Embers Vol 2: Inherited Assumptions, Analog Design, & Returning to Reality
Fresh starts are opportunities to create, unencumbered by existing constraints.
One of the exciting ideas you can’t unsee is that everyone around you exists because someone decided to make it so. Humans have collectively built an ever expanding civilization — this is something Tim Urban talks about on Wait But Why.
Once you realize this, you also notice that we inherit decisions made in the past. These decisions were made with assumptions from their time frame, which means that the world we live in is a lagging index of what people think the world looks like.
As an aside, this is why people can live in the future, because it’s often already here, just not evenly distributed (and recognized) yet.
One of the pressing questions today is how we update society for the new assumptions: The Internet, smartphones, etc. are all inexorably changing the world, while the institutions, customs, and stories we tell trace their origins back to the conclusion of WWII.
We’re overdue for change, and it’s manifesting rapidly across the globe.
Losing everything and starting from scratch doesn’t sound ideal, but it’s often a definitive advantage.
James Clear expands upon this idea further:
My takeaway is that when the world gives you a blank slate, you need to take advantage of it. So many aspects of our lives are limited by inherited assumptions. The reason Hollywood is in LA is because Thomas Edison lived in the East Coast, and movie studios thought it was too far away for him to fight them with patents.
World War I is another great example. Morgan Housel explains:
Part of the Armistice that ended the war forced the dismantling of Germany’s military. This included virtually every weapon it owned. In the years after World War I the Allies undertook one of the largest industrial demolition campaigns in history. Six million rifles, 38 million projectiles, half a billion rounds of ammunition, 17 million grenades, 16,000 airplanes, 450 ships, and millions of tons of other war equipment was destroyed or stripped from Germany’s possession.
But 20 years later, Germany had one of the largest and most sophisticated militaries in the world.
It had the fastest tanks. The strongest air force. The most powerful artillery. The most sophisticated communication equipment, and the first missiles – all of which went on to inflict more suffering than the world had ever known.
A catastrophic irony of Germany’s military resurgence is that it partly took place not in spite of, but because of, its earlier disarmament.
As war in Europe began in 1939, George Marshall, Army Chief of Staff, made a critical point to President Roosevelt about the Nazi’s technological capabilities:
“After the [first] World War practically everything was taken away from Germany in the way of materiel. So when Germany rearmed, it was necessary to produce a complete set of materiel for the troops. As a result, Germany has an army equipped with the most modern weapons that could be turned out. That is a situation that has never occurred before in the history of the world.”
By comparison, at the beginning of World War II, France had tanks from WWI, U.S. troops were using 36 year-old rifles, and Britain at one point pulled 19th century cannons out of museums for the impending German invasion.
New beginnings matter, and it looks like the design industry is finding its own new beginning as it throws away inherited assumptions.
Return of Analog
An interesting design trend I’m monitoring is the rejection of digitalism and the return of analog.
Many luxury products are consciously choosing analog designs instead of fully embracing digital design.
Here are a few tweets from this past week alone:
Notably, Audi used to have console screens as recently as 2014 and 2015. So these are conscious deletions.
Another person who has seen this trend is Josh Buckley — here’s a clip from a recent podcast (emphasis mine):
My worry is that the digital world and the virtual world is a bit of an illusion. It's like a hallucination. It's very convincing, but it's not real at all. And I think we're going to start to see things break over time. As artificial intelligence becomes super-intelligent, we're going to start to see things like trillions of deep fakes, where 95% of the images on the internet are fake. I think the digital world is much more suited to machine-to-machine communication. Then humans in the loop really just start to slow that down. So, I think we may start to see people want to take a step back over time from the digital world. And, I think there'll be some form of a physical renaissance at the time.
New Beginnings: Returning to Reality
To connect Return to Analog back to New Beginnings: right now the digital world is this new frontier where are the assumptions of the past 80 years aren’t holding us back. As the digital world begins to mature, the assumptions that we’ve created over the past 2+ decades will begin holding us back, just as the physical world begins establishing new assumptions.
That is, for the past few decades, the digital world was where we had a clean start with new beginnings, while the physical world was held back by inherited assumptions. This may soon flip.
This is exciting because it seems like for the first time in a while there’s 1) the capability and 2) a desire to update the physical world that we live in.The resulting rate of change in the physical world would therefore match the blistering rate of progress we’ve seen in the digital world over the past few decades. We’re already seeing signs of this through mRNA vaccines, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
Just as the last decade was a seminal period for software investing, the next few decades will see scintillating progress (and returns) in the hard sciences and deep technologies. Software will remain a good investment, but the playbook for building and launching software exists now and is widely embraced. Hardware and the physicality behind it also have playbooks, but from my vantage point they appear outdated and ready for a clean slate as they embrace some of the changes we’ve seen in the digital world.
The people that end up terraforming our physical landscape will create immense value for everyone around the world.
A few clear examples include the current App Store landscape, open vs closed source, privacy defaults, interconnectedness/IoT, and copyright/ownership.
The digital world is beginning to get regulated, and this means that there will be inherited assumptions from private (see footnote 1) and public sectors, which is something that has been true for the physical world for some time now.
I’ll explain why this is the case in a future volume of Embers; one of the reasons is a generational theory that explains the cycles of American history, envisioned in the book The Fourth Turning.