New World Same Humans #51
Three Things that are Abundant and Three Things that are Scarce.
|David Mattin||Jan 31||5|
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The world is complex. What handles can we grab that might allow us to understand it better?
One answer: it pays to think about what is abundant, what is scarce, and how that’s changing. So this week, reflections on that.
Before we dive in, a hat tip to the venture capitalist Albert Wenger. Albert was a recent guest on What’s NEXT, an online show about technology and business that I co-present with Monique van Dusseldorp. The discussion we had on the show, and Albert’s book World After Capital, did much to inform this week’s instalment. Links to both at the end of this email.
A reminder that Monique and I will also be hosting the first ever NWSH Clubhouse session this coming Friday 5 February at 16:00 CET. Expect a fast-paced look at the week in trends, tech, and society. Check out the Wednesday email for more details!
In the spirit, this week, of delivering things in threes: here are three central lines from what follows. First, we’re moving from the industrial age to the knowledge age. Second, what we need above all else is a new system for deciding where humanity directs its attention. And third, in an imaginary world of universal abundance, all that remains is the quest to really see one another.
Three Things that are Abundant
We all sense that we’re living at a moment of system-wide transition. But what is the nature of this shift? An examination of three newly-abundant goods can help us to get a handle on that question.
The most obvious of the three. Still, it’s hard for people who grew up with the internet to understand how scare information was in an unconnected world. You could argue with a friend for days about a simple matter of fact – the title of some band’s second album, or the correct spelling of Reykjavík – because there was no way to discover the answer. These days I walk most afternoons, and think. I take it for granted that all the world’s information is a touch away. If my phone dies and some chain of thought comes to halt at a fact-impasse, I feel as if a part of my brain has been amputated. The devices that allow us access to the infosphere have essentially, then, merged with our brains. The nature of thought itself has changed. Note: abundant information doesn’t mean abundant knowledge – more on this below.
In World After Capital, Albert Wenger argues that we’re living at a moment of transition out of the industrial age, which was an age defined by capital scarcity. Today, physical capital – food, cars, factories, machines – is no longer the defining constraint on human endeavour. China can build a megacity in a handful of years, or a new hospital in days. Yes, access to capital is still highly unequal, and that’s a problem. But across the aggregate we have enough to serve the material needs of all humanity. That’s an epoch-defining shift. So where next? We’ve moved, says Wenger, into the knowledge age, in which the defining constraint is human attention.
This one is emergent. Across history, we humans have been the only source of the kinds of intelligence able to solve our problems. In the world to come, that intelligence is abundant. We glimpse this new reality when an AI interprets an MRI scan and diagnoses cancer. Or drives a car on the open road. Or solves one of biology’s most famous problems. Remember, this shift doesn’t mean an abundance of virtual objects that are equivalent to human minds. The AIs we’re building are narrow. They can operate only within a limited domain; but often are superhuman inside it. And they’re not, as far as we understand, aware; though this quickly becomes complex. Still, democratised access to superhuman, narrow AI is a revolution that will reshape the economy, and do something weirder. That is, slowly erode the feeling we’ve always taken for granted, as a species, of being the smartest entity in the room.
Three Things that are Scarce
So what lies ahead? Previous historical ages – agrarian, industrial – were defined by the primary constraint on human activity: land and capital respectively. So to understand the nature of life inside the knowledge age, it pays to look at what will be scarce.
Yes, information is abundant. But knowledge – that is, information synthesised so as to become useful to us – is still scarce. There’s so much we need to know. How the human brain works. How to generate an endless, cheap supply of clean energy. How to stop the ageing process. It’s common to observe that a connected world has not amplified us in the ways dreamed about by the early internet pioneers. One explanation? The internet was an information Big Bang, but we’ve had no symmetrical explosion in our ability to process that information. The tools we use to interface with this new info-universe – primarily some version of a news feed – are limited and rely on an outdated Gutenberg conceptualisation of knowledge. We need new kinds of knowledge tools. This is a problem I’ve become increasingly interested in recently. More coming soon!
It’s attention, argues Wenger, that’s the defining constraint of the new knowledge age. If we are to solve the huge problems we face in the 21st-century, we need to direct vast amounts of attention towards them. Capitalism was great at allocation of capital: that’s how we got so rich. But it’s terrible at allocation of attention, and incentivises many of the world’s smartest people to spend their days devising new credit derivatives rather than solving climate change. The sharp end of attention scarcity, it seems to me, is our need for creativity. We’ll continue to face complex social and ethical problems that can only be solved via uniquely human understanding and intuition. Wenger says the beginnings of a new system to allocate attention lie in (i) mindfulness that allows us as individuals to regulate our attention, and (ii) decentralised systems that aim to spread knowledge widely, rather than create new concentrations of capital.
By this I mean human connection of the I see you variety. If we achieve a world of total abundance – a world in which we have enough of everything – connection will be the only scarcity left. It can be understood, then, as a kind of Ultimate Scarcity; one which we cannot transcend. To truly be with, and listen to, another person is the ultimate non-scalable good. It means physical presence. It means deeply focused one-on-one attention. And it can’t be outsourced to machines. Yes, there will eventually be convincing AI conversational agents; we may even come to accept that AIs are aware and can themselves, in some sense, see us. But people will continue to want to be seen by other people. This is simply a way of saying: in a world in which we have everything we could ever need, what will remain is our quest to truly know one another. That is the reward at the end of Total Abundance. A chance to dedicate ourselves to the work that only we can do.
You get a car
Thanks for reading this week.
Okay, you don’t really get a car. But you can go here to see the full episode of What’s NEXT, featuring the interview with Albert Wenger. And I highly recommend you check out Albert’s brilliant World After Capital, which you can read for free online.
Meanwhile, New World Same Humans will continue to investigate this moment of transition, and what it means for our shared future.
We started out as a small tribe back in January 2020. Now, there are over 14,000 of us – founders, designers, marketers, policy makers, and more – on a shared journey to imagine, and help build, a better future. If you know someone – a friend, relative, or colleague – who’d make a great addition, why not forward this email and encourage them to sign up? Alternatively, share New World Same Humans across your social networks with a note on what makes it valuable. Remember: the larger and more diverse our community becomes, the better for all of us.
However abundant we become, your membership of this community means a lot.
I’ll be back on Wednesday. Until then, be well,
David Mattin is the founder of the Strategy and Futures Research Unit. He sits on the World Economic Forum’s Global Future Council on Consumption.