This interview with Azhar has been edited and condensed.
You claim that we are living in an “entirely new era”, the exponential era. How can technological improvement be exponential?
We can see an exponential change in the mathematics of compound interest. If your bank provides the same amount of interest each year, your principal will grow faster over time.
Technology exponentially improves by 10% every year for about the same price. This means that in seven years the technology will double its performance. After 14 years, two doublings will occur, making the technology four times better. The rate of improvement of an exponential technology continues for an extended period, normally decades.
What are some examples of technologies that are improving exponentially?
Many of the key technologies needed for renewable energy are experiencing exponential price drops. Solar power and wind turbines have seen their prices rise 23-25% each year for decades. Lithium-ion batteries, which are important for energy storage, have seen an exponential price drop of around 17-19% per year for two decades.
Computer chips improve their value for money by about 50-60% every year. It got worse as the gift that seems to never stop giving since the 1950s. When I was born in the early 1970s, there were less than a million computers in the world. Today, there are more than five billion, including smartphones more powerful than any computer in existence at the time. As computers become cheaper, more and more departments are using them and their number is growing rapidly.
You and I can probably remember a time when very few people were on a social network. And then, seven years after the launch of Facebook, everyone is on one. Then comes TikTok, and it’s growing faster than Facebook, going from nothing to suddenly everywhere in the space of a few months apparently. And it seems the same dynamic that we see in the underlying technologies – aggravating acceleration – is showing up in the products built with those technologies and the companies that run those products.
What is driving these huge reductions in technology costs?
The critical thing seems to be how well we learn to do them. A lot of things can affect the learning rate. For example, in a global economy that knows how to share ideas, someone creates a prototype of a new application or presents a product that is spreading rapidly on the Internet. This allows for collaboration and results such as copiers and clones emerging quickly. Thanks to global supply chains, these products quickly find their way into the hands of many customers who make new demands. Apple launched its first smartphone in 2009 at a store in San Francisco. But when it launched the most recent, it was available in dozens of countries. Now, this dizzying rate of change is not contained in a single city.
You say that an exponential gap has occurred because technology is changing faster than societal norms. But haven’t societies been faced with technological challenges for a long time?
We have often had to cope with the pace of technology going faster than institutions can respond. Certainly, at the time of industrialization, Victorian England had real problems where the commercial applications of technology outstripped the needs of society. As I note in my book, Charles Dickens describes the poor living conditions of industrial towns in the north of England, where soot and ash permeate the air outside the factory and where workers are not almost nothing paid and yet constantly working.
What I think is distinct about the exponential gap is the tempo of these changes. Back to TikTok. From being on nobody’s agenda to a threat to national security [because the Chinese app collects data on users] in a few weeks.
So the question is not, “Can’t we just figure it out the way we did before?” But “Can we quickly mitigate the damage and deliver the right benefits?” There is an argument for moving policy forward more quickly and in a concerted manner during times of great change. William Ogburn was an American sociologist who studied employer liability laws in New York State between the 1890s and the 1930s. He observed that decades of dragging feet resulted in thousands of victims allegedly killed. could be avoided by passing laws earlier. It was the same in Victorian England. By the time laws were passed to protect the health and safety of workers, decades had passed in which large numbers of people were miserable.
How should we think of power as the exponential age creates superstar businesses and an economy where everyone wins?
Suppose companies get so big and powerful that they start to look like infrastructure, like roads and water supply systems. In this case, we should start by saying, “You are an essential part of society providing the oxygen we need – not an innovator taking enormous amounts of risk. I think we should ask these companies to make their services more competitive and to adhere to higher levels of obligation in terms of who has access and on what basis.
For example, Facebook’s grip on social media is reminiscent of the kind of control AT&T exercised over telephone networks until the mid-1980s. Go to another service and you will lose access to your connections, messages and friends. Interoperability, i.e. allowing one user of one network to access another, is a common principle to open up markets and provide more choice to consumers. It reduces the strength of network effects and introduces competition that maintains the honesty of service providers.
Evan Selinger is Professor of Philosophy at the Rochester Institute of Technology and Affiliate Researcher at the Center for Law, Innovation, and Creativity at Northeastern University. Follow him on twitter @evanselinger.