The Journey: A Phase Transition

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 role that catalysts played in driving human action in the last post. In this post, I will now shift gears and focus on what history may be telling us. As these historical signals combine with emerging signals, a phase transition comes into view.

We are on the cusp of the fastest, deepest, most consequential transformation of human civilization in history, a transformation every bit as significant as the move from foraging to cities and agriculture 10,000 years ago


Much like the human body, economy, and ecosystems, every system will experience phase changes. The existing system stays in a state of equilibrium until it reaches a rupture point. The leading thinkers of this phenomenon are Tony Seba and James Arbib, founders of RethinkX, an independent think tank that analyzes and forecasts the speed and scale of technology-driven disruption and its implications across society. Their thinking is captured in a book titled Rethinking Humanity. This impactful visual describes the phenomenon (click to enlarge), with a RethinkX narrative as follows:

This rapid change in system state is a ‘phase change’. The impacts of this phase change ripple outwards and affect other connected systems, potentially causing them to rupture and change state too. The impacts of phase change in these connected systems can then ripple back and affect the process of change in the original system. While modeling complex systems is extremely difficult, there are often only a limited number of equilibrium states around which the possible outcomes of phase changes cluster.

The signals representing a phase change are flashing bright red. In the post that launched this series, I described several of those historical signals, including the cycles of history. Add to that the work of RethinkX, as they combine historical signals with current signals and the foresight they enable. If we are heading towards a phase change and a resulting new equilibrium, then we are in a period of phase transition.

The complexity and uncertainty of our environment is challenging enough without the added burden of a phase transition (that point in time when humanity transitions from one era to another). In exploring similar historical periods, we see that the organizing system of the given era collapsed. Along with extraordinary technological progress during those periods, new ways of organizing and managing society (a new Organizing System) emerged as social, political, and economic systems were undermined and outcompeted by societies better adapted to the emerging possibilities. The RethinkX team believes our system will not survive the next decade and that we must create a new one. As they state: “History shows that for ten thousand years, humanity has been hardwired to expand and collapse.”

If we are in a phase transition, what are we transitioning to? Here again, RethinkX Founders Tony Seba and James Arbib have a point of view. They describe the transition has moving from an age of extraction to an emerging age of creation. The extraction age began with agriculture and continued through the industrial period. The authors describe the age of extraction as follows:

Extraction became the prevailing system of production and exploitation emerged as a core principle of the Organizing System. Cities harnessed resources and people from as far afield as their technological capability allowed in order to force feed their production systems. They took what they found in nature – plants and animals initially and then other resources – and harvested them to break down, process, and produce the things they needed or wanted, namely food, energy, and materials.

Tony Seba, James Arbib – Rethinking Humanity

The authors position an entirely new system of production that is emerging in a way that decreases our dependency on resources and the environment. For example, food production shifts from extraction, where we grow plants and animals to break them down into the things we need, to a model of creation, where foods are built up from molecules and cells. This recent article portrays that future by explaining how everything will be grown in a lab. Meat and dairy are already being produced by the convergence of science and technology, as price points come down and the ability to scale expands.

Creation is not limited to food, as the article describes an ability to grow wood, diamonds, blood, and human organs in a lab. We know that new forms of energy will be created versus extracted, and large-scale material creation is on the horizon. Therefore, this age of creation is a piece of the coming tipping point. It represents a massive change to our human journey and challenges our current belief systems. We’ve had similar period in our human past, but as our RethinkX friends have said, this is likely the fastest, deepest, most consequential disruption in history.

As we grapple with this coming transition, we lose sight of the fact that we invented the political and economic systems of our time. When the organizing system is no longer suited for a new era, we have the power to reinvent. Reinvention however requires a willingness to look beyond our current beliefs, institutions, and mental models. If we view this phase transition through our traditional lens, our solutions will fall short. This is not a story of disruption; this is nothing short of a phase transition between eras.

Our institutions represent the lasting norms that define how we live. These norms are established over time and are so engrained in how society behaves, that it usually takes major catastrophes to change the status quo. In transformative periods, institutions struggle as society transitions from one phase to another. These moments of radical change represent a phase transition. The post-world-war two era represents one such transition. How society handles the transition is crucial, and the next decade is tied closely to the evolution of those Institutions. The challenge is large and best described in this passage from a recent book titled The Exponential Age, written by Azeem Azhar.

The conclusion all this research has led me to is deceptively simple. At heart, the argument of The Exponential Age has two key strands. First, new technologies are being invented and scaled at an ever-faster pace, all while decreasing rapidly in price. If we were to plot the rise of these technologies on a graph, they would follow a curved, exponential line. Second, our institutions—from our political norms, to our systems of economic organization, to the ways we forge relationships—are changing more slowly. If we plotted the adaptation of these institutions on a graph, they would follow a straight, incremental line. The result is what I call the “exponential gap”: the chasm between new forms of technology—along with the fresh approaches to business, work, politics, and civil society they bring about—and the corporations, employees, politics, and wider social norms that get left behind.

Azeem Azhar. The Exponential Age: How Accelerating Technology is Transforming Business, Politics and Society (p. 15). Diversion Books. Kindle Edition.

The exponential gap described by Mr. Azhar captures our challenge well. It is this gap that drives potentially destructive outcomes – not the progression of science and technology. The challenges of this emerging era require the continued advancement of innovation in this period of great invention. That leaves us with the other alternative: accelerate the path of institutional change.

Now that we have set the context of history and what increasingly seems like a phase transition, I will explore the complexity and uncertainty of the world that is emerging in my next post.

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

Fifth Post in the series: The Journey: Convergence Drives Human Advancement

Sixth Post in the series: The Journey: Catalysts Of The Past And Those On The Horizon

12 thoughts on “The Journey: A Phase Transition

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