The driving force of technological change is exponential growth. It’s the reason in the last ten years we went from having almost no one with a smartphone to almost everyone on the planet with one.
Yet, exponential growth is also is one of the hardest concepts to wrap our minds around. Our minds are tuned to think linearly. Thinking linearly helps us with our more biological tasks, like how far away is that lion from where I am standing? And do I have enough time to get to shelter before it runs me down? These were once very important concepts to master in order to thrive in our earlier biological times.
But the days of thinking about out running lions are gone. We live in a technological world, like it or not. And in a technological world, you need to be able to think exponentially. If you want to separate yourself from your peers, master this concept because most people are not able to wrap their head around exponential growth and what it means.
One of the best ways to understand the concept of exponential growth is in the animation below. The animation is from MotherJones and it shows the rate of growth of computing power over the last few decades and continuing into the future, increasing at an exponential rate (which it has been for all of its history so far). It depicts the growth as filling Lake Michigan. The thing to take away is how quickly exponential growth sneaks up on you. For a long time, it looks like no progress is made at all and then all of a sudden, the lake is full.
This is what is happening right now in technology. For a long time in the beginning, nothing seemed to be changing. And now all of a sudden, things are changing fast and they will begin to change faster and faster.
Besides computing power, there are a number of other technology fields that our growing at an exponential rate. For example, genomics, artificial intelligence, and solar power. It’s easy to dismiss any of these fields today as making little progress. But each are growing exponentially. And like I just mentioned, when something grows exponentially, in the beginning it looks like no progress is being made and then it overwhelms you. So don’t underestimate what these fields can do. You wouldn’t want to be in the group of people that dismissed the internet in 1990, would you?
My favorite (and most hopeful) underestimation of exponential growth is in solar power. If you listen to most people today they dismiss solar power because it generates only a small portion of the world’s energy. But both the drop in cost of solar power and growth of installations are increasing at exponential rates (actually they are increasing faster than exponentially at the current moment). Meaning we are basically at the year 2003 in the animation above. When you look around, there doesn’t seem to be any sign of solar power. But in 20 years, it’s powering the entire planet.
It may be easy to laugh at solar today and I may have an overly optimistic view, but if you learn anything from the history of technological change it is to not underestimate the power of exponential growth.