My previous posts launched a series that will tell the full story of a reimagined future. Described as a journey through the looking glass, the story began with a series description and a look back in time. The series continues, with each post featuring a piece of our journey. We explored the beginning of the most recent historical cycle in the last post. In this post, I will now shift gears and focus on the future. That focus begins at the heart of the story – convergence.
Convergence across several domains has driven the greatest periods of human development, with the late 19th and early 20th century representing the point in history that experienced the most convergence. This remains the most impactful period in human history. In this context, convergence refers to a virtuous cycle where events in one domain spur action in another. As described in the post on historical perspective, invention and the growth of knowledge ignite the convergence process. Once ignited, convergence may occur across the economy, society, technology, science, business, geopolitics, philosophy and more recently, the environment.
A century ago, convergence across domains ushered in unprecedented advancements in human development. In his brilliant book The Rise and Fall of American Growth, Robert J. Gordon described how a special century (1870 – 1970) in the wake of the Civil War was made possible by a unique clustering of what Mr. Gordon calls the great inventions (electricity, telephone, and internal combustion engine). These inventions were clustered together at the end of the 19th century, driving a period of astounding innovation and significantly improving human well-being. This innovation cycle continued well into the 20th century. Yet in his view, the economic revolution of this period was unique in human history, unrepeatable because many of its achievements could only happen once. He provides examples of several humanity-altering, one-time events: the invention of electricity; moving away from the horse-driven mode of transportation to the car; significantly reducing child mortality; and eliminating the communication barriers that existed before the telegraph and telephone. What makes this century so special is that these events altered what until then, was a life lived in misery. I captured the advancements made during that period using an Innovation Wheel and mapped them to our areas of well-being.
The question Mr. Gordon asks is: having achieved those things and more, can anything we do going forward compare? Can it enable an economic revolution that even closely resembles humanity’s greatest period of prosperity? As we ponder his question, this look at history is very instructive. Several dynamics from that period have the potential to emerge once again – the biggest being the opportunity for convergence. While I am still hoping for the ultimate convergence across societal, political, environmental, philosophic, economic, and business domains, convergence is already occurring in the science and technology domains. This synergistic relationship where advances in one domain fuels rapid advances in the other is the force behind our rapid pace – the ignition switch. As we saw in a Poll that looked at the catalysts that drive convergence, it is this rapid pace of innovation that many believe will ultimately drive convergence. This initial convergence is altering long-held Beliefs and Intuitions – eventually forcing convergence across the other domains.
Periods that experience profound levels of convergence require unlearning – one of the most difficult things for humans to do. Imagine life after the civil war and how much unlearning was required in the fifty plus years that followed. Now consider the possibility of increased convergence in the coming decades. What core beliefs, intuitions, and institutions will we need to reimagine? Consider ethics for example. In this era of artificial intelligence and robots, programming ethics into the fabric of an automated society will be critical – a dialog that I expect to ramp in the coming years. A great example of this process in action can be seen in the MIT work around A Moral Machine.
Therefore, we must appreciate that the rapidly approaching future relies upon our understanding of the various domains that are Converging. It is difficult enough to stay abreast of rapid advancements in science and technology, now introduce societal, geopolitical, economic, and environmental considerations and the task gets harder. Yet a high-level appreciation for these domains is necessary if we hope to understand possible futures and steer humanity in constructive directions. It is a full-time job staying abreast of current events in each of these areas. Great sources of information are the books that emerge for each domain. One of those domains, geopolitics, is an area with great impact and complexity. The geopolitical landscape of the next several years is dominated by the dynamics of a current world power (America) grappling with the rise of an emerging power (China). Here again history is instructive. The book titled Destined for War traces similar scenarios and their outcomes throughout history. Any look into the future that does not consider geopolitics is destined to fail. As it converges with other domains, our lens must broaden.
These geopolitical shifts add to the high degree of uncertainty reflected in the current environment. Is it any wonder that leaders are overwhelmed? It’s not just the pace of change, extreme events, or challenges to existing mental models. At the heart of this convergence story is the sheer number of building blocks that currently exist, and those that are emerging. It is creating a recipe for uncertainty, unpredictability, and an overwhelming number of possibilities. It was the book titled The Second Machine Age written by Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson where the point was underscored. Therefore, identifying building blocks and how they combine is critical to understanding possible futures. This lies at the heart of the reimagining the future story. We will explore this further as the series continues, but before we do, we need to understand the drivers of convergence. What enabled convergence during the special century, thereby creating the most dramatic improvement in human development? There were several key catalysts – the topic of the next piece of the series.
First Post in the series: A Journey through the Looking Glass
Second Post in the series: The Journey: An Historical Perspective
Third Post in the series: The Journey: A Growth Of Knowledge
Fourth Post in the series: The Journey: Our Current World Order