Dear Diary 

The 21st century way: FAST trumps BIG

Recently I found myself explaining to multiple different people the changing patterns of our society. Not just the WHAT, but the frameworks, the templates, the ideology which pervades this stormfront of change; old kinds of things die, and new kinds of things move in to replace them. The new things aren't just different in their nature -- they are different in the very thinking which shaped them.

The defining features of the 20th century were BIG. Big projects, with big capital investments. BIG was in. BIG was good. BIG allowed you to benefit from the economies of scale. BIG, slow, inexorable -- that was Modernity (as opposed to modernity). Think Hoover Dam, nuclear power plants, or any major 20th century blue-chip corporation.

The defining features of the 21st century are small. Agile. Fast. Fast trumps big. On-the-spot trumps economies of scale. Just-in-time trumps huge logistical lines. Rapid adaptation trumps capital intensity.

This isn't just economy. There used to be a time when to do a computation, you had to go to the temple of computation (your friendly neighborhood military or research lab) and submit your job to the priests of computation. Then came personal computers, then came smartphones. Now we get our daily doses of cats and politics right at our fingertips.

Time used to be -- just recently! -- when full genetic sequencing of your genome would take years of effort by huge groups. Today, it's $100 and a couple of days, and your sequencer is the size of a small fridge.

Used to be that to build custom widgets, you'd need an entire factory. Now you need a 3D printer which you can buy for a $1000.

Drones used to cost crazy money and be run by governments. Now you can buy a drone for under $100 on Amazon.

Space flight used to be so big and expensive that only the biggest governments could afford it. Now we have multiple private spaceflight initiatives, and prices are plunging like a rock.

The Ivanpah solar plant that just had an accident? 20th century thinking. BIG, HUGE, extremely capital intensive. That's thermal collectors for you (CSP, Concentrated Solar Power). CSPs are old, PVs are new. PVs are small, cheap, easy to install or move around. They are flexible, agile, and FAST. CSP technology is an echo of the last age. Even if it could break even financially today (and it can't), it's outdated IDEOLOGICALLY.

Because the 20th century was all about BIG, SciFi authors, too, were dreaming of HUGE projects. Conquering galaxies! Building orbital rings! Constructing Dyson spheres! That's why today is the SciFi future of mid-20th century, but it doesn't feel like 'The Future' we were conditioned to expect.

In reality, we went small: genetic engineering, nanotechnology, microchips... we will do big too, but the way to BIG lies through the mastery of the minute. Flexibility and control are the means to achieve scale. All the changes we are seeing today? This is just the tip of the trend; it's only beginning. It's a paradigm shift, as big as the Industrial Revolution. It will probably be called The Post-Industrial Revolution by some smartass future historian.

Distributed beats centralized. Agile beats Waterfall (software methodologies). Bottom-up beats top-down. Emergent trumps centrally controlled.

BIG is out. FAST is in. It's a new world, people, and this is just the beginning!

16:42:36 on 07/22/16 by danilche - Category: General


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