Think of this as Volume 17, Number 26 of the newsletter I have written weekly since March, 1997. Enjoy.
I know the future isn't what it seemed to be when I was young. Technology moves through the path of least resistance, and in my lifetime that has meant Moore's Law. Extending the exponential gains in computing power made possible by silicon into other areas of technology – wired and wireless networks, aluminum and optical drives – has transformed us in many ways without seeming to change society all that much.
I currently drive a little four-door hatchback that, in many ways, isn't much different than the Jeep wagon my dad took to California in 1970. (I inherited it durng my college years, and thank god fashion has made so much progress since the mid-1970s.) I live in a house that has stood since 1923, the year my mom was born, and looks from the outside just as it did then.
Stores like Wal-Mart could not exist when we were kids because the technology didn't exist for them. Now such stores control global supply chains from the store floor, using RFID to collect orders for China overnight, delivering them from docks and turning them around within a few weeks instead of months. Net warehouse space has not increased in 30 years, despite the rapid increase in global trade, and that's because we can now track every package, every container, and every factory input cost in real time.
While I was writing these paragraphs, I got a tweet from Bob Sutor of IBM that sums it all up: “Disruptive technologies don't just change business processes, sometimes they make the processes unnecessary and obsolete.”
But this is not about the past. It's about the future.
We now have a foot on the rising price of energy, and a way to give everyone a stake in the game. The “energy crisis” has been the dominant theme of my working life, transferring money and power from America to the Middle East, moving power within the country from the coasts to Texas. The idea that “money comes out of the ground” is a pernicious one, one that is profoundly against humanity, but it's the great economic theme of my time.
Renewable energy is changing that. Solar energy supply peaks when it's most needed, when air conditioners go on in the late afternoon. Wind energy is getting cheaper. But more important, our ability to move this energy around, to store it, is dragging our electrical grid kicking-and-screaming into the 21st century. As the costs of these technology move below those of other forms of energy, and that's happening much faster than we anticipated even a few years ago, these changes will accelerate.
That means nuclear plants will be mothballed, as coal plants are now being mothballed, not by politics but by economics and technology. It means more people will be making their living, or part of it, supplying energy – more people with more skin in the game means more political stability for everyone. As the most important form of renewable energy – efficiency – takes hold in computing and transportation, these changes are going to accelerate, and power will shift again, rapidly.
As the Internet has redefined and reshaped supply chains, moving power to China, so 3D printing is going to reshape them again. What are called Software Defined Supply Chains put a premium on manufacturing investment in technology, rather than in people.
Right now, human labor remains the biggest factor in the cost of creating products. Software defined manufacturing, based on 3D printing, means that educated minds will be the gating factor. This transforms where manufacturing happens, and who does it. It's a revolution that is just now starting in specialty, one-of-a-kind products and prototypes, but as the decade wears on it's going to head into higher-volume applications. Manufacturing is going to be seen as an application, not a human process but a technology process.
Internet ubiquity is something we talk about, but the rate at which it enforces change is only going to accelerate. We can see what is possible, and necessary, by looking at what is happening in Kansas City, which has become a haven for start-ups simply because Google connected it to its fiber network. Imagine if that kind of connectivity were everywhere.
As with renewable energy and 3D printing, economics and technology are going to force changes here where politics has failed. Cable and phone networks have to extend more bits to people, and charge less per-bit, because otherwise Google will simply replace them. And as wired bits become more commonplace, so will wireless bits – by simply adding higher frequencies to the mix and using them all efficiently, it's now possible to create 1 GB/S WiFi networks.
Internet ubiquity puts a premium on your ability to access data, process it quickly into new forms, and get that knowledge out to its market. Holding data, in libraries or universities, is giving way to a new economy in which the power of knowledge increases exponentially as it's shared.
What world will this make for my old age? I don't know. But I aim to find out, and I hope y'all will come with me.