At some point you’ve experienced this: technology advances obsoleting your devices almost the moment you first turn them on. The ever-forward march of progress is of course unstoppable. But we, as humans, have a strong tendency to perceive this change as linear. Each year, we see speed, size, resolution, or some other desirable attribute advancing at a steady pace. With our macro-lens view, however, we fail to realize this linear-seeming progress is usually a small near-linear snippet of a geometrical or exponentially changing phenomenon.
And it’s not because we’re stupid or uninformed. Even the technology greats–who arguably should know better–are routinely caught with their Linear-Colored Glasses securely in place.
Three of the more prominent fall encompass the rapid pace of computer technology. Thomas J. Watson, founder of IBM, the worlds longest running successful computer technology company, could not have been much farther off the mark when he proclaimed the worldwide need for computers would never reach double digits.Just as egregious, was Bill Gates naïve pronouncement that personal computers would never need more than 640 kilobytes of memory.
And it’s not just individuals. Powerful expert-laded think tanks can get it very wrong as well. Take the 1980’s prediction by McKinsey & Company claiming the worldwide cell phone market would top out at 900,000.
What do all these have in common, besides being domain experts who you would think would get it right? They’re human. They sit behind distinctly-human linear-colored glasses.
In all three cases, industries were disrupted beyond the imagination of these brilliant minds. And it continues…
In 2011, the U.S. Energy Information Administration asserted “The US will have an installed solar photovoltaic capacity of 8.9 gigawatts by 2035. By the second quarter of 2014, the figure was already 15.9 gigawatts!
A handful of futurists have been championing an more accurate view of exponential change. Ray Kurzweil is one of the most notable. He has routinely made rash predictions (to the linear-constrained populace) only to be conservatively accurate.
I believe one of the most impactful future disruptions fueled by exponential change will be energy. The prices of solar photovoltaics have fallen steeply by more than 90 percent since 2008, as predicted by Swansons Law, named for Richard Swanon, founder of U.S. solar-cell manufacturer SunPower. If these exponential increases in cost efficiency continue, we’ll soon see electricity too cheap to meter. This is a radical assertion–but it is backed by solid facts and trends. If this is true, major disruptive changes will hit all energy sectors. They are not ready.