiencies have created a surplus of the capital means of production, and now the emphasis lies in what you do with that ability. Knowing what can be built and designing it are key values in the 21st century. Knowledge is also power when a new business model is largely based on the ability to parse, digest, and reassemble the output of other knowledge-based companies.

What does this all lead to?

massive technological change in past 100 years
Perhaps I speak with a bias towards recent history, but the past 100 years have witnessed change on a massive scale. The reason behind this is the obliteration of many previous “limitations” to the human condition. We have “solved” key “flaws” in this corporeal life that we live.

physical shifting – the automobile, and airplane provide rapid transport of both people and things
mental shifting – all forms of telephony, video conferencing
“lossy” memory – digital reproduction in all forms
time shifting – video and audio recording, realtime transcription
language barriers – not quite perfect, but coming soon
financial limitations – modern electronic exchanges and markets

We are on the edge of something really really big which I don’t think will be fully realized until at least the end of the 21st century.


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