Living in the Age of Meta-Innovation

There is a heated debate about whether or not we are really experiencing accelerating innovation and accelerating returns on technological progress. In my opinion, the nay side of the debate was best articulated by Robert Gordon, who compares modern growth and innovation to the massive improvements that modernization brought to the western world over the course of the 20th century. The mechanization of agricultural brought untold bounties of food, sanitation put toilets in every home, life expectancy increased greatly, and people went from the speed of horse to the speed of sound in the span of just the first half of that century.

And what do we have to show for one and a half decades of the 21st century? The internet went from a novelty to the center of modern commerce, entertainment, social interaction, and thought. Similarly, the smartphone went from non-existent, to an expensive luxury, to almost completely ubiquitous in the space of only a few years. Still, Gordon argues that although these recent innovations seem miraculous to us, they really pale in comparison to the innovations of the 20th century.

Gordon sums up his argument with a question of whether you would trade your toilet for a cell phone? Personally, if I had to keep just one I would probably choose the cell phone (as would the African farmer who has made this choice in real life). Nonetheless, if, for the sake of argument, we accept Gordon’s view that innovation is actually slowing over time there are several reasons why this might actually be true.

Firstly there is the low-hanging fruit argument. Basically, as we innovated in the spaces of medicine, agriculture, and transportation, we were able to achieve large gains in the early years because it took relatively little effort to realize those gains. The first inventions are the most powerful because they solve the biggest problems with the simplest technology.

In the case of transportation, the amount of energy that it takes to go from horse speed to the speed of a train, and then to the speed of a jet liner is more or less a linear relationship within two different paradigms, that of ground and air travel. However, once you get beyond the speed of a jet-liner (~90% of the speed of sound) the incremental cost to increase your speed becomes to high. It starts to take more and more fuel to realize less and less gains. You have entered the era of diminishing returns for technological innovation.

There is actually no argument that single technological paradigms are ruled by this dynamic, where initial gains are much more profitable but are eventually followed by an era where exponential increases in investment are necessary to realize smaller and smaller gains. I have actually used the example of 3D gaming to explain this law of diminishing returns in a previous post. Suffice it to say that the fact that exponential gains in single isolated technologies cannot go on forever could be an explanation for why we might actually be seeing a slow down in innovation into the 21st century. 

Another intriguing explanation of Gordon’s hypothetical innovation slow down could be that the majority of innovations of the 21st century were actually meta-innovations. Perhaps inventions like the internet and smartphones are not most important in their direct ability to change human lives, but rather in they are most important for their ability to empower innovation itself.

In the 20th century, we saw a great advancement in concrete metrics of human progress. Innovation delivered more food, more cars, more speed, more health etc… but the way that these innovations were realized remained much the same. Schools (especially Universities) actually looked about the same in 1900 as they did in 2000. Similarly, academic research was performed and published in much the same way over the entire 20th century. This is absolutely not the case in the 21st century.

Although the changes started in the mid to late 1990’s, one can actually almost draw a line through the year 2000 as the start of the internet era of scientific research. In the world of laboratory research, we often wax poetic about how much time researchers used to spend in the libraries doing the research.

A typical conversation might go something like this: So you used to have to actually physically go to a library to research your topic of interest? You would have to browse through entire journals with no Ctrl+F? Even then you would be looking at work that was months to years old…. wow, that sounds awful.

Compare this instead to the world I scientifically grew up in. I use Google Scholar to get daily updates on the most recent work in my given field. I also benefit from other forms of instant communication for scientific gain, like email. And as maligned as powerpoint often is, it is still an incredibly revolutionary tool for communicating my most recent research to colleagues on a more frequent basis than peer-reviewed publication allows. The speed of scientific research in the 21st century is not comparable to what existed before the year 2000.

As important as it has been for academic research though, the internet has been just as revolutionary for every other aspect of life too. The internet is the archetype of meta-innovation. 

This very blog being a perfect example. When I have a crazy idea which I feel compelled to write about in 2014, people around the world could be reading about it and discussing it minutes later. To be honest, I am not really sure how this would have happened in the 20th century, but I guess I would have had to send a letter to some sort of magazine or something (or more likely I probably just would not have written at all). The barriers that used to slow the movement of ideas have been dissolved by the internet so completely I don’t even know remember how the world worked before it.

This tendency towards increasingly transformative meta-innovation does not seem to be decreasing either. Technologies like the massive-open online course, 3D-printing, cryptocurrencies, and machine learning all stand to be as meta-revolutionary as the internet. To return to my favorite example of late, the proliferation of forms of crytocurrency might seem to the cynic to be driven mostly by people trying to profit on hype, but I see something much deeper at work. Cryptocurrencies have created an entirely new space for ideas about currencies, value, exchange, and trust. Cryptocurrencies allow us to ask fundamental questions about what is value, and how an ideal market should operate.

Cryptocurrencies (just like the internet and general-purpose computers) are a meta-innovation.  

The ultimate meta-innovation will come in the form of a computer which can program itself. It has been said that an artificial intelligence which innovates to improve itself will be the final invention of human kind. In the world of IBM Watson, I am no longer convinced that the self improving computer is only a far-off dream of science fiction.

In 2014, we a living in an age when the importance of new technologies does not lie only in its change our lives, but in its ability to change change itself. So if Robert Gordon is right (although I’m still not convinced he is) and we really are seeing a slow down in the rate of innovation in the 21st century, then maybe it is not only because all of the easy inventions have been invented. Perhaps we are simply living in the middle-ages of innovation, a time where we are investing our innovation capacity in the future of the future. Perhaps we are living in the age of meta-innovation. 


The Quantum Court: Assigning Blame in an Intelligent World

What is right? Or more specifically, what is the right thing to do when things go wrong? It is a question that we have grappled with since the dawn of civilization. We have devised elaborate systems of government and laws to help us navigate the muddy waters of right and wrong.

In the future technology will made it easier to understand, mitigate, and control the unexpected. The evolution of high speed communication between the “web of things” will allow our world to devise plans and continually reassess the optimal way to respond when things go wrong.  Nonetheless, physics tells us that technology will never allow us to completely outrun the chaotic nature of the world. In a world where we will understand why things happened better then ever, the idea of blame will become increasingly difficult to assess, and may become better suited to highly powerful computers.

The following is a short story aimed at highlighting how technology could change how decisions of right and wrong will be made in the future. In a previous post I introduced the concept of Artificial Intelligence Agents (AIA) which will help us in our day to day lives. In addition to rather mundane tasks like a job hunt, interactions of our AIAs will also be important when things go wrong. They will share and store information in a way that will make dealing with the unexpected much easier. The continual stream of data collection performed by these AIAs will also make it much easier to understand the reasons why things go wrong, but unlike the world of today we will need to drill deeper and deeper into causality to find the reason that things go wrong. One day, it may even become impossible to find a fault at all…


Case #198-78657-ZZVGH
20:28:24 – 20:29:13 December 18th, 2028
1st Digital Court of British Columbia, Canada
Quantum Computer D1078 Presiding

Simplified digest of case details and AI proceedings for public release

The following outlines the agreed details presented during the testimony of the AIAs of one Mr. Black and one Ms. White (names redacted for privacy).

Mr Black via AIA2023-AHGTOHDN (Clara):

The series of unexpected events that led to the tragic accident began at exactly 10:34:33 am on the date of December 18, 2028. Mr. Black’s GM (Google Motors) 2026 model x-1000 was travelling under the control of his AIA, Clara, at a speed of 85 km/h in the northbound direction in accordance with recommendations based on road conditions and local regulation.

A number of heat signatures were being tracked within 100 meters of the roadway in front of the vehicle. Size of heat signatures was consistent with large ruminants, which were later confirmed by visual data to be several common deer. Cross-referencing with the species importance archive showed that common deer are not endangered and under no special protection. Special notes show that deer are esthetically pleasing to people, and their presence has been listed as a desirable reminder of “natural beauty” by park planning authorities.  Within the margin of safety, collision with the animals should be avoided.

It was assessed at this time that the animals were highly likely to remain in their immediate vicinity and no adjustments to speed or course of travel were warranted. 

As the vehicle approached the area of the animals, one deer unexpectedly began to move at a high rate of speed towards the roadway.  At this time it was assessed that collision with the animal remained highly unlikely, but that a slowing of the vehicle and an 18° turn of the front driving tires would minimize the chance of collision with the animal.

Given the current traffic conditions it was determined that this maneuver would achieve an approximately 97.87% chance of avoiding collision with the animal.

In order to maintain the chance of human injury below the legally stipulated threshold of 0.2% this would also require evasive manuvering on the part of vehicles travelling in the opposite direction. Vehicles travelling in the opposite direction were contacted successfully. A full breakdown of communications between the vehicles is provided in appendix A of this document. Optimal manuvering based on the developing probability profile was agreed upon at 10:34:38 am with the closest vehicle travelling in the opposing direction, that of one Ms. White. Diagram shown below.

Figure 1

A small amount of mixed rain and snow was falling on the road. In addition, a sudden gust of wind outside the 95% range of expected wind speeds for this day was blowing across the car. These factors conspired to create a sudden and unpredicted decrease in traction which was detected at 10:34:41. Given tractional changes, the possibility of collision between the vehicles of Mr. Black and Ms. White was determined to be in the range of 14.7%.

It was determined that these conditions justified extreme action. At 10:34:42 contact was again made with the vehicle of Ms. White and adjusted maneuvering was proposed to minimize likelihood of collision.

Ms. White via AIA2022-AGTYGJH (Jin):

Ms. White was travelling in her 2023 Tesla Model Tx under the control of her AIA, Jin, at 85km/h in the southbound direction in accordance with local regulation. At exactly 10:34:37, contact was made via distress frequencies with the vehicle of one Mr. Black. A deer had been detected moving towards the road, and evasive maneuvering would be required to minimize the possibility of collision between the vehicle of Ms. White and that of Mr. Black

The direction and speed of the moving deer was confirmed with sensory data feed from Ms. White’s vehicle. Maneuvering consistent with that shown in figure 1 was agreed upon at 10:34:38, and a 1.4g deceleration and 19.6° turn of the front tires was initated at this time.

At exactly 10:34:39, an updated information feed from the vehicle of Mr. Black indicated that unexpected changes in the traction conditions brought the likelihood of collision to 14.7%. Recalculation of this value showed that likelihood of collision was increasing as more sensory data was fed into the developing model of events. It was agreed that drastic action needed to be taken at this time.

Mr Black via AIA2023-AHGTOHDN (Clara):

A number of simulations of head on collisions between the vehicles of Mr. Black and Ms. White were run to examine the possible outcomes. It was determined at the time that injury to both parties was highly likely, and severe injury or death to one or both parties was unacceptably high.

To avoid the possibility of head-on impact between the vehicles, an alternative model wherein the vehicle of Ms. White would move completely off of the road surface was proposed. Under this model the likelihood of loss of control and damage to Ms. White’s vehicle was determined to be high, although the likelihood of severe injury or death to Ms. White remained below the threshold of 0.2%.

At 10:34:40, the alternative model of action was proposed to Ms. White.

Figure 2

Ms. White via AIA2022-AGTYGJH (Jin):

Between the time of 10:34:39 and 10:34:40, several simulations of the developing situation showed the possibility of head on collision and injury to be unacceptably high. This was confirmed by simulations run by the AIA of Mr. Black.

An alternative model wherein Ms. White would leave the road surface completely was proposed by Mr. Black. Simulations agreed upon by both parties showed a high potential that the vehicle of Ms. White would lose control and suffer damage, although the probability of severe injury or death remained below the acceptable threshold of 0.2%.

At 10:34:41, it was agreed that this alternative model of action would minimize potential for injury and property damage in the developing situation.

At this time an additional 12° movement of the front tires was initiated to guide Ms. White’s model Tx off of the road surface. An optimized adaptive breaking pattern was used to decrease the forward velocity of the car while maintaining control of the vehicle.

At 10:34:42, as Ms. White’s vehicle began to steer away from the road surface there was a highly unanticipated failure of part number 371X-442 in the front axle assembly.  Calculated stresses and sensor reading for the front left wheel were well within the defined safety margins and this type of failure was of very low probability (<0.001%). It is deemed likely that a molecular fault in the part was the reason for the failure.

The failure of part 371X-442 led to a catastrophic failure of the entire wheel assembly. This in turn caused the front axle of the vehicle to dig into the soft shoulder which initiated a transverse roll of Ms. White’s vehicle. As the vehicle began to roll, safety measures within the cabin of the vehicle were deployed strategically in order to minimize injury to Ms. White.

During the high velocity rolling of her vehicle, Ms. White was subjected to high G forces that caused contusions as her unrestrained limbs came into contact with solid parts of the vehicle. Ms. White suffered an extreme fracture of her right femur, and a cracked cervical vertebrae. In addition to the blunt trauma, the extreme stress of the incident caused an undiagnosed weakness in one of Ms. White’s cerebral blood vessels to rupture, causing blood to begin to leak into Ms. White’s left frontal lobe.

At this time the microimplants in Ms. White’s body were activated to release factors targeting the burst vessel. NanoGens were activated at the specific site within 12 milliseconds of the blood vessel rupture but because Ms. White was not equipped with any specialized mechanisms to deal with cerebral hemmorhage they were of limited use. Ms. White’s NanoGens were able to place Ms. White in an unconscious state and slow blood flow to her brain in order to limit damage.

Ms. White’s vehicle finally came to stop after rolling one and a half times, coming to rest on its roof.

Mr Black via AIA2023-AHGTOHDN (Clara):

Mr. Black’s vehicle regained control following a short skid and came to a stop approximately 78 metres from where Ms. White’s vehicle had rolled over and come to a rest on its hood. Mr. Black was instructed to exit the vehicle and approach Ms. White’s vehicle.

Figure 3

All traffic on the road was warned of the accident and requested to come to a stop. The next closest vehicle, carrying the Green family, was requested to carefully approach the scene and provide assistance as necessary.

As Mr. Black approached the vehicle of Ms. White, he was informed of the medical situation of Ms. White. Consistent with best medical practices for a cerebral hemmorhage, Mr. Black was instructed to carefully let Ms. White down from her restraints so as to limit blood flow to her head.

Upon his arrival at the accident scene, Mr. Black found Ms. White to be unconscious. Mr. Black was then instructed to brace Ms. White as her restraints were released, and he carefully laid her down on the ground beside the accident scene.

The rapid response micro-medical team arrived within 3 minutes of the accident. A nanoswarm of medical robots was released and began treatment of Ms. White at precisely 10:38:09. A larger response team capable of transporting Ms. White to hospital was present on the scene by 10:43:22.

Ms. White via AIA2022-AGTYGJH (Jin):

Ms White was transported to the closest fully equipped medical facility where medical treatment was administered. It is expected that Ms. White will make a recovery over the next year, but she is expected to suffer permanent memory loss.

At this time, Ms. White is seeking damages for her lost income during recovery and for her pain and suffering as a result of memory loss.

Quantum Computer D1078 Ruling:

Following 10 seconds of testimony, 39 seconds of deliberation, the honourable D1078 has come to the following ruling consistent with case precedents as listed in the legal appendix:

(1) It is determined that Mr. Black via his AIA (Clara) acted appropriately and rationally throughout the incident. Probabilities generated by simulations described at various points during the accident are consistent with those calculated by more complex modelling after the accident. It is determined that Mr. Black should not be held at fault for this accident. Nonetheless, his own avoidance of injury occurred thanks to the selfless actions of Ms. White via her AIA (Jin). Thus, it is determined that Mr. Black should shoulder 18% of any financial burden placed upon Ms. White.

(2) It is determined that the Parks service should shoulder 13% of the financial burden incurred by Ms. White. Furthermore, it is ordered that the Parks service should investigate their policies regarding large animals near the roadway. In particular, it is suggested that the Parks service reassess their policies in terms of vehicle speed when near large animals. 

(3) It is determined that the manufacturer of part 371X-442 should shoulder 28% of the financial burden incurred by Ms. White. The manufacturer is also ordered to launch an immediate study to assess the integrity and consistency of part 371X-442. Further action in the form of product recalls or changes in production methods will be determined following this investigation.

(4) It is determined that Ms. White’s health monitoring provider should shoulder 33% of the financial burden placed on Ms. White. According to medical testimony recorded in the appendix, the weakness in Ms. White’s cerebral blood vessel should have been easily diagnosed. The presence of hemmorhage mitigation technology in Ms. White’s implants could have significantly decreased damage incurred to Ms. White, likely bringing it below the threshold of detection. This company is ordered to undergo a complete audit of their policies to identify the flaws in their systems that allowed this accident to happen.

Summary of Judgement: It is determined that the decisions made by entities cited above in the time leading up to and during the accident were made consistent with best practices. Nonetheless, harm has been done to Ms. White and blame has been determined as outlined above.  It is the sincere opinion of this court that the chance of such an accident occurring can be significantly decreased through the investigations and reforms outlined above.

Hierarchies of Chaos and Order

There is a natural tension in everything. The forces of chaos and order are locked in a constant battle that lies at the heart of creation. We are surfing a wave at the interface of order and chaos.

The biological world provides a perfect example of this tension between order and chaos. If there were no order, life could not exist. The complex systems of chemicals, proteins, cells, organs and organisms that are life could not persist if our reality was too disordered. On the other hand, life would also be impossible if not for the some force of chaotic change pushing the world forward.

The careful balance of order and chaos necessary for the evolution of complex life is highly dependent on the amount of energy in a given system. Too much energy and chemical reactions would be too energetic and vigorous for delicate complex molecules to emerge. Too little energy and chemical reactions will be too slow to drive the evolution of new forms of life.

It is an interesting aside to consider what kind of life could potentially evolve (or perhaps be created) in such extreme conditions. Collections of self-aware plasma on the surface of a star; highly dense ice based creatures sluggishly evolving in the outer reaches of the solar system. Notwithstanding such fanciful notions however, the appearance of life seems to be restricted to a narrow ‘Goldilocks zone’ between order and chaos. We require a liquid cradle – one which is neither too hot nor too cold.

Still, even if a system does find itself with an appropriate balance of order and chaos which favours the emergence of self-replicating matter (aka Life) the question remains as to why such a system should produce complexity? Given that organisms which reproduce most efficiently would have a significant evolutionary edge, should the system not tend towards a simple, uniform state? Why are we not taken over by some naturally occurring form of grey-goo?

The simple answer is that a uniform population lacks the ability to respond to natural environmental changes. Take for example a bowl of soup containing a population of bacteria. Let’s say the bacteria are perfectly suited to feeding on one of the nutrients in the soup. These bacteria will continue to feed on the soup, multiplying and growing until they totally consume said favourite nutrient. At this point, a population of bacteria that is totally uniform would be unable to adapt and start feeding on different nutrients. However, if there is some chaotic variation in the population, then some of the bacteria might have some ability to start eating other nutrients.  If change from one nutrient epoch to the next is slow enough, then the bacteria with an ability to digest alternative nutrients can be selected for survival.

Fascinatingly, research has shown that biological organisms have even evolved the ability to tune their rate of evolution based on how well suited they are to their environment. If an organism is experiencing chronic stress, then it is a sign that it is poorly adapted to its environment. Through a number of recently discovered genetic mechanisms, stressed organisms can increase their rate of mutation in hopes that they can become better adapted to their environment. This type of effect has now been well documented in bacteria, plants and even insectsThus, biological chaos is able to ramp up if an organism is unsuited to a particular environmental change.

Rate of evolution

Whereas well adapted organisms show slow change in their populations, poorly adapted and stressed organisms show higher rates of mutation. 

In this way, biological systems have harnessed a chaotic process (mutation) to apply order to the chaotic natural world. Through iterative cycles of selection, biology has driven the evolution of all the wonderful forms of life we see around us. Biology “learns to understand” the world by continuously testing out randomly generated organisms for their adaptation to it.

Biological change is beautiful, but it is also subject to important limitations. Firstly, when viewed from the context of a human lifetime it occurs at an almost imperceptibly slow pace, over the course of generations. Take the soup of bacteria we referred to earlier and heat it up 20 or 30 degrees and you will kill all of the bacteria inside. You would need to heat the soup over weeks or months to even have a chance to allow the bacteria to evolve resistance to heat and hope for any survival.  Even more importantly, the potentiality of a biological system is also fundamentally limited by its nature. Biological systems can only accomplish what is inherently possible using the tools of DNA, RNA, protein and lipids.

From biology a new evolutionary paradigm of chaos and order has now emerged – that of ideas. Random shifting and mixing of ideas within and between individuals creates a chaotically varying population.  As Matt Ridley puts it, ideas can have sex. From this population of randomly generated ideas, ideas must compete for the limited resources of human brains. Just as a virus must jump from person to person to survive, ideas must also cross the gaps between us.

We are infected with thoughts.

Also just like biological systems, our ideas seem to respond to how well adapted they are to their respective environment, our minds. An idea which does not resonate with us will be subject to manipulation and modification. Ideas will mutate to fit into our understanding of the world, and we spit them back out to see how this newly modified idea will resonate in the minds of others.

Thought infectionpngSimilarly to biological systems it seems possible that our mind mutates ideas to make them resonate with our world view. 

In this new paradigm, a bewildering landscape of ideas is driving our man-made world forward ever faster. A new tension of chaos and order has been established in the world of ideas, and unlike biology, the potentiality of ideas seems not to be restricted by the limitations of reality. But, as we look forwards at an age where ideas may soon leave biology behind completely, an imponderable question does creep into mind. Will we one day reach the end of what is possible with ideas?

– Addendum –

So I have been thinking a little bit deeper about the relationship of systems of chaos. I am not sure about this part, but I wonder if in order for one chaotic system to harness another, whether it must have a wider ‘spectrum of potentiality’ then its underlying system. For example, for biological systems to harness or ‘understand’ a chaotic chemical system the possible permutations of biology must supersede what is possible within the simple chemical world (ie lacking biomolecules). In following, perhaps the spectrum of potentiality of the ideas within the mind must be wider then that of the biological world for us to be able to understand biology. Finally, a new paradigm may be emerging from electronic life wherein the spectrum of potentiality within the human mind will be inadequate to grasp the ‘post-ideas’ it will create. 

Possibility Spectrum

I can’t be sure if I am talking gibberish at this point but what really blows my mind, is that each of these ‘spectrums of potentiality’ may actually be infinite, they are just different sized infinities.

Fuck Paperwork – Part 1: Fuck Paper

I fucking hate paperwork. I apologize for the profanity, but there is nothing in my life that more strongly elicits that visceral reaction: “It’s 2013 – why do I still have to do this?”. In this first of a two part post, I will deal with the physical sin of paperwork – the paper itself.

Why is any information still being sent to me in the form of scratchings on flattened plant fibre? I watched this ad about the future of paper this week, it’s a comedic ad and does well to point out a couple of niche areas where paper is unlikely to be replaced any time soon. Nonetheless, the ad has spurned me to think more critically about the role of paper in our society, and I have come to the following scientific conclusion: fuck paper.

Paper has been a key tool, and a convenient technology for the transmission of information, but it’s time has come and gone. Let’s enumerate the advantages of electronic documents over physical ones:

  1. Electronic documents are searchable – In 2013 if I have something that is not indexed and searchable, then it doesn’t exist. The amount of time I need to spend performing the nightmarish task of sifting through documents in meatspace is rapidly heading to 0. Yes, I am spending more time combing my email history for documents I need, but in this context 30 seconds spent searching my email feels like an arduous task. There is simply no comparison between electronic and physical documentation in this respect. 
  2. No physical clutter – It’s ridiculous to think about how much physical space is filled with documents that nobody will ever read. Even the modest amount of paper which I am obliged to keep on file feels like a lead anchor on my clean modern existence. 
  3. Less (wasted) human labour – So you are saying that they used to pay people just to fold paper and put it into envelopes?
  4. Vanishingly small likelihood of losing an electronic document – If you are taking appropriate steps to back up your documents online, there is really next to no chance of losing your files. To the less technologically savvy (of which I am sure, few read this blog) this is really as easy as emailing a document to yourself. Doom-sayers might worry about what will happen if electronic communication breaks down, but if the modern world were to experience such a catastrophe I am confident we would have much more important things to worry about then where we put our latest phone bill.
  5. Document security – Ok, this one might be arguable, but again, if you take appropriate measures to protect your electronic repositories then they should be less accessible to nefarious sorts then a physical document. You realize of course, that there is no inherent security built into a piece of paper; we must take steps to prevent people from accessing our physical documents. Doing so electronically, can be equally as effective.

Given all this, why does my electrical company insist on taking an electronic document, turning it into a physical one, then paying someone to deliver it across space and time to me? In my case, this is promptly followed by turning it back into an electronic document and destroying the physical one! What mode of insanity is this? I will admit that most billers are rapidly moving to a paperless system, but in my opinion, this can’t happen fast enough. The sin of physical paperwork gets more egregious with every passing day.

And even though billing might thankfully be going the way of the dinosaur, what is with the scraps of paper that get handed to me every time I buy a coffee? Why has no company figured this out yet? Yes, we would like to track our purchases, but paper is so utterly useless in this regard. Why do I have a wallet full of receipts for things that I might like to return?

Let me spell this out: why hasn’t an enterprising banking or credit card company created a means to automatically email electronic receipts? This could be relegated to a specialized account so as not to clog up your normal inbox. This solves both the problem of tracking expenses as well as keeping a proof of purchase on file. This is such an easy win for everyone: retailers use less paper, customers are happier, and we waste less paper. I am dumbfounded why it hasn’t happened yet.

But, but, what about my books!? Well, you can have your books. The use of paper for books really represents a minuscule amount of paper in the grand scheme. I am comfortable with my e-reader at this point, and the convenience of being able to download books outweighs any cons in my opinion. But, there is no need to rush to a complete eradication of all uses of paper, let’s just concentrate on the pointless and wasteful uses of paper.

Paper is an inefficient and archaic means of delivering information and should be cast out of our modern lives forever. The efficiency gap between paper and electronic documents is at least as wide as the gap between stone tablets and paper. Even disregarding the environmental cost of paper, the efficiency cost is enough to get upset about.  So next time you receive some stupid document printed on stupid paper, let yourself feel the anger; after all, it is 2013.

The Jobs Are Never Coming Back

I just watched former Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm’s TED Talk. She provides some nice insight as to what it is really like as a politician trying to grapple with the new realities of the modern world; trying to save jobs in America that just don’t make sense economically any more. Granholm also raises the need to address global climate change as an enigma on equal footing with economic issues. What makes her talk interesting is she sees that a solution to the climate change problem could also be a solution to economic woes, a surprising position given the normal myopia of politicians when it comes to linking environment with economy.

While I like the general slant of Granholm’s view, in particular with respect to proposing a feasible means of stimulating the move to green energy through competitive incentivization programs, I have to disagree that even a major shift to green energy in America is somehow going to bring back “good jobs”.

We can make all the windmills the world needs, and it won’t bring back the robust jobby-ness of the past, because things just don’t work that way. Economics is not going to change course because it would make it easier for us to structure our world. It would not take that many people to make all the windmills we would ever need, because in modern and efficient businesses it just doesn’t take many people to do things. If these green energy companies really did go on a hiring spree and started employing the numbers that politicians would like to see, they would be (a) unsustainable and (b) replaced by more efficient businesses with less costs.

The jobs are never coming back.

To be fair, this post is not so much directed at Granholm in particular, rather it’s aimed at the endless parroting of conventional wisdom about jobs inundating us from all directions. It is in fact, utterly unsurprising to hear a politician talking about a daring new plan to “bring jobs back to [Insert Place Here]”. Given how mercilessly politicians beat the long dead horse of job creation in literally every political speech, the only thing that is surprising is that people still somehow believe that politicians can create jobs.

And this is not to say that business people are the “real job-creators”, and government should just get out of the way. What those business owners and investors are really interested in is making more money. We are not really talking about people here, we are talking about capital, and capital investment flows to the most efficient mechanisms to accomplish work and thus accrue more capital.

In the 21st century, the rules of the game have changed. Capital growth has become decoupled from job growth, yet we still somehow seem to think that a growing economy is going create enough jobs to match the number of people looking for them. Or, maybe if we just trained people to better match the few sectors that are hiring, then there will be enough jobs for people? Please, go ahead and ask a recent University grad about that one.

In my first post to this blog, I talk about the trajectory the economy is on. We are headed towards untold abundance with little need for actual human labor. Examples like people who transport things (ie truck drivers, taxi drivers etc…) provide an easy illustration of how the automation of menial labor is pushing more and more people out of work, but menial service jobs could just as easily be replaced as computers become more adept at digesting natural human language.  Even high level jobs could be at risk, as these very expensive positions are targeted by enterprising software companies.

We are not going to get there tomorrow, but eventually your job can be replaced by a computer (or part thereof). And if you don’t have a job today? You can at least partly thank technology for that. Yes, there are many factors involved here (globalization, tax regulations, economics etc…) but greatly increased worker productivity driven by technological innovation should be considered an increasingly important consideration.

Here is a simple example: If you had a magic box that could create (almost) anything for relatively low cost and required very little human labor to do so, what impact would that have on the economy?

At this point in my rant I am obliged to point out what should be obvious. People needing to work less and having greater and cheaper access to goods is a great thing. Industrial development is a good thing and it should not be unduly interfered with, beyond perhaps trying to make it less horribly destructive to the environment.

My point is this, we must accept this uncomfortable fact: There is no natural, physical, economic or legal law which states that economic growth creates more jobs. Yes, jobs have traditionally been a side-benefit of a strong economy, but believing that somehow if we just maintain a strong economy jobs will magically come back is nothing more then a collective delusion. The future is different than the past, deal with it.

It is time change the discourse about jobs. Enough with the increasingly absurd talk about “stimulating growth” because it is the “engine of job creation”.  A 20th century approach for a 21st century problem is just not going to work. It is time to stop with the bullshit, suspend our collective illusions about jobs. The jobs are not coming back; now what do we do about it?

There exist policy changes that could help greatly to reinvigorate the job market of today. If there is not enough work to go around, then we can take measures to share the work more equally. Perhaps by decreasing retirement age, we can encourage employers to hire younger people. Shortening the work week could be another approach. How ironic it is that austerity measures everywhere are pushing to raise retirement age and decrease holidays? And this creates more jobs how?

As Wingham Rowan describes in his TED talk, we could also apply the dynamism of high frequency trading to ground level job markets, to get labour to where it is needed more quickly.

All of these ideas are great, and could have real impact on today’s problems, but the elephant in the room is what we do 20 years down the road. How are we going to structure a society that needs radically less human labour? This conversation needs to start now. If we accept the fact that the job market has fundamentally changed, then there are things that can be done about it, but we must first accept this as fact. 

So lets take off the jobs coloured glasses and get on with it already. 

UPDATE 2014: Since writing this article I have come to support the idea of instituting a basic income. I think it is an idea whose time has come. I am not so optimistic as to think it can solve all of our problems but it would go a long way to providing the kind of breathing room which people need to power economic innovation in today’s world. See Basic Income Means Basic Freedom

UPDATE: NYT article examining the trend of decoupling in the economy.

UPDATE: Not just America, here is a paper examining decoupling of wages and productivity in Australia

Retail automation

See the future