Is there a formula to predict the future? Not just the future, but THE INEVITABLE? Here’s my draft. It challenges everything we believe about ideas, innovation & our future. And explains why Elon Musk and Donald Trump are powerless against fate. But we are not. A feast for your imagination…with a few halfway-decent jokes sprinkled in.
Links from the episode:
- Mike Bloomberg energy editorial
- Who killed the electric car? documentary
- Calestous Juma’s excellent book ‘Innovation and Its Enemies: Why People Resist New Technologies’
- Amy Schumer, thief? You decide.
- Pneumatic Subway -> Hyperloop?
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Why Even Musk Can’t Trump The Inevitable
I started thinking about inevitability when President Trump signed an executive order to consummate his weird love affair with “clean coal”. Trying to breathe life into their black lungs is like me trying to impregnate Betty White. Not happening, no matter how I phrase the consent form. (I’m not her type. Word on the street is she’s really into Shaq.) Coal is never coming back. Neither are typewriters, VHS tapes, or Cato Cailin. As Mike Bloomberg explained in the New York Times, alternative fuels have already won. Wind, solar and hydro are cheaper, cleaner, and in-demand. Entire countries like Germany, are almost completely converted. Hell, Kentucky’s Coal Museum runs on solar! You can’t make this stuff up! So, no matter what Trump does, clean fuels are inevitable. But so is everything else.
Then I started thinking about all the other battles we’re fighting right now.
- Taxis versus Uber
- China against free speech, or basically any kind of freedom
- Islamic fundamentalists versus women. Working or voting or pretty much doing anything outside the house.
- Vegans vs carnivores
- Robots/AI vs workers
- Climate skeptics vs climate fixers
- Health insured vs uninsured
- Pro-gun vs anti-gun
- Pro-pot vs hardliners
- CRISPR superbabies vs regular dumb babies
What if every one of these outcomes, policies and innovations is both foreseeable and inevitable. Just like renewable energy.
I even created a formula that could help predict all this. How to predict the future; all the things that cannot be denied. I call it the 3I’s of Inevitability, which is really weird, considering that inevitability literally has four I’s in it. I didn’t say I was finished. Or damn mathematician.
Actually, there is a fourth “i”. That’s something I’ll leave you a hint at the end – and reveal over the course of this season of The McFuture. I’d be curious to see if you can guess it.
Hot Tub Time Machine
First, hop into my Hot Tub Time Machine. We’re going to the year 1788. To visit Thomas Jefferson, you know the wise founding father…and slave owner. What do you think would happen if you and I sat down on his super uncomfortable couch and asked, “Hey Tom, do you think your great grandkids are still going to own slaves to work your fields for free?”
Take a second. What do you think he’d say?
Now let’s jump back into the hot tub. We’re going to go to the year 1900. And all these American dudes are casting ballads for President William McKinley versus William Jennings Bryan. Two big Willie’s. What percentage of these guys, if you ask them, would think women – who are half the population and half of their own households – would still not be allowed to vote in let’s say, 50 years? Or 100? or 200?
The Founding Fathers based the Constitution on freedom and equality. They knew slavery was wrong. Same goes for American men in the late 1800’s. They knew that if Europeans couldn’t keep women away from polls, neither would they.
Even when they didn’t create them, beneficiaries of lopsided rules are fully aware of their good fortune. How could they not be? Deep down, every single person with some sort of advantage, knows it won’t last. What they don’t know is exactly when or how our luck will run out. Might be a warning shot, like a wikileak or billion-dollar dick pic. Or, might be actual shots, like the French Revolution.
It’s why people who have advantages spend so much time, money, and sometimes blood, defending their fleeting fortunes from the inevitable. They know what’s coming. History is littered with this stuff.
There’s been all kinds of resistance to unstoppable change:
- Textile workers fought against weaving machinery, afraid of looming job losses. Get it – looming.
- Or the church and Islam tried suppressing the Gutenberg printing press, which was the original internet. They saw education and literacy as a threat to their power.
- And the US it tried prohibition in the 20s. That didn’t work. Drunks, they rose up, then wobbled a bit, then crushed it with their limp, whiskey-soaked bodies.
- Auto and oil companies tried to kill the electric car. There’s a whole documentary about this. There are people who argue that the technology wasn’t ready, but realistically they had no incentive to invest. It took outsiders from Japan and Elon Musk to start poking holes in their cartel. (I’m quite the pundit.)
- Music and movie companies resisted digital downloads and streaming. They sued anyone who typed “Napster” or “Bittorrent” into their computer. Metallica couldn’t stop their fans from doing it. Or themselves from crying in their documentary. It’s that what people wanted. The downloading, not the crying. One way or another they were going to get it. Guess what? That’s how they make all their money now. Streaming is the only game in town. Spotify or iTunes or Netflix. Only grandpa is buying the new Neil Young remaster.
- Just a couple of years ago newspapers sued Google for stealing their content because they showed snippets in search results. And now they’re BFFS, at least in the US. Europe is still trying to do the same thing. Bet you can predict how that will go.
From coffee to tractors, the fear of loss has driven resistance over and over again. Read more about this resistance in Calestous Juma’s book, ‘Innovation and Its Enemies: Why People Resist New Technologies’.
So how do we know who the winners are going to be? Who’s going to win all these battles we’re fighting right now? Which outcomes are inevitable?
What makes something inevitable?
Let’s talk about the 3I’s of Inevitability formula.
THE 3I’S OF INEVITABILITYSM FORMULA
Inevitability = (Idea + Incentive) x Impetus
I’ll get into exactly what each one means. Let’s start with the first one, ideas.
All progress starts with an idea. To create anything, anything at all. Even something freakin horrible. You have to imagine it first.
Back in our cave days. Almost every idea was incredibly stupid.
“Why did Jeremiah get the plague?” “The witch did it.” “Let’s burn the witch! Let’s kill the witch!”
“How do we defeat all these Mongolians?” “We must summon the ghosts of our elders with this special dance.”
“How do we get our crops to grow?” “Sacrifice this virgin!”
The only time any of this made sense was when the virgin was also the witch. At least then, you can cut the death toll in half.
It wasn’t their fault. They were primitive and ignorant. Didn’t Know About germs or physics or biology. Now we know a lot. We don’t give ourselves credit. Today, extreme stupidity usually gets snuffed out seconds after leaving an idiot’s mouth.
We still have ideas born out of ignorance or fear. Or taking lots of mushrooms…in a loincloth…..at a former child actor’s house…. Okay, I’ve said too much.
Science opens this long beautiful highway, but it also adds guardrails on the sides. So idiots don’t crash and burn before they can drive a couple of miles.
As our brains, knowledge, tools, experiences and communication advanced, so did our imaginations.
Walt Disney is famous for saying, If you can dream it, you can do it. This is the first time in human history where reality is finally catching up to imagination.
We can finally comprehend the enormous scale of human potential. And we’re rocketing towards it faster than ever.
We’ve uploaded our entire body of work all of our inventions, books, scientific discoveries, fantasies, all of it is up on the internet.
The internet is the world’s biggest brainstorming session. It’s where no idea stays precious for long.
Just think about YouTube alone, is a massive driver of innovation. It’s this crazy archive of everything that’s possible. When someone ambitious sees a great skateboarding trick or cooking technique. Not only are they going to copy but they’re going try to top it. By adding bacon. Or jumping down four flights of stairs, while holding a cat and a monkey. And then they’re going to post how they did it online. The next person is going to top that. They’re gonna set the stairs on fire. But try not to singe the monkey…
This cycle is helping us unlock infinity for human potential. Give or take an occasional Tide Pod poisoning.
Every invention imaginable is incubating in this infinite global soup. And no matter what patent laws say, no one owns any of them. And never has. Every idea, every invention is the offspring of everything that came before it, the collective of human knowledge. Everything – and everyone is both a product and an ingredient.
Let’s talk about something I love. Flaming chimps.
Amy Schumer, Robin Williams, Conan O’Brien and dozens of other comedians have been accused of “joke theft”. Sure, Carlos Mencia and Denis Leary were pretty blatant about it, but those cases are rare. Even identical-sounding jokes are unlikely to be products of theft.
Imagine two young comedians – one in NY, the other, LA. Both are single, quirky, work nights, and constantly travel. They’ve spent years eating bottom ramen, clawing their way to top ramen. They read the same blogs, listen to the same podcasts, and though they’ve never met, their circle of friends is maybe one degree apart. Is it that hard to imagine both of them coming up with a similar premise or identical joke? Or, someone else, with a similar profile, doing it eventually?
This concept is called parallel thinking.
This concept is called “parallel thinking”. We could live in completely different countries and both be thinking about pastrami sandwiches. But if we’re doing it in the 1300’s, we’re inventors! Bread + meat. Genius!!
The same thing applies to innovation. It’s even got a name: ‘multiple discovery’. It’s when parallel thinking actually leads to something useful”
I have dozens of ideas every single week for new businesses and articles and things to do with cauliflower. I’ve been on a low carb diet. Don’t ask.
I have way more ideas than I could ever do anything with. I keep them all hoarded away, password protected. I was brainstorming with a friend and opened this file and started going through it. Everyone’s ripping me off! One by one, my ideas are being picked off. Perfect example is PillPack which takes your prescriptions or vitamins that you take daily and puts them into these little packets for you to rip off like off a roll of toilet paper to take daily. Those guys sold for a billion dollars to Amazon. How dare they hack into my secret encrypted password protected file to steal my ideas!? Don’t they know that in 8 to 48 years from now, I would have gotten around to that and built a trillion dollar business. That’s right, $1 trillion. And I demand reparations!
I probably won’t get them. The reason is multiple discovery.
Go way back in time and you’ll find most primitive cultures had decorative masks, totem poles and meat on a stick. Eventually, both Egyptians and Mayans came up with pyramids. All these things, cobbled together from a thimbleful human knowledge.
And who came up with electricity? Was it Edison or Tesla. If it wasn’t one of those guys, another pair of brilliant scientists were waiting in the wings. they would have assembled the same ingredients – research papers, technology, those already floating around in the ether.
And do you think if Oppenheimer and the Manhattan Project didn’t create the atomic bomb, we wouldn’t have atomic bombs? Russia wasn’t that far behind. Neither was Germany. Lucky for us, we stole all their brilliant Jews. What can I say, my people are suckers for a better bagel with lox. By then, multiple scientific disciplines made the bomb probable. But ravenous demand and investment by powerful nations made it inevitable. In war, you’re desperate for any advantage you can get.
And rock and roll that didn’t start with Elvis or Chuck Berry, or the Beatles. It was this progression from influences that date back to Africa.
Same goes for the iPhone. Okay, not quite back to Africa. But it spawned from this pile of existing technologies – telephone, cellular, batteries, computers, plastics, data compression to put mp3’s on it. Even the predecessors like Palm and Blackberry weren’t that different.
When Evelyn Berezin, creator of the first word processor died, AOL co-founder Steve Case tweeted, “Why is this woman not famous? Without Ms. Berezin, there would be no Bill Gates, no Steve Jobs, no internet, no word processors, no spreadsheets.” Yes, and no. All those things would still have happened, just differently and likely, with a different cast.
Even today, you look at Elon Musk’s hyperloop. It’s a remarkable idea…that looks eerily like the Pneumatic Subway patented and built under NYC in the 1860’s.
That’s the point. Oppenheimer, Tesla, Steve Jobs, Elvis and Musk – they’re not conjurers, they’re conduits. They facilitate the inevitable. First to the finish line, but far from the only ones in the race who could win.
That brings me to the second part of the formula – incentive.
For something to become inevitable – someone or something has to want it badly enough. But wanting is not enough. Hell, I want to own the Yankees…and a small cabin on Leo DiCaprio’s yacht.
In capitalism, want isn’t some artsy abstraction. It’s not like the fifth floor at MoMA, where you must decide if that canvas with three horizontal stripes is genius or a prank. Want is expressed with investment of money or effort. Usually, by private institutions, individuals who want to profit, or sometimes, government, as with the nuclear bomb.
Whether it’s this hungry outsider who’s chasing wealth or some bloated insider protecting their advantages. Both are driving us in one direction: efficiency.
That’s right, ALL TECHNOLOGY seeks to do one thing: eliminate friction.
That might mean removing extra steps, unnecessary labor, excessive delays, or frequent breakage or harmful side effects.
Regulation, lawsuits, even public pressure can temporarily slow the march towards efficiency. But that force is always there. It’s always in the background. It’s always pushing and incentivizing others to find ways around it, or break through the obstructions.
Here’s where things get a little bit tricky.
What’s the greatest obstruction of all?
What’s the greatest cause of friction?
What’s the one inefficiency that we’re all in complete denial of?
It’s us. People are friction.
For dramatic effect, I’ll repeat it in all CAPS: PEOPLE ARE FRICTION.
We get sick, we’re moody, we pollute, we die, we’re irrational, we’re entitled, we’re inefficient, we procrastinate, we consume way more than we produce (ask Netflix). That’s why industry seeks to remove US – at all costs. And because of our costs. That is THE incentive. Removing us.
And we’re finally in this place technologically where we can see how that cost is going to be removed.
Like it or not, all of us are in this weird game to eliminate us not in some wholesale Hitlery nightmare but in this gentle sun-setting of what we do. It’s happening all around us and speeding up. Think of it like a game of musical chairs. But instead of pulling out two chairs for each new player, technology is pulling out three or four or five at once.
In theory, we should all want this to happen. No one should be flipping burgers in their 30’s for $9 an hour or even $15. That’s a shitty job. It shouldn’t only be companies incentivized to create these efficiencies. All of us should. We should see nothing but beaches, bikinis, and barbecues at the end of friction. Ladies, sorry about the bikinis. Insert whatever it is, you want to see every day if you’re not working.
Unfortunately, our economy is still based on pointless labor and inefficiency. We’re still fighting for the janitor instead of the Roomba. We’re running faster and harder to preserve the past, to save the unsaveable.
None of us are prepared for the end of friction. That makes all of our personal incentives completely misaligned with the people trying to drive progress, like Silicon Valley. Not because they’re special or magical or have especially great intentions, but because they’re competent and self-interested. They have the incentive to get us there.
The third “I” is impetus.
Impetus is the great equalizer. Actually, it’s the great multiplier. (It’s also word that took a lot of searching in PowerThesaurus. The “I” I actually wanted was momentum.)
You see, a great idea is not enough. A rich, powerful or brilliant motivated party is not enough. What gives ideas momentum is merit, quality, helpfulness. Quality goes viral. Inventions that improve lives, art that illuminates, music that transcends, tools that empower, flavors that excite. That’s what spreads. They topple regimes. They spawn industries. They create possibilities. They elevate human experience. They are the goodness that counterbalances the greed. Or, should.
There was a time where Marco Polo had to sail uncharted oceans for months surrounded by a bunch of smelly dudes covered in smallpox and their own piss just to get noodles from Asia. It took him 20 years! Most of his men died so generations of Italian grandmas could add just enough cheese, tomato sauce, and time to make those noodles “Italian”.
Today, some hipster mixes kimchi, chocolate and Barilla and KimChocoRilla goes viral on Munchies.tv. Suddenly, 1000 other chefs start dreaming up their own versions – Indian spices, fish guts, breast milk. Yech. Sorry. Just grossed myself out.
Taking the best ideas from other cultures or companies or people then improving on them is the mechanism that makes inevitability inevitable.
Glory be cultural appropriation!!! Oh, yeah, I went there.
And thanks to the web. This most glorious, wonderful, spectacular theft is now frictionless. It takes no time for a Chinese company to bring in Uber clone tits people, or for some cool gadget to get funded on Kickstarter or for any technology to spread if it’s awesome.
This is also why preserving friction, especially for labor, is never going to work.
Take an industry like coal mining, which might be 60,000 people, but the people who benefit from clean alternatives are millions, sometimes billions. So who are you going to build society to benefit? The few hundred thousand in these dead jobs? Or, the millions and billions that are going to be liberated by their absence?
It means we can never stop good ideas from spreading. No more than we can stop bad ones from dying. Let’s just hope we’re not the bad idea. You should be both comforted and scared to death by that thought.
4. Running the formula
When we run the 3I’s of Inevitability formula, it’s pretty clear that everything that can happen probably will happen – if we can imagine it, if the right people have an incentive to do it, and if it has momentum, where more people benefit than lose out.
That means that all the people standing at assembly lines in China. They’re already relics.
Deliveries are going to be done by networks of drones and self driving trucks, robots and blimps.
Eventually, McDonald’s will send a drone to shoot a milkshake into your face, while you watch Batman vs Diabetes in VR.
Store clerks are just placeholders for no clerks.
Uber drivers are one baby step away from no drivers.
Actual babies are a few goo goo good years away from customization. You will get your indestructible Uberbaby, perfectly engineered for Instagram.
Artificial intelligence is going to be the little intern that could. It’s going to start out slow. Soon, it’s never going to raid the snack drawer. Or get sick. Or ask for vacation. While making decisions better than we ever did.
Even money will disappear. It is friction. It might make a short pit stop at cryptocurrency, but eventually YOU will be the money. I’ll cover that in a future episode.
And we will get to Mars. Even if hundreds have to die so Elon Musk can put a yacht in his pool.
The path of progress and efficiency is inevitable. It’s Darwinian. It will not be stopped. Not by legislation. Not by Trump, or Musk, or us. Not for long. Not anymore.
Of course, we’ll continue to anoint “inventors”, “geniuses”m “innovators” and “visionaries” and shower them with riches. But most are vessels for the inevitable.
We’ll never hear about the next man or woman who would have stood in the same exact spot. Five years later basking in all that glory for the very same invention.
There’s one other kind of person we’re never going to hear about: the accidental vessels.
I talked about all these geniuses being vessels, who achieve what they set out to do. What about the people who actively try to accomplish something, with the best intentions, but end up achieving the exact opposite. Or, unlocking a new path to something entirely different. It could be wonderful or a nightmare, but equally inevitable.
There are plenty of examples, but my favorite is Elon Musk’s attempt to to save humans from AI by making us into cyborgs. He’s building neural mesh that surgically connects our brains to the cloud. T here’s a very good chance that by putting our brains on the grid, instead of saving us, he’s building a portal for AI to conquer us.
But if Elon wipes out humanity, I won’t be mad. He meant well and made a hell of a dashboard. Plus, he’s no different than Oppenheimer. He’s just a conduit for something he can’t stop. If it’s not him, it’ll be Sergei Brin from Google, that a**hole!! I’m just kidding. Sergei! Please, please let me live, Sergei, PLEEEEEAASSSSE!!!
5. Hit The Highway, Ma
I’ll leave you with
My mom…everyone’s mom…always says things like, “It was meant to be.” Or, “Everything happens for a reason.” Is she right? Are all these things destined to happen? If everything is inevitable, do we have any control our lives? The 3I’s formula might give us a partial answer.
You’ve heard the cliché (or cheesy 90’s song), ‘Life is a Highway’. The underlying metaphor is perfect.
We went from aimless, unthinking beasts, struggling to survive to taming every new frontier. We carved roads into jungles, through deserts, over rivers. But also, under oceans, into space, and eventually, to virtual worlds. And think of some of the vehicles we used to ride them.
- Horses gave us freedom to roam, and let’s be honest, a few hemorrhoids.
- Ships exposed us to new worlds. They let us find India. Or, call whoever we did find, “Indians”, anyway.
- Trains connected great distances, but limited us to being passengers on tracks other built
- cars seemed like the best of both worlds. The ultimate symbol of American freedom – and the only place to lose your virginity in the 50’s. but even cars had pre-determined paths. Eventually, they got tethered to the suburbs. If you live in any suburb, you’ll probably die in a Bermuda Triangle of home, office park, and strip mall.
- Technology is about to take another bite of freedom. Soon, our cars will know where we need to go and get us there safer than we ever could.
- And flights still connect us to faraway places, but even they’re starting to look exactly like the place we just left.
And no wonder. As more and more of us shop at Amazon, use Chase cards, dress ourselves at Forever 21 (found this GORGEOUS A-line skirt), pledge allegiance to Apple devices and their crappy overpriced adapters, we eat Shake Shack, and show off on Instagram and get cracked out at Starbucks.
The more concentrated power and capital get, the fewer possible paths we can take. Our range of experiences starts to narrow. As options disappear, so do our possible futures.
We’re no longer dealing with infinity (the awesome Japanese brand), but finity (the cheap Chinese knockoff).
Regardless, everywhere you look, there are paved, beautiful highways. Their twists, turns, and bumps imply a certain destiny.
What’s the point? So are we doomed to live without agency?
Anytime you grow up, as an individual or a society, your mission changes.
When we were little kids, we could scream at the top of our lungs at the library. Now, we know better. Some get beaten down by routine. Others, they still scream. With their friends on the beach. On roller coasters. Or during sex. …If you’re doing it right.
We’ve reached Childhood’s End. Even though knowledge steal our innocence, it can’t steal the joy of exploration.
Before anything else, we are all riders. Even if we’re all going to the same place, we still control how we get there. How to take in the majesty of everything we’ve built.
We can speed with urgency, coast leisurely with our tops down – or off, or swerve a little, after a good party. This feels free, even if we don’t (or can’t) go off-road.
Some will choose to be passengers. They’ll leave it to others to anticipate the bumps or navigate curves or adjust for rough conditions.
Even as mere riders, few of us will ever see a fraction of what we’ve built.
Even an inevitable path can trigger our imagination, because they came from our imagination. It’s as good as infinity.
Don’t get me wrong. There are still a few roads left to build, but the most important ones will be to each other.
Community was essential to survival when we were conquering new frontiers. But without the rigors of conquest, too many of us are driving alone. We need to carpool.
We need to find meaningful ways to re-create those bonds. To the take others on our journey. They’re the only ones worth taking.
Finally, a handful of us will still get to conquer new frontiers. They’ll travel deep into the psychological or virtual. Inner space is limitless. And the discoveries that await us in will be both incredible and uncomfortable. And equally inevitable.
No matter if you’re a traveler, a builder or a pioneer, take care and drive. But drive with purpose. And never forget how lucky we are to be on the road.
That’s it for this episode. Think of this episode a T-shirt iron-on. After ironing, you peel it off and the letter is on the shirt, but there’s negative white space on the sheet. That’s what this episode was. The rest of this series is what’s on the shirt.
What’s on the shirt is the 4th “I” of the Inevitability. Let’s see if you can guess what it is over the coming episodes.