Below are the remarks I addressed to roughly the few hundred incoming students to Bluffton University, my alma mater (’00).
Life at the speed of change
Last year I spit in a tube. I sent it back in the mail to a company. And for a couple hundred dollars, my DNA was sequenced. Now what’s mind boggling about this is that when I was in in college what I did was something that required an entire research team and millions of dollars. I had my DNA tested so that I could see my own genetic history, on a whim. It cost a couple hundred bucks. And in ten years it’ll just be something your doctor does to tailor your personal care because it is getting cheaper every day.
Why is it getting cheaper? It’s because technology, and computer power, is rapidly increasing. My iPhone has more computing power than all of NASA did when it sent a man to the moon. My Xbox has the same computing power as a military level supercomputer did back when I was in college. And every eighteen months, the power of our computing chips double.
An engineer at Intel named Gordon Moore sat down in 1965 and plotted out, at the time, how fast computing chips were increasing in speed. He realized it doubled every 18 months. This doubling extends back all the way to the simplest mechanical calculators, and has held up over time. It’s now called Moore’s Law, and it is still holding true.
It’s not just useful for looking back. It’s fun to use to look forward. Using that curve, I can tell you that in a little over ten years a pocket device like an iPhone will be 128 times more powerful and faster than the one in your pocket. By the time you graduate, actually, the new device, whether iPhone or whatever, will be more powerful than the most powerful desktop you have access to right now.
But that’s just simple projection. What is interesting, also, is that in ten years the computing capacity of a laptop or an iPhone today will cost less than a buck and be thumbnail sized, or maybe smaller. That’s not me as a science fiction writer talking. The chips that ten or twenty years ago were advanced are that tiny now. And change is happening exponentially: that doubling affect is not linear. When something doubles according to Moore’s Law, it means it is twice as fast in eighteen months, and four times as fast in another eighteen, then eight times as fast, then sixteen, then 32, and you turn around and in fifteen years, it’s over 1,000 times as fast. In fifteen years your computing capacity will be 1,000 times more advanced than is now. The devices you use today, will be 1,000 times cheaper.
Human beings are pretty bad at handling the idea of exponential frames of reference. We do better at linear. We hear the phrase ‘doubling’ and really we think that means we think in fifteen years our phones will be 20 times as fast, not 1,000 (or that what we have right now will be 1,000 times cheaper).
What will we do with a computer the size of a thumbnail that can be stuck on anything, that’s networked and cheap as heck to produce? As a science fiction writer we talk about smart dust. Or sensor networks that let us create intelligent roads. Or forests that report status updates. Or intelligent clothing that adjusts or changes based on mood. Those are the shiny things that people often expect me to talk about, since I write science fiction.
But honestly what is interesting to me is that we are finding other laws similar to Moore’s. For example, Kryder’s Law says storage capacity for hard drives double every twelve months. Nielsen’s Law puts bandwidth at doubling every 21 months. LED lights, a bit slower, but every decade cost per lumen falls by a factor of ten and light emitted increases by a factor of 20. Important for both future light bulbs and our device screens. Our ability to sequence DNA is also getting cheaper in the same sorts of leaps and bounds, which I mentioned at the start. There’s increasingly heavy money from the folks that are investing in, and pointing out, that solar power seems to be following a power curve of its own.
In fact, one science fiction writer by the name of Vernor Vinge looked at all the technological change that has been happening over hundreds of years, and created a graph out of curiosity, one reflecting the rate of change of technology overall. He came to the conclusion that technology as a whole is also working on a growth curve that’s exponential.
He believes that we’re in the lower part of an accelerating curve. That while you are getting a new smartphone every year, that soon enough, it’s going to be a new one every few months, and then faster. Maybe even phones that reconfigure their physical parts.
Over the last years, in order to keep up with Moore’s law, some computers have started to invent chips on their own using a virtual reality system that randomly evolves and creates chipsets, checks to see if they work in this environment, then either discards or adds them to a new generational chip design and tries again. Using simple brute force iterations to solve problems that take human designers longer. And the faster chips get, the more systems like this can try to solve problems.
Vernor Vinge believes that at some point things are going to be changing around us so fast that we hit what he calls the technological singularity. A point at which things are changing so fast that we’re talking day to day fundamental changes, where predictive growth curves fail us. Where the speed of technological change becomes near magical.
Pretty wild huh?
Whether he’s right or not, the rate of change has not slowed. Is not slowing. It’s really not wise to bet against this rapid tide. Whether there will be a singularity or not, it is speeding up.
So that is, let’s call it truism #1: Change is happening. It’ll happen faster. It’s coming for you.
But what are we talking about when we talk about technology? What is technology?
I think technology is nothing more than something that was invented after you were a child.
I once attended a lecture by a speaker who was briefly famous for hating the constant interruptions of email, cellphones, and what he called technology. He wanted to pass legislature to ban ‘technology’ so we could have quiet periods. Afterwards I asked him if that included books and pens and paper, and he was kind of taken aback.)
The thing is, pen and paper are a radically amazing pieces of technology that you just take for granted merely because they existed the moment you were born. So you don’t treat them as the novel, fascinating game changers that they are. Instead, you use them based on your own personal decisions about what you need at the moment, what you prefer, and what you think is effective. Doodling, leaving notes, taking notes, writing drafts, or what ever.
In fact, when I consult sometimes about technology, I often tell people, take out the ‘technology’ you’re talking about, replace the words pen and paper, does your statement about technology still hold? It sometimes reveals the false framing we surround technology with quite handily.
As a result, because of that point of view that we hew to, all the time and effort we expend in trying to understand how to integrate ‘technology,’ into our lives, really is less effective until the generation that was born with that ‘technology’ around them (and can only conceive of it as just a simple tool, no more no less) gets to teach how to use it or think about it. But since ‘technology’ is changing so fast, it’s really getting hard to wait for that generation to come along!
So we really have to grapple with it nonetheless.
How do we grapple with it? How do we grapple with all that change? That is something people think about. Books are written about what is called future shock. The fact that constant change around us is always thundering away can create a sort of numbness. It can create fear. People push back. They fear change. A great deal of conflict comes from fear of change. Even some violence.
The reason I write what I write. The reason I explore the future in imaginative text, is that I think this act of imagining the future, of engaging in it with literature, movies, and discussion, can help us deal with the rapidly changing environment around us. That is why I think the genre I write, science fiction, is useful. It’s part of that grappling.
But even if you don’t want to engage with science fiction, thinking about technology as a process, as design, and as fundamentally human, I think that helps allow you to roll with it.
And nothing helps you roll with it more than the ability to reason, and read, and think critically. Because change is happening so fast, it is not important that you memorize a series of steps, or a body of knowledge, or accepted facts about your hoped for profession. Because if the inventors that I talk to when doing my research have anything to do with it, your chosen profession may well not exist by the time a really radical invention dissolves it. Doctor diagnosis? There are people working on artificial intelligences to do it. Surgery? Robots. Middle management or HR? I just read an abstract by a neural net researcher that trained software to read and evaluate resumes. Reporter? There is adaptive software that takes simple sports or financial news tickers and can build a rudimentary story around it. Technology is coming for you.
But if you can reason, and think critically, and absorb information rapidly. If you can navigate information freely. If you understand how to learn, not just learn, but how to learn, then it does not matter how rapidly the world around you changes. You are equipped to deal.
Many of the skills we are learning today will be obsolete in 20-30 years. If you don’t believe me, go to an antique store and read an old textbook for your chosen field. And here’s another dirty secret: most people’s jobs have nothing to do with their formal degrees. Because life is complex, interesting, chaotic, and because we change, adapt, and move in directions and the world swirls and moves as well. Which means learning how to be skilled, that is something that will earn you a living for a lifetime.
So what interests me about technology is not technology in and of itself, but the design and way we use it. How we learn things, and how we are creative:
Anecdote that could be dropped based on time, but try to keep: I want to give you anecdote from my favorite technologist, and obsessor about design. Mr. Steve Jobs, a man quite obsessed with life-long learning and technology, particularly technology as design.
According to an interview with one of the heads of Pixar, everyone was a bit annoyed with Jobs because he designed their building so that it had a giant atrium in the center of the building. All of the offices and places people worked were off elsewhere, but the meeting rooms, PO boxes, cafeteria, and importantly, the bathrooms, all of these were housed in the center. This made people randomly and constantly bump into each other all through out the day. Which lead to people talking all the time. And cross-fertilizing projects. It lead to moments of clarity. All of this making pixar that much more awesome.
That illustrates a piece of what I want to briefly talk about next, which the most amazing inventions. It’s the city. Or, to be more precise: densification.
Here’s what I’m talking about:
Take a map of the country. County by county. And then overlay statistics on it. You find out lots of interesting things. But one of the more interesting things, pertaining to technology and learning, is that you find out the number of patents filed per county tends to be usually different in dense areas as opposed to non-dense areas.
In other words, people invent more in denser areas and urban metros than in scattered rural areas.
Now, some of you are thinking, of course. There are more people in dense areas. So there are more patents. But I’m a step ahead of you. What we find is that the per capita rate is higher. What do I mean by per capita? I mean, according to the US Patent and Trade Organization, that if you take 100,000 people in a scattered, rural county, and 100,000 out of a dense urban area, you’ll find that those 100,000 from the urban area will have filed anywhere from 10 to 60 times as many patents.
In particular, the USPTO has a map, broken down by metropolitan area, showing patents per 100,000 people. That’s the per capita rate. And the level per 100,000 people is generally radically higher in dense areas of the US, with few exceptions.
Now, you’re wondering whether I’m ragging on rural people. But I grew up in a rural, developing world country that’s tiny. I currently live in a small town. I don’t consider myself stupid. But, Columbus, Ohio, a denser area than here, had during 1998, an average patent generation for independent inventors (and I like that chart because independent inventors tell us something about creativity of people who are filing for patents on their own, not backed by a large industry or a big business) rate of one to two patents per 100,000. This general area had a rate of .1 to 1.1. Furthermore, in the NYC metro area, it’s 2 to 4 per 100,000. In San Francisco and LA, the rate is 4 to 6 per 100,000.
So what is happening?
What is happening is that in dense areas, you are always crossing the common room to get the bathroom. Just like at Pixar. There are more people, bumping into each randomly, than if everyone is off hunkered away from everyone else.
Possible drop based on time elapsed/attention: In the Isacsoon biography of Steve Jobs recently out, he quotes Jobs as saying “There’s a temptation in our networked age to think that ideas can be developed by email and iChat. That’s crazy. Creativity comes from spontaneous meetings, from random discussions. You run into someone, you ask what they’re doing, you say ‘Wow,” and soon you’re cooking up all sorts of ideas.”
Interestingly enough, to me, you’ve actually all made the choice to utilize that same design tool of density. There are several hundred of you here in this room, who will be living in dense living arrangements.
All told, there are just over 1,000 students here, packed into a smaller area so that you can live, eat, and learn together. A small city, an academic city, where you will spend most of the next 4 years.
It’s a place where you can have those necessarily random encounters that increase our creativity at large. On the way to lunch, to your dorms, out in the green common areas. So you’ve already decided to use a tool, a design tool, a piece of technology, to more effectively help you be more creative.
Congratulations, you’re all more likely to create something interesting over your next four years than most. It’s no wonder that people longingly look back at their college years, because they were living in an environment designed to increase random interaction and creativity. No matter what that creativity was. Not just patents, or writing, or scholarship. But all sorts of ideas and encounters, many of which we don’t even think about or realize. These connections you make are important.
Now that you have that environment, the rest increasingly is in your hands. What can you do to leverage this environment? What can you do to increase the random encounters? Think about what you want to achieve in your life. Your whole life? Who in this campus, your peers, groups, outside of just professors and a formal teaching room, can join you? How can you all band together? You have a unique, and amazing cross section of minds, talents, and abilities all sitting here looking back at me. Together, you can achieve more than you would think, because many hands make light work. And sometimes the sum is greater than the parts.
Now is the time, not sometime later, or not if some else does it. You have the tools right now. You have, essentially, the same piece of technology that Steve Jobs gave to his teams, both at Pixar and at Apple, from which a great deal of innovation followed.
Here comes another anecdote. There’s an experiment I first heard about from a man named Tom Wujec in a video online, and also talked about in a few other books, I think in one by Daniel Pink about the neurophysiology of work and work motivation. And the experiment is that you give teams of four people 20 sticks of dry spaghetti, a yard of tape, one yard of string, and one marshmallow. You then challenge them to build the tallest structure you can.
Now business, and other recent graduates, often tend to spend an initial chunk of time talking. Establishing a hierarchy, who’s in charge, etc. They pencil in some designs, talk and plan some designs. Eventually they start building a structure. And then, at the very end. They add a marshmallow. Quite often, the result is that the structure fails. But enough people make it work and muddle through.
What’s interesting, is the kind of groups who build the tallest structures. Obviously engineers do, b/c they’re kinda cheats. They know how to build. So it doesn’t help to measure them. But outside of actual engineers, there is one group that surprisingly does better than many of the others. Better than lawyers, business school grads, and middle managers. And that’s kindergartners.
Now why is this?
Well, kids just start building spaghetti and tape structures right away together. They watch them buckle and fall, and then build another. The kids usually build 4-5 different freestanding structures in the allotted time, some of the wild and wobbly, but they work.
See, the other types of people spend time trying not to fail. They make up plans. They establish who’s in charge, and responsible. They settle on a single plan. They execute it.
The kids on the other hand, they have no fear of failing. They just build it, watch it fail, learn form that, build it again. They iterate the design until it works. And that’s something that is often bludgeoned out of us as we get older. They learn how to build. They learn how to learn this project’s skills. Learn to learn.
We have been taught, many of us, not to fail. Not failing, in many cases, is really, if you look around you and think about many of the structures around you, the prime motivation of many people. People work to not get fired. People grind through their academic work, not to fail.
Kids are some of the fastest, happiest, most creative learners. Because they are in frequent failure mode. But as you get older, you avoid failure. Embarrassment. Avoid feeling like you’re not that smart. We are facilitated by systems that don’t want us to fail, because it produces hurt feelings and upset egos.
But by trying to avoid failure so often, we deprive ourselves of learning and growth. Class of 2016: I encourage you, start failing now. Do you want to run a business? Start it now. Because failing now, here, with a roof over your head and friends to help, is better than trying it in 2017. Try things. Try them. I’m serious. Do it. There is no later. There is only now.
Fail, and fail often, and get better, and iterate, and you will be vastly ahead of anyone else. You may surprise yourself. You may start to achieve your dreams right now.
I will give you a personal anecdote: when I arrived here in college I wanted to be a writer. More than anything. And I started to spend as much free time as I could writing. And I took failure to heart, because I submitted my stories to magazines, hoping they would get published. I read somewhere that Ray Bradbury, an amazing, incredible writer, got 500 rejections before he sold his first story and went on to have a career. And I figured, if it took Bradbury 500, it would take me more. So I set out to get 500. While I was here, I labored at it, and I’ll tell you, I was told no over hundreds times while I was submitting stories. All those rejection slips came right to my campus box, right there in Marbeck. A weekly litany of failure. And I posted, with tape, each one of my dorm room wall over my desk.
I didn’t think about how scared of failure we were until someone came into my room and read them, and started to tear up. How can you deal with that? They asked. Why don’t you just stop hurting yourself?
Fear of failing almost paralyzed them, and they weren’t even the ones failing. I was. But here I am. That failure was just a series of events on my way to success.
So please, realize, failure is an option. It’s healthy. It lets you learn. Try something that risks failure, and you’ll be stunned at what you learn.
We live in a time of rapidly increasing change. But that means we have more tools around us than ever before. That can be intimidating, but if you can learn the skill of learning itself (and not the trappings of rote, not spending four years just trying to not fail, or prepare for a static, non moving target, not trying not to let someone down, not trying to make sure you get the grades that are expected), if you can learn how to learn. If you can learn how to harness failure, to iterate and become stronger. And if you can do it in this environment that supercharges the connections and creativity potential that you all could unlock, then you will be quite a force when you are unleashed in 2016.
I hope to hear about things you chose to do right here, right now. I hope to hear about what you tried to do that took you near failure, or even up to it, and certainly past it. I hope that you will come to appreciate what a fascinating tool a place like this can be for you.
I encourage you to try to build taller spaghetti towers.
To think of technology as little more than paper and pens.
Most of all, I encourage you to learn how to learn because it will armor you against any crazy, scary, wild, technological futures a science fiction writer like me could dream up.
That is the ultimate technological hack, and one every single one of you, I believe, is capable of mastering it. If you choose.
So thank you for humoring me, thank you for your time. And good luck.