I recently read Azeem Azhar‘s The Exponential Age. I’ve been a fan of his newsletter and podcast for a while. I find his ability to cover a breadth of topics with substantive depth quite impressive, and I really enjoyed his book. If you’re interested in how our societies and political economy will change due to rapidly accelerating technologies, I recommend giving it a read. It’s well sourced, packed with supporting examples to his arguments, and provides solid historical context for how and why modern society faces an existential problem: that the digital infrastructure controlled by a handful of private firms that we’ve come to rely on in our daily lives will likely be devastatingly bad for us. I believe this to be true, and that this is actually a crisis that if left unchecked will render our futures as the stuff only imagined in dystopian science fiction.
Azeem builds the case for this over the course of the book. He begins by pointing out that we are experiencing exponentiality in four key domains:
General purpose technologies (e.g. the internet, PCs, mobile, cheap power, bioengineering, 3D printing) are leading to accelerating change across these domains, and other innovations within these domains are beginning to interact and producing compounding S-Curves that we can’t even begin to comprehend yet. If you follow Cathie Wood, she talks about a similar unprecedented exponentiality. In this Bankless interview she discusses how S-Curves across five platforms are beginning to feed one another and create explosive unprecedented growth. Those platforms are blockchain, AI (both of which could be classified as Azeem’s “computing”), genome sequencing (biology), robotics (manufacturing), and energy storage (energy). Only once before have we had multiple platforms evolve at the same time in the early 1900s: the telephone, automobile, and electricity. What comes next will be prolifically exciting, but it also comes with its set of societal challenges, and this is where Azeem focuses much of his attention.
Over history, exponential growth has shown that exponential gaps exist between institutions’ ability to change and the accelerating speed at which technology evolves. As members of society, we continuously underestimate exponential change because we evolved from a linear world. Adapting to this change is exceedingly difficult because society moves slowly. We only move fast when we face cataclysmic events like war, or COVID. Then we’re able to experience moments of extreme adaptation and evolution, like punctuated equilibrium. But wartime mobilizations are usually reactions to problems that are visibly staring us in the face in real-time, not ones that slowly creep in and build over a multi-year or decade period.
These exponential gaps create suitable conditions in which monopolies are much more likely to emerge and flourish, particularly in technology where things are increasingly winner takes all versus the analog world (e.g. Facebook & Uber versus Coca-Cola and taxis). Azeem makes the argument that the more digitized a space is, the bigger it becomes, and it’s unclear the full impact of how these modern technology monopolies will have on the economy or society. To mitigate the deleterious impact monopolies have in general, Azeem recommends the government should 1) ban M&A amongst tech incumbents, 2) demand interoperability (e.g. ability port my data from Facebook to Twitter), and 3) treat these companies like utilities to curb their monopolistic tendencies. Given the current state of government, this likely isn’t going to happen.
While some of these monopolistic technologies can create amazing experiences for consumers (e.g. food can be delivered to your doorstep in less than 15 minutes), they also create massive socioeconomic gaps and gaps in the quality of jobs and that always ends…poorly. Massive power imbalances emerge, blame is shifted around the room, and shit generally unravels.
In many obvious ways, and in ways undetectable in our day to day lives, power is shifting out of the hands of citizens and into those of a small number of technology executives. Technology is radicalizing and dividing us, influencing the erosion of democratic processes. Just look at our current political climate and the recent Facebook news. More than our governments and democratic processes, technology companies are determining the rules by which society operates. Their code is becoming law.
To solve this problem Azeem believes four things need to happen:
- We need transparency. Systems must be easier to scrutinize. We should be able to observe how decisions are made by technology elites and the effects they have on us (the Facebook papers are a prime example of why this should be out in the open). We also need external parties to have oversight of the outcomes of the process like the operation of algorithms that shape what we do and do not see on digital platforms. Many other industries have similar oversight like aviation and the financial sector.
- We must demand interoperability. We should have the power to carry data from one platform to another, and participate in the digital social space even if we don’t like a platform. Azeem suggests that interoperability be mandated once a platform gets to 10-15% market share.
- Our data should be our property, not that of corporations. We deserve oversight and authority over it, and should be compensated for it.
- We need commonality, a way of organizing and managing resources for the benefit of the people who use them. The “commons” is an alternative to the binary view of privatization/”the market” versus the State. People, when sharing resources, make good decisions (e.g. grazing lands, data pools like the UK Biobank). Commons approaches can be used to share and produce assets. Open-source software that powers the web is an example of commons. Nobody owns projects like Brave and Linux OS, and nobody can prevent anyone from spinning up alternative projects. Wikipedia is another example. These things bring enormous social benefits.
Azeem proclaims that if power continues to concentrate in a handful of technology companies that control our lives, “we will cease to be fully fledged citizens. We will be mere consumers…At heart, all four approaches are about limiting unchecked power…put citizens, acting in their collective interest, in control.”
This is scary stuff. If you read the book, Azeem provides enough examples for most to believe these ideas to be credible. I certainly do. When the problems facing our political economy and society become so apparent and daunting, and when our government can barely function because of radical divisiveness and general batshit insanity, our ability to tackle the problem at hand feels rather grim.
The one thing I couldn’t help but think about when reading Azeem’s proposed recommendations was just how beautifully crypto networks emerge as a potential solution to the problems that emerge. If you want a little background as to why, I love this thread by @punk6529. While it starts off talking about NFTs, it’s really about how modern society runs on databases controlled by Trusted Third Parties (e.g. the types of technology monopolies Azeem alludes to), and how that can create a lot of problems in our future.
Crypto networks (or web3) are powerful antidotes to a lot of this mess. Their characteristics thread the needle on almost all of Azeem’s four solutions. We can take a look at them one by one:
- Transparency: crypto networks are open source. They’re forever transparent by design. If code is becoming law then that code damn well better be open source.
- Interoperability: composability is one of the core tenets of crypto networks. I can mix and mash protocols however I want. I can fork code and copy an application on a dime.
- Control over our data: so many elements of web3 enable us to seize control over our own data, from our wallets to pseudonymity and cryptography. What’s ours is ours.
- The commons: DAOs, DAOs, DAOs!
This is one of the things that gets me so excited about web3. It’s new, it’s neat, but most of all there’s a utopian element to it. It’s very design combats the societal issues that we face and are exponentially growing due to current tech incumbents. So I’m rooting for crypto networks. At the very least, it’s a bridge between a heady writer like Azeem and a pseudonymous cryptopunk on Twitter.