This is going to make me sound like a geek, but this past weekend I spent a few minutes flipping through an old college economics textbook. I didn’t keep many of those textbooks, but I enjoyed the class and always thought having a book on the Evolution of Economic Thought (the book’s title) might be a good thing to add to my then very insignificant personal library.
I spent a bit of time in the section about Thomas Malthus, a British economist in the late 18th century. If you were to associate one word with Malthus, that word would be “overpopulation”. His name is tied to that word still today. Just to show that Malthus’s name has jumped the shark from dusty economics textbooks to current use, look at some of the coverage on Tom Hanks’ new movie “Inferno” (“Tom Hanks Endorses ‘Malthusian Theory’ of Overpopulation“)
Malthus viewed populations as growing geometrically but food production only increasing arithmetically – therefore, he predicted, the growing world population would lead to mass starvation.
Malthus would be shocked to see that some of the chief health challenges in the populous and industrialized world of today are more associated with obesity than starvation. The idea that only 2% of the United States’ 320M citizens work in farming is a rebuke to Malthus’s doomsday predictions.
What Malthus missed is the rise of technology and productivity. And while we might forgive Malthus for this blindspot (although not, in my mind, many of his disturbing proposed solutions to the overpopulation he so feared), it is more difficult to forgive it in ourselves. Yet I think we continue to have it – and I’m no exception.
In the era of the PC, it was hard to imagine what else there was that could be invented and create such a societal impact. Ditto the iPhone and the rise of the mobile era. Even as Moore’s Law continued, we humans have had a hard time envisioning how the future is likely to change drastically from the present.
The increase in the all our personal devices have perhaps blinded us to where real innovation happens. We mistakenly conflate new and more spectacular devices with actual innovation (see here), but realistically our personal productivity hasn’t moved along as quickly as our vibrating and chirping personal devices might have us believe.
Here are a couple thoughts to consider as we look toward the future:
- Although the future is hard to predict (see Walter Cronkite’s attempt here), we should take it as gospel that the rate of change will increase, bringing with it greater productivity improvements and areas of stress. As soon as you think “what else will be invented?”, know that the answer is “you ain’t seen nuthin’ yet”.
- The things that will change our lives are less likely to be personal devices (although the virtual reality stuff will be huge) but is likely going to be in the reordering of common tasks like shopping and driving. Of course we all know that retail is changing, but I sense that change is still in its early stages. In terms of driving, the move toward sharing cars rather than owning them, and toward driverless cars, is on it’s way and bringing an inevitable future very different from the one we live in today.
- I’ve always loved this adage from Bill Gates – who himself made a few bad predictions about how much computing power would ever be necessary: we tend to overestimate how much things will change in five years and underestimate how much things will change in ten years.
The areas that have been the most resistant to technology – healthcare and education, to name just two – are generally the areas that see rising costs above inflation. If people complain about cost in their lives today, it’s more likely to be their insurance, doctor, and tuition bills than the cost of their food or large-screen television – something venture capitalist Marc Andreessen has noted.
More change is coming to your business. Smart people (like you!) will spend time imagining what that might look like and try to plan accordingly.
Malthus didn’t anticipate change because he thought he lived in a static world. Tom Hanks doesn’t have that excuse, and neither do we.