A brief history and future of moving fast and breaking things
The 1930’s was a tough decade. The US stock market had crashed and unemployment was rising. Political extremism was growing around the globe. These was civil war in Spain, Japan invaded China, and Germany attacked Poland starting World War II. But out of these times of adversity grew the modern technological world as we know it today.
In the same decade, Joseph Schumpeter, a political economist, fled Europe as the Nazi’s came to power and emigrated to the United States to take up the role of professor at Harvard University. Writing at the time of the Great Depression, Schumpeter developed ideas be believed could help the save the US economy. His thinking was about how new value could be created.
Schumpeter argued that the innovation and technological change of a nation came from the entrepreneurs or wild spirits. He coined the word Unternehmergeist, German for “entrepreneur-spirit”, and asserted that “the doing of new things or the doing of things that are already being done in a new way” stemmed directly from the efforts of entrepreneurs. An individualistic American culture loved the idea. That individuals didn’t have to wait for jobs to be created, that they could start their own companies and go on to disrupt entire industries was just the kind of rallying cry the believers wanted to hear.
One of Schumpeter’s most influential ideas was what he called ‘creative destruction’. It’s what we know today as disruption by start-ups in established industries. It’s the idea that generating new value often means replacing existing value. These ideas formed the modern view of innovation as first mover advantage and disruption of an incumbent by a newcomer as the keys to success.
We know now that the first mover into a new category is highly likely to fail because the category is too new, it isn’t established well enough yet to be sustainable. There are lots of examples of this in tech history. Facebook wasn’t the first social media platform but it became the most dominant. But still, the idea of getting there first in order to win persists in innovation.
Around about the same time, on the other side of America, Frederick Terman was teaching his class in electronics at Stanford University. Terman, who would later become known as the ‘father of silicon valley’, encouraged his students to start companies and later created the Stanford Industrial Park, where the University leased land to high-tech firm, creating a hotbed of innovation.
Schumpeter created the ideology, Terman created the infrastructure. Silicon valley tech firms adopted both. And over the last eighty-or-so years, ‘the silicon valley way’ has been the dominant approach to innovation and entrepreneurship. That philosophy is embodied by Facebook’s early motto of ‘move fast and break things’.
But we know now just how reckless this approach can be. Technology makes life better in the short-term for the people that benefit from it. The advances in sanitation, medicine, transport infrastructure, communication, etc., etc., make a huge difference to some people, but they make no difference to those that don’t get the technology. And the negative effects are also not evenly distributed. Often, those that don’t get the benefits get more of the consequences. Technological progress and growth for the sake of growth is not sustainable on a finite planet.
But this idea of innovation doesn’t stop there. The future is far bigger than the past.
Norbert Elias was another influential thinker from the 1930’s. He wrote on the development of sociology, and said that the society we live in today has not been designed. It’s an important point. No one in the first, sixth, fifteenth or nineteenth century was able to consider the decisions they made as shaping the twenty-first century. For the first time in history we’re able to think about how we might design the society of the future and how the decisions we make might affect those to come.
Humans have only been around for the past two hundred thousand years and in that time 109 billion humans have lived and died. 7.96 billion humans are alive today. Over the next 800,000 years, we can expect 100 trillion people to be born and lead their lives. To give us some idea of how big that future is, in a mere 50,000 years Niagara Falls will have eroded away, and we’re talking about sixteen times that, and in 200,000 years, the human species will be as old again as it is now, but that’s still only a quarter of the length of time we’re talking about. If nothing catastrophic happens in the mean time, then humanity has a long future ahead of it for a lot of people, and there’s a lot of technological innovation to come. The choices we make now shape this future for all those people.
The idea that all the people that may live in that future matter, morally speaking, as much as anyone alive today, is a core idea to the philosophy of ‘longtermism’. Philosopher William MacAskill, who coined the term in 2017, explains the view that “positively influencing the longterm future is a key moral priority of our time”. This means making choices about what to do in the present for the benefits they may bring in a distant unknown future. But it also means making choice to not do things in the present that could help a lot of people.
If you’re a silicon valley tech billionaire who believes in longtermism, do you spend your money raising a few billion living people out of poverty now or do you spend it on making humanity an interplanetary species for the trillions of people who will live in the future? Do you help the few or the many? Do you contribute to the present or the future?
Of course, we can’t know what anyone truly believes, or whether longtermism is just a convenient justification for doing what they wanted to do anyway, but it’s easy to see Schumpeter’s ideas of first mover advantage and creative destruction expressed all the way through how to innovate in an industry to the desire for the future expansion of humanity to other planets.
So, what would you do? Would you help the few billion people alive today at the potential cost of the trillions of tomorrow, or would you invest in innovations for the future to bring about the lives that might never exist otherwise, even if it means accepting the suffering of people now.
How would you design the society of the future?
Tough choice, huh?