Serendipity: Icarus and the four horsemen of the apocalypse
Imagine all the books you read, all the movies you saw and all the TV Shows you watched. There are many, but basically, all these books, movies and TV shows are based on just 6 plotlines: nothing more, nothing less, just six. And these six plots, in their turn, have only two variables: fall and rise. I would say it is almost digital, binary, boolean.
The six plotlines are:
1. Rags to riches — a steady rise from bad to good fortune
2. Riches to rags — a fall from good to bad, a tragedy
3. Icarus — a rise then a fall in fortune
4. Oedipus — a fall, a rise, then a fall again
5. Cinderella — rise, fall, rise
6. Man in a hole — fall, rise
When Steven Levy read the research outcome, he concluded that he had been writing only one story during his entire career at Wired Magazine. In the thirty years he wrote about technology, he only told the following plot:
Idealistic founder(s) has crazy idea suddenly made possible by tech advances → things turn out weird/wrong/disastrous.
Is it that bad? Are we caught in a downward spiral like Icarus after we tried to reach the sun? Are we marching towards the end of history, to the moment when the four horsemen of the apocalypse will swarm across the earth, seeding death, famine, war, and conquest? Again, is it that bad? Do we tend to negative serendipity? Well, it seems to. If we look at today's challenges, we can conclude that we definitely fucked up some things. Our economic system definitely runs on overexploitation, resulting in overpopulation, degrading biodiversity, acidified oceans, and increasing carbon dioxide levels. Life in itself, including humanity, is hanging by a thread. And I hear you thinking. Oh no, not again, not another climate pessimist and anti-human evangelist. Don’t despair. I am not and will not go there because there are many positive subjects to zoom into. So let's move to the sunny side of our civilisation.
Would you like to miss your Saturday night’s movie? Your flavoured flat white with oat milk and cinnamon syrup? What about your central heating, air-conditioning, public transport, car, insurance, smartphone, laptop, shoes, running shoes, ever filled supermarkets with zillions of products, hiking shoes, flip-flops, high heels, rubber boots and slippers? No, of course not. These are also the results of the world we live in, the world we created, the way we think, the way we innovate. So much for negative serendipity. I think you cannot deny that we live in quite a comfortable world, not perfect, but we are better off than a century or a millennium ago. Thanks to the technology we developed. So did Steven Levy wrote the wrong story for his entire life? No hair on my head would think about suggesting that. Let me try to connect tech doom scenarios with optimism.
In the previous article, I focused on innovation and what it takes to invent something like the wheel or printing press. There will be an awful lot of failure before success, and once the invention is there, it still needs to be adapted. The wheel is still here, and so is the printing press. In the years that Steven Levy picked up his career as a tech journalist, technology began to shift, and worlds starting to collide, politically and economically. In the early eighties, neo-liberalism gained traction, and the first seedlings of the digital age stuck their head above the ground. There is much to say about neo-liberalism but let me be short.
Neo-liberalism is closely associated with economic liberalism and free-market thinking. The role of governments is to create an ideal business environment for the private sector and stay the hell out of the wheeling and dealing of private companies. This means privatization, deregulation, globalization, free trade, and austerity to increase the role of the private sector in the economy and society. You cannot separate neo-liberalism from the historical context of the eighties in the twentieth century. Ronald Reagan’s inauguration speech on January 20, 1981, is often seen as the grand kick-off of the age of neo-liberalism.
In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problems; government is the problem.
The crisis he talked about was a severe economic crisis. In the background, better, in the foreground, the Cold War was raging between the liberal capitalistic Western countries against the communist Warsaw Pact and China with their centralised planned economy. Neo-liberalism got an enormous steroid shot of self-confidence when the Warsaw Pact dissolved in 1989 and China moved to a market economy. It was such a shocking event that Francis Fukuyama declared that history had ended. It didn’t mean that nothing would ever happen again. Still, from an intellectual point of view, the fall of the Berlin wall was proof that after many experiments with isms, socialism, fascism and communism, the recent events proved that there was no better system than liberalism. If he only had known what would follow. After the defeat of all intellectual stream but liberalism, the nineties knocked on the door, and economic prosperity boomed. We indulged ourselves in consumption, parties, drugs, and a no-worries be happy and party attitude—what a time to be a young adolescent. The end of the millennium was approaching, the end of times and the beginning of a new age. How naive were we, and how little did we know what was coming.
In early 2000 black clouds started to gather in the sky. First, we got the dot-com crisis around 2001, then the Financial crisis in 2007, followed by the European debt crisis in 2012 and the last one, the worldwide pandemic, you probably heard of by now. Personally, I witnessed the oil crisis in the 1970s and had my teenage years during the economic crisis in the 1980s. Yes, I have had my fair share of crises. Just wonder what Mr Fukuyama thought when he declared liberalism as the superior intellectual system. Ok, enough muttering gibberish, back to the storyline.
When Steven Levy started his career, the digital industry was in its infancy. Actually, it still was sperm looking for an egg cell. Bill Gates didn’t believe in the internet yet. In the thirty years to follow, many companies would rise and fall, many new and old business models would fail, and yes, we created a mess. We are still cleaning up today, meaning deal with the negative serendipity caused by new technologies. But these technologies are also the answer to the problems we are facing today, tomorrow and the day after, as the technologies that were born end of the 19th and early 20th century provided solutions for the problems of those days. And here we are back again to the old and open wound of an ongoing historical debate about the course of history. Is it just a coincidence, or are we on a set course to a certain end state, meeting the horsemen or the state of salvation? Are their laws in history like in physics. Are there patterns we can predict? Yes, there are. Looking at Steven Levy’s struggle with the tech sector, we have to read Charles Mann’s 1493 describing the consequences of the discovery of America by Colombus. I can highly recommend it; it gives a good insight into negative serendipity and its challenges. They are not new. Back at cultural pessimism? Nope because we are at the beginning of the digital age. Hope? To answer, I need to dive into the special characteristics of the digital economy and the shift between the old economy and the digital one. Let’s do that in the next issue. Stay tuned.
The innovation files
1. Innovation versus business optimisation: from Gyro Gearloose to Elon Musk
2. Serendipity: Icarus and the four horsemen of the apocalypse
3. The evolution of product revolution
4. Digital: Boolean Rhapsody
5. Welcome to the Digital Economy
6. Whiskey, platforms and the network effect
7. The waves of innovation
8. Corporate innovation: Apple’s toilet paper and unforeseen side effects