Google Director Of Engineering: This Is How Fast The World Will Change In Ten Years
Author’s Note: This article was written over 60 hours with love and care using the blockbuster mental model.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this.
Futurists from the 20th century predicted that labor-saving devices would make leisure abundant. According to the great economist John Maynard Keynes, the big challenge would be that…
For the first time since his creation man will be faced with his real, his permanent problem—how to use his freedom from pressing economic cares, how to occupy the leisure, which science and compound interest will have won for him, to live wisely and agreeably and well.—John Maynard Keynes (1930)
Fast forward almost a century later.
Things didn’t quite go as expected. This quote from a modern researcher captures the current ethos:
Rather than being bored to death, our actual challenge is to avoid anxiety attacks, psychotic breakdowns, heart attacks, and strokes resulting from being accelerated to death.—Geoffrey West
Rather than inhabiting a world of time wealth, we’re inhabiting a world of time poverty. Rather than feeling the luxury of time freedom, we’re feeling the burden of constant hurry.
How did things turn out the exact opposite of what we were expecting?
More importantly, will the pace of life keep accelerating? And if it does, what are the implications (i.e., can most people even cope)? What should we be doing now as knowledge workers to prepare for this future?
So, I spent over 100 hours reading the top 10 books related to these questions across the disciplines of sociology, technology, physics, evolution, business, and systems theory.
I read Pressed for Time: The Acceleration of Life in Digital Capitalism by sociologist Judy Wajcman. I read The Sociology of Speed: Digital, Organizational, and Social Temporalities by ten sociologists. I read Scale: The Universal Laws of Life, Growth, and Death in Organisms, Cities, and Companies by physicist turned polymath Geoffrey West. I reread The Singularity Is Near by technologist and futurist Ray Kurzweil. I read The Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature by journalist Matt Ridley, PhD. I read about the Law Of Requisite Variety pioneered in the field of cybernetics. Finally, I read Competing Against Time: How Time-Based Competition is Reshaping Global Markets by management consultant George Stalk and Clockspeed: Winning Industry Control In The Age Of Temporary Advantage by MIT researcher Charles Fine.
While each of these researchers provides a different perspective, they point to the same fundamental root cause…
Time Is Accelerating Because Of The Red Queen Effect
At a fundamental level, life on earth must compete to stay alive. Predators and prey are in a never-ending race to evolve new abilities to avoid extinction. Rabbits that evolve longer ears to hear foxes survive more. Foxes that develop stronger legs to run faster catch more rabbits and don’t starve. And so on.
Matt Ridley, author of The Red Queen Effect, explains the tit-for-tat like this…
If a competitor makes an improvement, you must make an equal or greater improvement just to stay neck-and-neck with them. Stay the same and you fall behind.
Lauren Bacall said it even better…
Standing still is the fastest way of moving backwards in a rapidly changing world.
In other words, evolution is a double-edged sword. On one hand, innovations increase survival. On the other hand, they also increase competition, which reduces survival.
Evolution does not rest on its laurels. It accelerates.
With humans, we see a shift from competing based on biology to competing based on ideas (cultures, strategies, technologies, etc.). For example…
Companies compete for top talent. Employees compete for open positions.
Employees compete to move up the corporate ladder.
Companies compete for investors. Investors compete for the best startups.
Companies compete against each other via their products and services.
Scientists compete against each other for publication, citation, awards, and funding.
Just like evolution, when we evolve new technologies, things don’t slow down and become a utopia. Rather things get faster and more competitive.
Now, here’s where the big difference between biology and ideas is. While human biology evolves so slowly we don’t notice, ideas (cultures, strategies, technologies, etc.) evolve so quickly, we can’t keep up. Idea evolution is like biological evolution on steroids.
In other words, in a moment when many are already feeling overwhelmed by change, things are about to take off even faster. 20 years from now, the rate of change will be 4x what it is now. Things will keep accelerating from there, and in 40 years, it will be 16x (more on these numbers later).
What does this mean?
Let me put it in context. For many, 2020 felt like five years packed into one…
Historic social movement (Black Lives Matter)
Historic stock market high
We saw once-in-a-generation events in nearly every sphere of life. Each of these events rippled throughout society leading to unpredictable second-order effects that upended our long-held beliefs about media, democracy, business, and citizenship to name a few. Our emotions went from positive to negative extremes as we faced unprecedented opportunities and challenges. We had to fundamentally rethink our lives, relationships, and work.
Here’s the thing though… 2020 isn’t a temporary blip before things go back to normal. It is the kickoff to an unprecedented acceleration that few have considered, let alone prepared for.
If time is like a treadmill, 2020 was running. The near future will be an all-out sprint.
How do we keep up?
To answer this question, let’s talk about…
The Coming Acceleration Shock
If somebody describes the world of the mid-twenty-first century to you and it doesn’t sound like science fiction, it is certainly false. We cannot be sure of the specifics; change itself is the only certainty.
—Yuval Noah Harari
While both biology and ideas evolve exponentially, exponential growth is fundamentally different at different stages of the curve. It starts off slowly, but when it hits the knee of the curve, it grows explosively and profoundly.
For example, one researcher charted the Gross World Product from 10,000 BCE to 2019 and came up with this chart…
We are now living in the second half of the curve. This is a big deal because the second half feels and behaves in fundamentally different ways.
Ray Kurzweil, the director of engineering at Google and arguably the world's #1 futurist, breaks down the second half of the exponential curve better than anyone else in his book, The Singularity Is Near.
Kurzweil’s basic premise is this…
The future will be far more surprising than most people realize.
The reason it’ll be more surprising, he argues, is, “because few observers have truly internalized the implications of the fact that the rate of change itself is accelerating.” In other words, “an exponential curve looks like a straight line when examined for only a brief duration. As a result, even sophisticated commentators, when considering the future, typically extrapolate the current pace of change over the next ten years or one hundred years to determine their expectations.”
Let’s break this down. When we look at a linear and exponential curve from a zoomed-out perspective of more time, it’s easy to see the difference between the two curves…
However, when we zoom into a small duration, the differences look more like this. Notice that the difference is almost impossible to see.
For example, I was born in 1981. When I think about the pace of change, it is hard for me to compare the change I experienced in my lifetime to the change experienced during 1940–1980. It’s like comparing apples to oranges. Furthermore, when I look at the last 40 years, major events blend together. The pace changes, but then I get used to it. It is hard to feel the exponential nature either way. Sure, I can intellectually understand exponential change, but I don’t feel it.
Things get really interesting when Kurzweil shares the implications of this insight. It is the most profound, yet underappreciated idea from the book…
Introducing The 10-Year Rule
My models show that we are doubling the paradigm-shift rate every decade.
This is the most interesting line in Kurzweil’s book in my opinion. This statement is profound because it means the following…