As promised (threatened?) I am going to use Continuations to think out loud about what I believe is the beginning of a transition away from an industrial age to an information age. I know those terms aren’t perfect but that will be part of the discussion itself. Why am I doing this?
First, I believe that this transition will be as important to humankind as the previous transitions that have taken place from the forager age to the agricultural age and from there to the industrial age. Those transitions were extremely violent in large part because we didn’t really understand what was happening. We now have a lot more history to learn from, so it would be tragic if we repeated the same mistakes.
Second, much of the current policy debates in education, finance, healthcare and so on are largely arguments about whether the deck chairs on the Titanic should be a bit more to port or to starboard. They are fierce debates about making relatively marginal changes to a system that is fundamentally breaking down. We need to stop wasting our energy on them and instead collectively invent the future.
Third, I can’t think of an intellectually more fascinating project. My interest in this goes back three decades to when I first got excited about computers. I can’t claim that I saw then what I see now but I had some kind of inkling, which is why I studied both economics and computer science as an undergraduate and as a PhD student.
Fourth, this transition is highly relevant to what I do as a partner at Union Square Ventures. For instance, when I first learned about Etsy I had a very positive reaction because it fit with my thinking about what is happening to the economy and to society. The same goes for Shapeways and many other companies in our portfolio. So I expect that exploring the transition more will lead to new investments.
This is obviously a big topic and one of my weaknesses is that I am generally tempted to start with foundations and lay out all parts neatly step by step. But not only does that make for boring reading it also pre-supposes that one has it all figured out, which I definitely haven’t. In the end my goal is to have something coherent and hopefully even publish that as a book (yes, books themselves may seem kind of quaint but I love reading them so writing one seems like a good idea — I will need a great editor!).
Here are some of the pieces that I will be grappling with in the coming days and months
1. The massive cracks that are appearing in the existing system. In particular, the industrial system is built on people selling their labor and using the proceeds to buy goods (and services). But the price of labor is under tremendous pressure from machines and from globalization. Other cracks include the increasing importance of non-rival information goods and the missing prices for the environment.
2. The early signs of what a different system might look like. As I mentioned above, these include many of the USV portfolio companies. But they also include projects such as Polymath and not for profits such as the Freelancers Union and the growing cooperative movement.
3. The nature of mankind, which admittedly sounds awfully pretentious. But our views about our own nature are at the heart of what systems we believe can work. For instance, if you conceive of people as fundamentally selfish and greedy and prone to violence then your outlook will be very different than if you believe in curiosity, altruism
4. History and systems. These may seem like an odd pairing but I have a good reason for it. Systems sustain themselves through complementarities between their components. We tend to be too obsessed with trying to pin change on a single force whether that’s technology or policy or individuals.
5. Ideas about what we can do as individuals and organizations to help shape the transition.
6. The relationship to existing philosophies and schools of thoughts. I have come to realize that both capitalism and Marxism are essentially rooted in industrial society. They are like the proverbial generals fighting the last war. We need to get past both of them.
Along the way I am looking forward to lots of poking at my thinking from readers and a gradual process of collaboration and contributions. I have not yet figured out what the best way for that is, so for now, please comment!