Shelly Palmer – Digital Wisdom (Chap. 2)
Chapter 2: The World is Changing Faster than You Think
The Law of Accelerating Returns
In his book The Singularity Is Near, Ray Kurzweil offers a thesis he calls “the law of accelerating returns.” The math is simply summed up in Ray’s famous quote, “We won’t experience 100 years of progress in the 21st century—it will be more like 20,000 years of progress (at today’s rate) because the pace of technological change is exponential.”
Exponential growth is very hard for us to understand from our everyday experiences. We don’t live in a world where things “feel” exponential to us. There are lots of great brainteasers to help us grasp exponential rates of change. There’s the aphorism about the lily pond where the lily pads grow exponentially and will cover and kill all the life in the pond in 30 days. For most of the month, the plant growth seems small and contained. The associated question asks, “On what day will the lilies cover half the pond?” The answer is day 29, which leaves only one day to save it.
There’s another story, possibly more famous, about putting one grain of rice on the first square of a chessboard and doubling it on each of the subsequent squares. The math is simple: 2 n ~ 1 grains of rice up to the nth square. So you need two grains on the second square, four grains on the third, eight grains on the fourth and on and on. You’ll need more than 1 million grains of rice on the twenty-first square and more than 1 trillion (a million million) grains on the forty-first square, and by the time you get to the last square of the chessboard, thre isn't enough rice in the world to accomplish the task.
Exponential growth is not something human beings naturally understand from common experience. That said, the evidence for the exponential rate of technological change is overwhelming and happening as you read this.
According to Wikipedia, “Moore’s law is the observation that over the history of computing hardware, the number of transistors on integrated circuits doubles approximately every two years. The period often quoted as “18 months” is due to Intel executive David House, who predicted that period for a doubling in chip performance (being a combination of the effect of more transistors and their being faster).
The law is named after Intel co-founder Gordon E. Moore, who described the trend in his 1965 paper. The paper noted that the number of components in integrated circuits had doubled every year from the invention of the integrated circuit in 1958 until 1965 and predicted that the trend would continue “for at least ten years.” His prediction has proven to be uncannily accurate, in part because the law is now used in the semiconductor industry to guide long-term planning and to set targets for research and development.”
While Wikipedia is not always the most accurate source for historical information, this is pretty much the accepted description of Moore’s Law. Keep this in mind as we look at another observed law that will help us understand the speed and implications of the transition from the Industrial to the Information Age.
Metcalfe’s law characterizes many of the network effects of communica- tion technologies and networks such as the Internet, social networking, and theWorld Wide Web. Former Chairman of the U.S. Federal Communications Commission Reed Hundt said that this law gives the most understanding to the workings of the Internet. Metcalfe’s Law is related to the fact that the number of unique connections in a network of a number of nodes (n) can be expressed mathematically as the triangular number n(n − 1)/2, which is proportional to n2 asymptotically.
The law has often been illustrated using the example of fax machines: a single fax machine is useless, but the value of every fax machine increases with the total number of fax machines in the network, because the total number of people with whom each user may send and receive documents increases. Likewise, in social networks, the greater number of users with the service, the more valuable the service becomes to the community.”
Statistics and Projections
As I’ve said, I’m not a fan of publishing statistics in a book. It dates the writing. However, in order to gain an understanding of our future, we need to acknowledge the most current stats and projections.
Again, according to Intel Corporation, there are over 2 billion people connected to the Internet. By 2015, there will be 3 billion, and by 2020, Intel projects that 4 billion people will be online worldwide. And according to Cisco Systems, by 2015, there will be over 15 billion connected devices worldwide.
Kurzweil, Moore and Metcalfe
When you take Ray Kurzweil’s law of accelerating returns and put it in the context of Moore’s law and Metcalfe’s law, a remarkable timeline appears. It’s an exponential curve that tells us that a vast amount of computer power, network power and vocational capability are all rapidly trending upward. But what does this mean?
Technology Is Meaningless Unless It Changes the Way We Behave
“Technology is meaningless unless it changes the way we behave” is a great filter that we can all use to determine what bright, new, shiny objects are important and which ones can be ignored. Is a new app a paradigm shift or a parlor trick? How about that new computer that has no storage capacity but connects to the cloud? Just ask yourself, “Will this new (fill in the blank) change the way people behave?” If you think it will, then pay attention to it. If you don’t think it will, then you can probably ignore it.
So ... what happens when you ask this question about the curve we just created ... the nexus of the law of accelerating returns, Moore’s law and Metcalfe’s law?
It’s easy to see how the nexus of these three observed laws will empower consumers and directly cause a dramatic behavior change. From enhanced showrooming (the behavior consumers exhibit when they use their mobile devices to check prices in a physical retail location, then purchase the item online for a lower price) to self- driving cars to endo-digitally enhanced human beings, this exponential increase in the network effect, the speed of computer power and the omnipresence of wireless access is a game changer.
However, the transition will not be smooth, nor will everyone profit from it. Powerful business, government and social forces are all interacting, and in most cases fighting as hard as they can to maintain the status quo.
The Information Super Toll Road: An Intended Consequence of Net Neutrality
What is Net Neutrality? On September 21, 2009, Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Julius Genachowski outlined the concrete actions he believed the commission would have to take to preserve a free and open Internet. He said, “The Internet is an extraordinary platform for innovation, job creation, investment, and opportunity. It has unleashed the potential of entrepreneurs and enabled the launch and growth of small businesses across America. It is vital that we safeguard the free and open Internet.” The commissioner presented six principles that we might use to craft these new rules:
1. Consumers are entitled to access whatever lawful Internet content they want.
2. Consumers are entitled to run whatever applications and services they want, subject to the needs of law enforcement.
3. Consumers can connect to networks whatever legal devices they want, so long as they do not harm them.
4. Consumers are entitled to competition between networks, applications, services and content providers.
5. Service providers are not allowed to discriminate between applications, services and content outside of reasonable network management.
6. Service providers must be transparent about the network management practices they use.
This is the FCC’s proposal. However, the specifics of the Net Neutrality fight and the proposed guidelines (which will ultimately become rules) are all a smoke screen. Let’s talk about how the future is likely to unfold if a reasonable agreement is not reached.
There’s an ongoing battle between Level 3 and Comcast. It’s a good example of the kind of issues that are intended consequences of the Net Neutrality debate. Netflix uses Level 3 to deliver its videos to customers. It pays Level 3 for bandwidth. If you are a Comcast customer, you pay Comcast for bandwidth. In theory Level 3 is getting paid and Comcast is getting paid and everything should be fine.
However, in order for your Netflix movie to arrive at your Comcast- connected home, the bits have to pass from Level 3 to Comcast. If you’re Comcast, this is an excellent place to put a tollbooth.
Until it became an issue, Level 3 and Comcast had an arrangement that allowed each company to send bits bidirectionally. The arrangement was made back when both companies sent about the same amount of bits to each other. But now that Level 3 is sending more bits through Comcast than Comcast is sending through Level 3, Comcast wants to be paid. This is the nature of the current battle in its simplest terms. But, like I said, it’s a smoke screen.
The cliché description for the public Internet (courtesy of Al Gore) is the “Information Superhighway.” It’s a reasonable metaphor for the way information travels around the Internet. Even engineers like to call bunches of bits getting from place to place “traffic.”
In the physical travel world, you can get from place to place several different ways. You can walk, ride a bike, take a car, take a bus, take a train or fly. Of course, while some places are accessible only by air, we all know that remote locations very often require us to use multiple modes of transportation. Now, imagine that people are bits.
The physical transportation world also has a fairly well-defined class structure. It is segmented with modes of travel that efficiently meet the needs of each constituency—and it is economically segregated. You are about as likely to find an Upper East Side socialite in the lounge at the Port Authority bus terminal waiting for a bus to South Carolina as you are to find a single mother of six on welfare in the Admiral’s Club at JFK Terminal 8, waiting for her first-class seat to the Vineyard. It happens, but not often. Most of the time, modes of travel—air, train, bus, car, bike, feet—are a function of economic class, means and emergent need. So to keep the metaphor going, imagine that Comcast is Cathay Pacific Airlines and Time Warner Cable’s basic broadband service is Amtrak and Verizon’s low-end DSL service is Greyhound.
How would we expect the economic landscape to look in a world where, instead of one Information Superhighway, we’d have web of public and privately owned Information Super Toll Roads? Would we expect people who could only afford Greyhound bus service to do business with companies in Europe or Asia? Would we expect people who could only afford Amtrak train service to compete with people who could deliver merchandise overnight via air? Would organizations that own toll roads make it just a little too expensive to compete with them? Would organizations that own airlines charge competitors for extra bags and bigger seats? Keep asking travel questions; they all apply!
It is hard to be optimistic about a future world where there is a low-powered free and open Internet and a web of private toll roads owned by nongovernmental organizations that inherently compete with their customers. The specter of such a world bodes ill for innovation, entrepreneurship and in some ways even the doing of connected life.
This line of thinking raises the question: Will a plurality of Internet underclasses evolve? Want a current day analog? Look at the prepaid mobile phone business. It’s huge, and so unstructured that even the service providers don’t know who is using their products or how they are using them.
Back in the day, phone companies charged us for making calls, but receiving a call was free. This was a function of technology, not desire. As soon as cell phones hit the market, we started paying for time used (bandwidth) both coming and going. What’s happening with Net Neutrality is a fight over exactly the same issue. Now, we pay for the bandwidth we use on one end. If this goes the wrong way, we (you and I) will pay for bandwidth both coming and going. On a personal level, this is not onerous. However, at the enterprise level, if we were to govern America for the best possible GDP (as opposed to governing for corporate profits), it has the potential to be a huge problem.
I am NOT advocating any government involvement with the Internet. I think government has proven that it has no business being in any business. However, this is not a debate you can leave to others. Get your elected officials on the phone. Take a few minutes to learn about the issue. We have to step up and become architects of our digital future. Become part of the solution. America needs you!
Will Tiered Pricing Lead to “ProxyNets” and Destroy the Universe?
From Google News: June 11, 2015 Washington, D.C.—Representatives from AT&T, Verizon and Comcast were up on The Hill today trying to persuade Congress to take aggressive action against the millions of ProxyNets that have popped up around the globe. With two of the major content companies in bankruptcy and the others on the brink of ruin, experts are not sure if any type of law protecting intellectual property can be practically enforced. You can’t shut down a network that you can’t find.
ProxyNet? Well, I needed a name for a universe-destroying technology that I am absolutely sure will evolve in the next couple of years. ProxyNet seems to fill the bill. Here’s how it will transpire.
Wired and wireless carriers will have enacted strict tiered pricing. Apple will have just introduced yet another amazing device that allows the joyful, gluttonous consumption of rich media over a closed network. With the advent of a zillion apps and competitive devices that will aid and abet gluttonous media consumption, people will start to consume. They will surely become addicted to WiwWiwWiw (What I want, when I want, where I want) media. The more they consume, the more they will pay. Some people will be OK with this; others will not.
As we know from experience, with regard to media and bandwidth, people with more money than time are willing to pay. However, people with more time than money are willing to steal. Piracy will run rampant. It should have been easy to thwart because most of the consumption devices will require monthly data plans. When a device is connected to a network and the network operator has your credit card number or billing address, the carrier could make it hard for you to steal content. In practice, the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect Intellectual Property Act (PIPA) have been soundly defeated by threats from the hactivist community. But some version of SOPA and PIPA will eventually pass, and it will cause an accelerated arms race.
The arms race will continue until the rigidity of the content-provider pricing and network-service-provider greed overwhelm consumers, or until a new technology evolves.
I don’t think that mainstream consumers will ever value openness over certified convenience, but I do think that a new technology is going to evolve. I’m calling it the ProxyNet.
In this warped, “Shelly must be on drugs” vision of the future, connected devices are everywhere. The world is filled with billions of smartphones, app phones, tablets, PCs and wearable computers that come in only one flavor ... connected.
Sometime after 4G is deployed on a large scale, people are going to find a new kind of app available for every device. It will offer the ability to create a peer-to-peer (P2P) or Mesh connection to any device within radio range and not require (or even allow) an Internet connection. It will not use a commercial wireless network. It will not be 3G, 4G or any G. It will simply use the WiFi radio in the device to connect to other devices that are “friendly.”
You can think of this network as a self-assembling, self-healing, invitation-only social media sharing network on steroids. It won’t need the public Internet or a phone network, because it will simply connect to whatever device invites it to connect; hence the idea of a Proxy Network or ProxyNet. I really wanted to call it a “Subnet” because it’s a network that exists under the radar. But “subnet” is a term of art in the network world, and it has a very specific and very different definition.
Anyway, the end of the world comes in the following form. People download the ProxyNet apps and start to form personal networks that almost mirror their social media networks. This happens automatically. If you want to think about it in a contemporary way, think about Foursquare or Twitter. If a ProxyNet app simply connected to your friends’ devices when you were in proximity to them, you would not need the Internet or a phone company data network. The WiFi radios in the devices would do it all.
If this were the case, it would be easy to imagine five hundred students in a junior high school whose smartphones and laptops are all connected to each other but not connected to the Internet. The students would decide to share everything (1) ’cause they could and (2) ’cause it’s free. You can’t get into the network unless you’re invited. You can’t shut down the network, because it doesn’t really exist. You can’t get the identity of anyone on the network, because they are hidden by proxy (in the true network sense).
Now, imagine this on a global scale. Game over.
It may not happen exactly this way, but people are empowered by technology, and you can push them only so far. At a certain point, a few motivated 14-year-olds are going to build a browser plug-in, or a Facebook app, or just some little piece of code you can use to void the warranty on your phone or laptop and go digitally underground. I will be surprised if it doesn’t happen. When it does ... well, I hope someone will figure out what we’re all supposed to do after government work.
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