How The Future Might Look

favela luxuryOver the past few months I’ve been forming a thesis about where the world is heading. Much of my thinking comes from seven important books. Two of the most important authors who have influenced my thinking are Nassim Nicholas Taleb and Jaron Lanier. Many of the ideas that follow are theirs. And when Taleb’s and Lanier’s ideas intersect, you get very interesting hypotheses.

I’ll be expanding on my thinking over the next few blog posts, but I’ll start with some of the important ideas  that I think are at the core of where the world is heading. Understanding these ideas will be very important  if you want to succeed in the world going forward, or if you want to try to influence or change our future.

The Taleb Distribution – 99/1 instead of 80/20

The Pareto Distribution, better known as the 80/20 rule, states that 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes. For example, in most businesses 20% of clients will generate 80% of the income, 20% of clients will generate the most customer service requests and so on. Taleb argues that we’re moving to a 99/1 distribution, away from 80/20. This shift has profound implications for our economy and society.

Little to No Skin in the Game

Entities are using big data and big computers to create businesses that introduce risk into the system, but don’t actually take on any of the risk. Instead they radiate it out to everyone else, taking all the benefits and leaving others with the downside. Think big banks, healthcare marketplaces, Facebook, outsourcing firms.

Siren Servers

Lanier coined this term to describe companies that use strong computers to suck up data and make money solely on information asymmetry, that have no skin in the game, radiating out new risk into the system. This new business model breaks with old entrepreneurial traditions: now the winners win solely because they have the strongest, fastest and most powerful computers, not because of innovation or value add. It’s arbitrage.

Strongest servers used for control

Whether its from governments like the US and the NSA or strong, overbearing policing, or large companies like wall street or web giants, the strongest servers will use their power to exert control.

Much of this control isn’t really done by algorithms, but people believe in technology, rather than humanism. For example, online dating sites claim they have an algorithm that matches people based on compatibility. In reality the algorithm “works” because it throws lots of people who want to get married together. Marriages are bound to happen. But people believe its the computer and give up control.

De Facto Monopolies

As power and money concentrate around the most powerful computer and radiate risk away from themselves, they create de facto monopolies. For example, Amazon automatically lowers its prices if there is a lower price anywhere it can find, then raises it if there isn’t a lower price anymore. They do this because they have the best data and the most powerful servers. They are willing to take a low or no margin on an item until you go out of business.

Amazon is not stopping you from starting a competitor. But you cannot compete on price. What used to be a monopoly is now just good business and competition. It’s moving toward a de facto monopoly. I expect this to happen in other industries.

Meritocracy used to excuse pretty much anything

As things go to 99/1 and de facto monopolies arise that radiate away risk from people who have little to no skin in the game, the winners will use merit and hard work to justify their outsized rewards. Since these companies are not using traditional, overt anticompetitive practices, the winners will justify their gains by meritocracy: anyone could have done it. It will be used to justify the commoditazation of work and the elimination of traditional levees.

Non Monetary Compensation

Facebook with 0 users is worth $0. Facebook with 1.1b users is worth $122b. It needs our free data to function. Yet its controlled by one guy and only a tiny percentage actually involved get monetary compensation. The rest get the equivalent of candy. The new bread and circus.

Taken one step further, in ten years robots are doing most basic surgeries. All benefits accrue to the software company that created the software. How’d they program this software? By watching real doctors perform hundreds of thousands of surgeries. But do these doctors get any compensation from the new data driven robots that needed their data to create the program? No. This will repeat across most industries.

Shrinking Markets

In a 99/1 world, where information is free and people aren’t paid for their data inputs, and as technology, powerful servers and de facto monopolies begin to emerge, markets will begin to shrink. These technologies cut out the middle men and people needed to do work. Sounds great and it is short term, but at scale, only the powerful handful have any monetary compensation and the rest have candy and no money to live, let alone purchase the winner’s goods.

Massive Inequality

The world will look more like South America, with massive physical, emotional, economic divisions between haves and have nots. In South America the top few percent almost never come in contact with the rest of the population, besides in service jobs. They don’t have the same culture. They don’t eat the same food. Follow the same sports. Watch the same tv shows. See the same movies. It might as well be two different worlds. Without a common experience, the haves lose empathy for their fellow man.

The metafication of everything

Everything we do is now broken down into tiny data pieces, mixed up and then put in a schema. Barriers go down, but we lose context. Do we lose truth with the lost context?

I understand this post sounds bleak and is very incomplete, but I don’t think all is lost. I’ll continue expanding on these ideas over the next few weeks in additional blog posts, including some ideas on how we can get off this track, and if we can’t get off the track, what some of the best strategies might be to survive in this type of a world.

Please add to the discussion.