Speed has never mattered more. Increasing velocity to a near-breaking point is celebrated in business and sports both for its own sake and for the damage it does to slow-footed competitors — so much so that speed has become a strategy in its own right. Although said more quietly than in years past, the mantra of Silicon Valley's boardrooms and engineering teams continues to be "move fast and break things."
As a result, in the last decade we've seen incredible technological innovations leading to just as incredible economic and political disruptions. Consider that barely more than a decade ago, Uber and Airbnb were just small startups, social media had virtually no impact on national security, electric cars were rare enough to be a curiosity (and self-driving vehicles were more dream than reality), and we talked to each other on our phones instead of having our phones talk to us. But according to two influential observers of technology and society, when it comes to change and disruption, we ain't seen nothing yet.
In their new book The Future Is Faster Than You Think: How Converging Technologies Are Transforming Business, Industries, and Our Lives (Simon & Schuster), Peter H. Diamandis and Steven Kotler are unequivocal about not only what is coming but, more importantly, how fast it will be here. The cite the work of the inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil and forecast that, because of converging technologies and exponential growth in computing power, we will experience "twenty thousand years of technological change over the next one hundred years. ... This means paradigm-shifting, game-changing, nothing-is-ever-the-same-again breakthroughs — such as affordable aerial ridesharing — will not be an occasional affair. They'll be happening all the time." Then, in either an exciting or ominous prediction depending on your faith in humanity, they add, "It means, of course, that flying cars are just the beginning."
And flying cars are just the beginning. The authors fly through life-and-society-changing disruptions that they see on the horizon, from gene editing to touchable holograms to the doubling of lifespans. As a human being, many of these innovations are exciting. As a policymaker, each is mind-bending for its implications for governance, funding and the social contract.
Consider, for example, increasing longevity through such emerging technologies as gene editing and the printing of replacement body parts. If in the not-so-far future people will be living 20 or 30 years longer, what does that do to Social Security, the environment, the health-care system, housing and jobs, the family structure, politics, and so much more? And what if it's only a small percentage of the population who can afford these interventions and life expectancy for the poor continues to fall?
None of these questions are answered in the book, nor could they be. After all, many of the biggest impacts of any innovation will be unintended or inconceivable. Who would've thought that a site to connect Harvard students would later become a company that dwarfs most national economies and can be manipulated by Russian bots, all while rewriting the social lives of a generation?
For those of us in policymaking, the question is whether we can keep up. First, can we bring our own processes up to the modern expectations? When companies are anticipating their customers' needs and wants and delivering them near instantly, government can't continue to take weeks and months to respond to paper forms delivered only during business hours — often closed during lunch — to a clerk in an inconvenient and unwelcoming government building. Not only will we anger our constituencies but also will, if we haven't already, be seen as irrelevant and obsolete.
Second, what we do as regulators is even more important. As the authors make clear, in a globalized and convergent world, there is very little change that can or will be stopped. But speed for speed's sake will not produce great or equitable solutions. Government will need to understand, engage and iterate policies quickly with each disruption.
At the end of the book, the authors warn, "Now, for certain, trying to grope with a century's worth of technological change unfolding over the next decade is a tall order, and trying to do this with our local and linear brains makes it ever more complicated." It's crucial that we, as policymakers, understand the changes coming to nearly every aspect of our lives and society. It's even more crucial that we, in partnership with the inventors, companies, ethicists and watchdogs, develop iterative processes to manage these changes with equity in mind — even if it slows things down a bit.