Why the Next 20 Years

Do you believe that we are just at the beginning of an era of unprecedented change and unimaginable new products and services that will transform our lives, or do you believe that all our basic human problems have been solved and that the future holds only continuing incremental improvements and superficial experiences?

These two poles are articulated in two recent books, The first by Kevin Kelley, the Author of “The Inevitable” and the second by Robert Gordon, the author of “The Rise and Fall of American Growth”. Neither one of these opposite poles is likely to be true, but where you fall on this spectrum says a lot about how you think about the future.

Gordon’s argument is basically that “The economic revolution of 1870 to 1970 was unique in human history, unrepeatable because so many of its achievements could happen only once, … food, clothing, transportation, health care, and so forth — have changed little since the 1970s and are unlikely to change much in the next couple of decades.”

The author of this article is more towards the Gordon end of the spectrum than the Kelley end. His basic argument is that “There are a number of industries — with health care and education being the most important — where … the main thing you’re buying is relationships to other human beings, and those can’t be automated”.

In other words, the ‘real’ problems of food, shelter, transportation, communication etc. were basically ‘solved’ in the past century and what is happening now with companies like Uber, Amazon, Zenefits, Facebook etc. “isn’t what a real technological revolution looks like.”. He cites the ‘failures’ of companies like Redfin and technologies like 3D printing as examples of why the next wave of ‘revolution’ isn’t happening and won’t happen. The reason? The new opportunities “are primarily about managing physical objects or human relationships rather than information …  (and) technology companies will discover there just isn’t much room for them to add value.

While the optimists like Kelley can be too optimistic (and annoying) they have ultimately, and almost universally, been proven to be right. It just takes longer than expected and when it happens, it happens at a pace that is unnoticeable by virtually everyone. The early flameouts (e.g. the failure of 3D printing to take off as a consumer product) get all the press while the real 3D revolution is occurring at the GE’s of the world.

Ultimately skeptics like Robert Gordon and this author will be proven wrong, but they do serve as a cautionary counterpoint to remind us that true revolutions take time.

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