21st Century Dissatisfaction

We haven’t gotten enough from the Internet. Consider the printing press. It changed society, unlocking scientific and industrial revolutions. It ushered in dramatic discoveries. Lead to vast improvements in life quality.

Given how crazy an innovation the Internet is, we should be moving faster as a society. We’ve got lots of new weird things like cryptocurrency and social networking. Shouldn’t there be ten times that amount of weirdness? Imagine you just this to a 16th century scholar:

“In the future… we all have sheets of glass that grant access to all the information in the world. At once.”

What would they say? Surely with that God-like power, all world problems would be solved instantly. Why isn’t the Internet a faster accelerant to productivity? A few theories I have:

We’re scraping the bottom of the barrel. Innovation is getting harder because we did all of the low hanging fruit. Plenty have written about this already. Since this theory is really depressing, I’m moving on.

The brain implant theory. To take true advantage of the Internet, you need a brain-computer interface. The problem isn’t accessing information; connecting ideas in novel ways is. Having Google isn’t enough — you need to know which queries to run. Our era will be looked back upon as the Stone Age of the Internet, using crude tools to access rich resources.

The “unhealthy communication” theory. In order to have breakthrough ideas you need to talk the right amount to others. Not too much. Not too little. “Fake presence” (i.e. phone calls, high latency video calls, messaging) is cheap, plentiful and socially satisfying. So we communicate. More so than we ever have before. Maybe over-communication distorts original thinking. What if a modern day Einstein doesn’t come up with relativity because he never fully composes his ideas in long form? Instead, he sends half-baked concepts to Max Planck over WhatsApp. Does he evolve less independent thinking as a result?

The university theory. The most important thing Stanford and Oxford provide isn’t the faculty or the books. It’s the environment. It’s the knowledge that you’ve been selected as a smart person. And you’re surrounded by other smart people. This changes your personality. It may be that environment matters much more than access to Google. To date, high quality educational institutions have been constrained to an elite few. Perhaps this is the thing that’s slowing innovation down: we need to scale that positive environment to everyone in the world. I’m optimistic that institutions like Y-Combinator and AI Grant can provide a similar effect for orders of magnitude more, across the world.

The “hidden friction” theory. There’s a lot of human productivity to be unlocked in lowering hidden friction cost. People would do a lot more of all things, if it was easier to get to the fun part of the thing.

For example, with AirPods I listen to much more content. Surprise! There was hidden friction. When you thought of listening to music, it came with a “painful” memory: pulling a cable out of your bag, untangling it, untangling it again and finally connecting it. That memory causes you not to do the particular activity, unless your motivation is very high (see my other post on feedback loops).

Another example is mobile versus desktop. The most underrated feature of the iPhone is instant on. Imagine if iPhone took 5 seconds to turn on after you pressed the power button. You’d use it far less. Another subtle aspect of mobile is that it is always seamlessly accessible. How often have you been in an Uber with your laptop in a bag, finding yourself working on your phone instead? Getting started on your laptop is tiring. You’ve got to fish it out of your bag. Then you need to turn it on. Log in. Figure out how to connect to the Internet. Click through five prompts. Only then will you be truly wired in. These steps seem small, but my point is they’re unconsciously very large.

It may be that there are 5-10 tools that are just on the cusp of being useful to researchers and entrepreneurs. And if you just made them 10ms faster or easier, they’d use them much more and innovate much more. What if sci-hub was 10X faster? Surely that would matter somewhat. How much?

In closing, I’m simultaneously happy to be alive in the 21st century and sad I wasn’t born in the 22nd. We’re dangerously close to something really big. For each of the theories I outlined there’s a big company waiting to be built[1]. If you have a side-project that involves one, spend more time on it! We’re all racing towards the same countdown clock.

[1] For example: Outbrain, but for researchers instead of entertainment. Track browser usage. Understand the underlying theme behind what someone is trying to query. Suggest pages to them they would have never learned about themselves. Etc.