Widgets Magazine



Things change over time.

This fact doesn’t get much attention here in the Silicon Valley, which seems surprising given that we’re at the bleeding edge of this change. Don’t we set the agenda? Don’t we invent the future? Don’t we persevere in disrupting, innovating and ideating, long after the words describing those processes have become hackneyed and worn? How, Eric, can we possibly think that nothing ever changes?

Well, take a look through the eyes of Bill Gates: “Pessimism is often wrong because people assume a world where there is no change or innovation…. A lot of the rhetoric about sustainability implicitly assumes that we will exhaust our natural resources, as though there will never be any substitution of one commodity for another in the future. But there has always been such substitution.”

See also the equivalences some commentators — call them tech apologists — draw between new technologies and old ones: Your concerns about social media are just like concerns others had about “harmless” technologies like the locomotive or the printing press, and therefore just as invalid.

Yes, these two general attitudes both involve a certain idea of change over time. But it’s not real change. For Gates, technological change is a nice, predictable law of physics that you can depend on, a force that will always step in and save us from the brink of destruction. For the tech apologist, technological change is a mere switching of appearances that will make life more convenient without unexpected consequences, regardless of how scary it may seem. In neither worldview would we ever need to rethink the way we understand things in response to this change.

But when we think about change in these static, confined terms, we fail to see the real movements happening on a larger scale. If my house were burning to the ground, I wouldn’t be particularly reassured if someone told me about how my stove has always been warming things, or how hot objects have always burned. Sure, the laws of physics have always remained the same—but that doesn’t mean my house isn’t currently being reduced to a pile of smoking ash. Sure, there’s always been historical change of some kind or another going on—but that doesn’t mean that any specific, ongoing change is meaningless.

The world is currently hurtling into the unknown. Technology, politics and economics have all been sent into a frantic dance by the interplay of the forces of globalization, automation and environmental degradation. But those living in the centers of power — Silicon Valley, Washington, Wall Street — can rest easy in the convenient fiction that nothing is really changing.

People were concerned about the television when it was invented, so we shouldn’t be suspicious of the Internet; American politics has always drifted between left and right, so there’s nothing to fear about a Trump presidency; the unemployment rate’s lower than ever, so surely, the economy’s doing just fine! When we view events in their historical context, are we looking towards history to understand what the future holds, or are we just searching it for the recourse that similar things have happened in the past, and that everything’s going to be all right?

Maybe it’s neither. Maybe we’re just too lazy to change our understanding with the times. We don’t want to keep drawing our maps for a shifting territory, so we hastily scrawl in a few arrows — static concepts that account for, but do not explain, real change. Why did Trump win? Economic discontent. But what is the new state of America, now that Trump has been elected? Nobody knows.

The arrows on our map tell us that things change, but they tell us nothing about what the changed world looks like. Sure, the same players are involved — the same voters, the same regions, the same industries — but their roles and relative positions have changed.

It’s not productive to chase doggedly after full employment as an end goal when automation and the sharing economy are perturbing the nature of employment itself. It makes little sense to structure a business around endless growth when our ecological throughput is approaching our planet’s hard limit. It is difficult to maintain a strong political establishment when material conditions and the internet have decentralized political discourse. Our assumptions weaken; our understanding becomes distorted, obsolete.

If we want to avoid a crisis, one thing is clear — we need new maps.


Contact Eric Wang at ejwang ‘at’ stanford.edu.