Here We Go Again
Another tech wave is clearly underway. I'm le tired.
Here we go again. Another tech wave is now undeniably underway. If I’m counting right, this is the fourth one of my life: PC revolution, Web 1.0, Web 2.0, and whatever this is. I labeled it the First Terraforming in my Oct 14 issue, and some people call it the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Let me list the 6 key strands again, this time in what I consider the order of maturity:
Machine learning (see: May 11 post, Superhistory, Not Superintelligence)
Web3 (née blockchain)
Metaverse (née VR/AR/XR/MR)
New Robotics (née IoT) (see Sep 30 post, On Robots)
Renewed commercial space sector
As we used to say back in Web 1.0 days, I’m le tired. If I can’t retire to my mansion after my at-bat in the First Terraforming, I’m quitting. I don’t know the average age of subscribers to this list, but I’m going to be 47 this month, and it feels like the first order of business, at least for me, is mental preparation, since by default, my age suggests I will have the wrong attitude.
Douglas Adams had a great set of 3 laws of technology which I’ve quoted often:
Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works.
Anything that’s invented between when you’re fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it.
Anything invented after you’re thirty-five is against the natural order of things.
I have now been in the third category for 12 years. Resisting the curmudgeonly impulse to dismiss new things as being against nature only gets harder every year.
A related phenomenon is captured by Arthur C. Clarke’s 3 laws:
When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.
The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.
Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
I’m neither distinguished, nor a scientist, but I’m getting there on the elderly bit.
If you put the Adams and Clarke laws together, you get a 5-layer stack of technology in relation to your life and post-life that I call the Adams-Clarke Stack.
This is the human-centric counterpart to what I called the REALIST stack in my July 1 post, for talking about the technology itself.
Everyone has their own particular version of the Adams-Clarke stack, shaped by their age, cultural context, and temperament. Some people for example, are born aged 36, while others never seem to age past 35. Still others are prematurely aged by liberal arts degrees and never experience technological excitement at all.
The “distinguished and elderly” bit in Clarke’s first law isn’t a stack level, but a dynamic: your successes 15-35, and your failures past 35, determine your ability to see possibilities and impossibilities. Where you see possibilities, by default, you’re drawing on a time in your life when you were caught up in the new, exciting, and revolutionary, which means you’re drawing on experience with a now-buried layer of the stack. When you see impossibilities, you are drawing on your 35+ life and the topmost layer of the stack.
I turned 35 in 2009, and several big ideas germinated around then (bitcoin, deep learning, efficient lithium-ion batteries), so I got lucky. My against-nature filter was not yet strong enough to stop me from getting excited about these things.
In the years since, I’ve tried my best to mainly talk about possibilities, and shut up about impossibilities until I’ve had a chance to experiment with them. I don’t always succeed.
I made up my own four laws, based on the Adams and Clarke’s laws, reflecting the logic of the Adams-Clarke stack. Let’s call these the Adams-Clarke Laws:
Any level of abstraction that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works.
Any level of abstraction that's invented between when you’re fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it.
Any level of abstraction invented after you're thirty-five is against the natural order of things and probably a scam or pyramid scheme
Any level of abstraction invented after you’re dead will seem somewhere between impossible and magical if you could come back to life to experience it
This stuff can sneak up on you unawares. Many who were young enough to be excited when bitcoin first appeared are now too old to be excited by NFTs, so they think bitcoin is legit but NFTs are a scam. Which intrigues me. I can understand seeing both as a scam, or neither as a scam, but if you see only the second one as a scam, chances are, you turned 35 in the last decade.
Anyhow, events in the last couple of weeks suggest the First Terraforming has now turned into a Real Thing.™ Take a look around. Visions around the 6 technological strands have been crystalizing very rapidly. For each item in the list above, there are multiple visions on offer., vast amounts of money on the line, and serious technology action underway:
This week, COP26 is delivering an update to the increasingly ragged COP21 climate response vision. Idealistic greenwashing theater is slowly starting to yield to somewhat more realistic and serious pragmatism.
Machine learning is basically in the water now, and all future visions are colored by expectations of ML being involved in some way. Software 2.0 is eating the world.
The Web3 crowd is developing an entire cult-like vision of NFTs generated by GANs, traded on the blockchain, and displayed in a Metaverse run as a set of DAOs.
Last week, I spent half a morning watching Mark Zuckerberg, John Carmack, and a bunch of Facebook (now Meta) people lay out a vision for the Metaverse. Earlier this week we were treated to Microsoft’s version. The cringe factor with both was real, but so was the wow factor at the tech involved in staging the cringe, and the rapidly condensing vaporware.
Every so often, we get treated to a new Boston Dynamics video. Last week, we got pictures of a robot dog from Ghost robotics, with a gun mounted on it. You knew that was going to happen, don’t act shocked.
Out in Texas, Elon Musk, having sold most of his mansions, and living out of a prefab cabin, is exhorting his stans to urge the FAA to allow the Starship to begin orbital launch testing. Elsewhere, Jeff Bezos sent William Shatner to space.
I didn’t plan it, but I seem to have accidentally gotten a finger into each of these pies that goes beyond merely thinking and writing about them. This seems to be a pattern in my personal history. My participation in the last 3 tech waves all began as random accidents that had everything to do with being in the right place at the right time, and nothing to do with my talents. Someday I’ll tell the whole story. But here, for the record, is my portfolio of semi-accidental involvements in the First Terraforming:
I’ve been consulting on climate action projects since about 2015, and it now constitutes about a third of my consulting work.
This year, I began working with a machine learning startup, and that’s another third of my consulting work.
Last Sunday, I had a cameo (and a 4.2% cut!) in Ian Cheng’s first NFT auction, and am currently doing my own first one. Details on both here. Depending on where you stand on these matters, I’m now either finally an unabashed scammer or finally worth taking seriously again.
Last year, early in the pandemic, I bought an Oculus Quest 1 (at a scalpy premium) and was briefly helping build a VR game (since backburnered). I am currently teaching myself 3d modeling/CAD, mainly for 3d printing, but with an eye on potentially repurposing the models for metaverse stuff.
On the robotics+space front, I’m working on the Yak Rover project.
If all these cunning plans work out, in about 15 years, I’ll be hanging out in my irl mansion and mirror-world meta-mansion simultaneously, being served by my robot butler and its avatar in both.
Through one window, I’ll be looking out at Boston Dynamics Terraformer X39 robots installing new solar panels. Through another window, I’ll be looking out virtually at the Mars corner of the metaverse, and playing with my real open-source rover on Mars via the AR/VR interface. Guests hanging out with me will be admiring my collection of NFT art. A GPT-25 Artificial Blogger will be writing all my blogs, newsletters, and tweets for me, with some mild supervision.
All around the boundary of my mansion, rebel protestors in stillsuits, carrying pitchforks and 3d printed guillotines, will be looking for ways to get past my gun-toting robot dogs, drone-based air cover, and AI surveillance system. In case they make it through, my Plan B is to sneak out through a secret tunnel, put on a fake beard and messianic robes, and get out in front of them to lead the hunt for myself.
Clearly, I have it all figured out.
Kidding aside, every new wave of technology presents something of a moral challenge. That part doesn’t change. Whether you’re 15, 35, or 47, how you respond to a new tech wave is a test of character.
The shallow moral test involves the discourse around whether the new stuff is moral or immoral. The deeper moral test is whether you’re alive enough to get interested in new possibilities, or whether you’re so dead you can’t see past your old impossibilities.
And there is no way to navigate either the shallow or deep tests without disappointing at least half of humanity.
The real question is: do you have the courage to disappoint the right half of humanity?