Trying to Wrap Our Heads Around Exponential Growth

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. 

Short-term vs Long-term Thinking

One of the hardest choices we have to make on a daily basis is choosing between optimizing for the short-term or optimizing for the long-term. Should we eat that donut today because it tastes good and won’t have an impact on today’s weight? Or should we choose to not eat the donut because over the course of our life, the less donuts we eat the healthier we’re likely to be?

It’s easy to get caught up in the here and now. It often takes over our thoughts. We optimize for the immediate because it feels good to be rewarded today. But every choice you make has a long-term impact. What you choose to do today, will effect you tomorrow. And the best rewards always take time to win.

This choice is made extra difficult because of the way we are wired. Evolution made us want to optimize for today because tomorrow was far from certain. But we now live in a world where tomorrow is often much more likely to come if we make intelligent decisions today.

The challenge everyday is fighting our own biology to make the tough decision to hold off on what gives us pleasure today in order to enhance our tomorrow.

The Software Mindset

Human beings have been creating tools for our entire existence. Tools that have helped us build shelter, produce food, and transport us across the globe. But for the first time in our history, we have built a tool that helps us with the one thing that has separated us from everything else, our mind.

The computer is the first tool we have created that makes us a whole lot less special. And that scares the crap out of us. One of the topics of greatest concern today is how computers are replacing humans in the workforce. In the past, our tools replaced low-level type jobs that were replaced with other jobs, which were often better paying and less labor intensive. But those tools replaced jobs of the muscle, not jobs of the mind. Computers now have the ability to replace all kinds of jobs, from the burger flipper to the corporate executive . And with the rise of artificial intelligence, it seems inevitable that computers will be able to do more and more. How are we to cope with machines taking more of the work?

If you listen to the popular media, the future sounds pretty grim. Computers are doing more of the work and when the jobs disappear they are being replaced at a slower rate than they are disappearing. But as an optimist I believe in human ingenuity and adaptation. I also believe there’s a way to help us deal with this changing landscape. And that way is the Software Mindset[1] .

The Software Mindset means recognizing that the power of computers and the software they run is not something to fear but instead something to use to your advantage. It means having the awareness of where and when software can make our lives easier and more productive. The key to thriving in a world of advancing computers is to use them to augment our own abilities. Just like two is greater than one, a human plus a computer is far greater than just a computer.

If we want to be able to use computers and software to expand our potential, we couldn’t be living at a better time then now. We are living at a time where not only does almost everyone have access to a powerful super-computer at their fingertips, but also at a time where the majority of software tools are free or cost no more than a cup of coffee. The success of the smartphone has enabled a whole world of “computer literate” people. It also brought with it better user experiences. Getting most things done today are only a few taps and swipes away. You don’t have to know how your smartphone works to get it to tell you the local weather or transcribe what you’re saying. We’re getting to the point where you don’t even need taps or swipes. Just by asking for what you want using your own voice enables you to get a lot of what you need done accomplished today and we’re just at the beginning of what’s possible.

This means you don’t have to be a technical wizard in order to get power from software. The same way you don’t need to know the inner workings of a car in order to understand that a car is a vehicle that allows you to transport people or things from one place to another, you don’t need to understand how to write computer code to run in order to get a software program to take a set of instructions and execute them over and over. This is core to what the Software Mindset is all about.

The key to the Software Mindset is not in identifying what tools are available or even what those tools can do. The key to the Software Mindset is recognizing situations where software can help you solve problems. And those situations are growing quickly. We all face situations everyday where software can help us. This means we all have opportunities to improve our abilities through the use of software.

For example, how many times throughout your day/week do you find yourself repeating things? For me, it’s often. I write the same emails, schedule meetings the same way, and do the same budgeting every month. I would guess you’re probably similar. Each time we repeat ourselves, a light bulb should go off in our heads telling us there’s a better way. And there is. It’s through software. The specific tools don’t matter as much as recognizing the opportunities to improve (though if your looking for some software to help you out, check out IFTTT and Zapier). It’s not just when we repeat ourselves either, software can help us gather information, create shortcuts, and customize our preferences.

Equipped with a mindset that helps us recognize the opportunities to use computers for our advantage, we should no longer fear computers but instead look forward to leveraging them.


[1] Jeff Lawson of Twilio had a similar concept he came up with in 2013, which he called Software People. You can see him give a talk on it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ReSlJ5cq5D0. I think the Software Mindset however goes beyond businesses and products and can cover everyone, from grandmothers to elementary school children.


Originally published at www.alexcmeyer.com on February 20, 2016.