The Fifth Wave
Board: Macro Economics
Oops, it's my Fool balloon day. I generally take the opportunity to write something, well, offbeat. Different. Irrelevant. And usually overlong. Feel free to skip it. It generally means little to anyone but me, but since the Fool has honored me with these brightly colored balloons, I can hardly ignore it can it? And why would I bother with the same old drivel? (OK, why would you, either?)
Today's topic: I wish I would still be around in 40 years:
Ahem. Nobody knows how long it took for humankind to stop aimlessly wandering about the prairie and take up agriculture, but it didn't happen quickly. The so-called "agricultural revolution" lasted thousands of years, and encompassed other, smaller leaps like the iron and bronze ages, the rise of religions, and early state civilizations.
One of the "revolutions" we learned about in grade school began in the id 1700's and lasted 70 or 80 years: the Industrial Revolution, where people began to grasp the application of mechanical power to industrial processes, rather than using human - or animal - muscle. Water power became important, and even more, the harnessing of steam to run machines in mills from sewing to sawing, and in transport from river to rail.
Another revolution followed, we call it the "2nd" Industrial Revolution, and it was the first over again, but on steroids. The IR redux heralded the deployment of electricity and motors, the internal combustion engine, new metallic alloys which allowed mass production and deployment of new implements for farm and pleasure. And it was communications, most notably the telegraph, telephone, and radio, and I'd lump the rise of modern newspapers and mass market magazines in there as well. IT2 lasted another 80 years or so: from about 1850 to 1930, plus or minus.
As has been pointed out by many others, things keep speeding up, time compresses, and surely enough the next revolution started around 1950 and lasted until the turn of the century, (again, feel free to argue over the exact beginning): the Digital Revolution started with the change from tubes to transistors, and encompassed everything electronic: computing, logic, fax, cell; and the conversion from analogs to bits for things from music and video to newspaper and phone calls. Fifty years or so, this time.
Since that's the era we are most familiar with, dive in for a moment. That transistor in the 1950's may have been grand enough to win a Nobel prize, but nobody looking at it could have imagined the changes it presaged by 1980, or 1990, or especially 2000. Things accelerate: they start small, almost innocuous, and gather steam as new begets newer and newer begets newest until all manner of invention and change is tumbling out all over each other almost faster than the market can absorb them.
In 1760 almost nobody knew what a steam engine was, by 1850 everybody had seen one, probably ridden on a steamship or paddlewheel boat, heard of or climbed aboard a railroad, perhaps worked in a mechanically powered factory, or at least knew several siblings who had migrated off the farm. At the start of the 2nd industrial revolution electricity was not well understood, the telegraph, after decades of false starts, was barely funded and more experimental than useful, the telephone was yet to be invented, and radio lay another half-century in the future.
Within a couple decades of the turn of the century airplanes were flying, radio stations had call letters, people were buying automobiles with internal combustion engines, many urban homes had telephones and electricity, and we were well on our way to 100 years of technical progress. That's the amazing thing to me: the difference between the beginning of each epoch and the end, or if not the end, then the launch of the next, whatever it is and wherever it comes from.
Each new revolution doesn't herald the collapse of the last; indeed, they are additive. We still live in the age of the agricultural revolution, we just don't think about because we go down to Kroger's on Wednesdays and there's a whole section with brightly colored produce right inside the door. Every single week. And there's a car in the garage and a computer on the desk and a iPod in the pocket. Each revolution lays atop the last, and all those that came before.
I say all of that because of this: We have just started another one, a new one, as surely as I am writing this. What you are reading isn't just "a new thing", it's a whole new thing. I don't know if it is to be call "wired" or "wireless" or "social" or "interconnected", but the way we interact and learn has changed, our communications have become as disrupted, our sources as varied as ever before in history - and it changes things. It changes everything. (I don't always think for the better, but then some people lament the passing of the horse in favor of the polluting automobile, too.)
The explosion of resources means we can find just the news we like to hear, not the news which might contain stories and points of view that make us uncomfortable. We can get recommendations from friends on where to shop, what to buy, what price to pay in ways unimaginable only a few years ago. We can pack together with friends, and become tribal with our politics. I can, with the click of a mouse, find information on almost any subject, person, theory, or geography; only a few years ago I would have to wait until tomorrow (at best) and get to the library to read what the Encyclopedia Britannica editors had to say about it. Now I can find every sane, insane, absurd, and nonsensical idea about anything, and I can regurgitate it to hundreds, perhaps thousands of others in a blink as well.
It's a world where we have all become experts, which is to say, we are all more and more, but less and less important. In the same way as Warhol's "15 minutes of fame" devalues the very concept of fame, the access to so much information is both blessing and curse. What's the cliche? Trying to take a drink out of a firehose? The social age offers us benefits even as it allows nefarious dolts to conspire and plan horribles in ways never before possible. Institutions tremble before mob rule, or is it just the will of the now-more-easily-organized?
I am ever an optimist, long term, but maybe not so much over the shorter haul. People died in factories, steam engines exploded, and badly wired electricity burned houses to the ground. To paraphrase the highway sign: "sorry for the inconvenience, we're building a better society." Where this newest revolution will take us is not mine to guess, but I suspect in 40 years it will look so vastly different from what we see today that we will scarcely recognize it.
Facebook, Google News, LinkedIn, Yelp, WordPress, Motley Fool, Twitter and Wikipedia and who knows what else? Usenet looks quaint already. It's the 21st Century. It's different here. Enjoy it. You're now at the very very beginning of the fifth wave. Imagine life around 2050, if you can. I wish I would be here for it.