New technologies can be thought of as giving people superpowers, superhuman abilities that humans did not have before. First, let’s think about historical technologies through this lens.
- Man-made fire: superpower to heat and cook things.
- Electric lighting = superpower to be active and productive even when the sun is down.
- AC = superpower to act/produce when too hot.
- Steam power and mechanical engines = superpower to exert physical effort in the world way beyond human or animal muscles.
- Planes, trains, and automobiles = superpower to travel far faster than feet, animals, or wind could previously carry us.
- Telegraph and telephone = superpower to communicate faster and cheaper than messages could be physically carried.
- Threshing machines, combines, and tractors = superpower to grow far more food than we could by hand.
Of course there are destructive superpowers: guns and bombs enable killing far more people than we could by hand. For 500+ years, we’ve collectively been radically enhancing capabilities of ordinary humans through technology superpowers.
New Superpowers Just In The Last 10 Years
- Google, Wikipedia = superpower to ask any question, get any answer, as many as you want, for free — from the world’s total knowledge base.
- Facebook = superpower to always be connected with everyone important in your life, regardless of geography, all the time, for free.
- eBay, Etsy, Alibaba = superpower to take goods you make or want to resell to a global market of buyers, with transparent and fair pricing.
- GPS + Google Maps + smartphones = superpower to never be lost, always be able to find anything, and always know where your kids are.
- Spotify, Beats = superpower to listen to the entirety of recorded music in human culture as much as you want, anytime you want.
- Lyft, Uber, AirBNB, HotelTonight = superpower to be able to easily move around and then stay in places with transparency and safety
- Skype, Slack, Asana = superpower to form into teams and collaborate on projects with people all over the world regardless of geography.
- Github = superpower as a programmer to build new software with unprecedented ease and power, on top of a global base of existing code.
- AWS = superpower as a programmer to access a global supercomputer with miraculous power on demand for mere dollars.
These are only a few examples. There are probably 100 more new tech superpowers just in the last 10 years of similar magnitude. I am firmly convinced many people are fundamentally underestimating the power and potential of these new superpowers in the years ahead. We are only at the very beginning of understanding what people all over the world are going to be able to create and build from here.
New Superpowers Coming In The Next 10 Years
This is a difficult list to make as there are hundreds if not thousands of candidate superpowers on deck that could hit it big within the next 10 years.
- Crowdfunding = superpower to instantly raise money from global customers and investors for millions of new ideas, products, businesses.
- Quantified self = superpower to understand one’s own body continuously in real time, optimize health & wellness with high precision.
- 3D printing = superpower to design and instantly manufacture physical objects with zero inventory, supply chain, or transportation.
- Combine modern bio, 3D printing, & computing–>prosthetics and exoskeletons; superpower: paralyzed to walk, disabled to abled, bilnd to see.
- Bitcoin & blockchain = superpower to instantly & safely transact, do business, engage in commerce & trade with everyone in the world.
- Virtual reality = superpower to experience other places and times, real and created, serious and fun; telepresence replaces transportation.
- Augmented reality = superpower to know a million times more about the world around you and everything in it; step function increase in IQ.
- Self-driving cars = superpower to dramatically reduce the number of cars on the road, turn parking lots into parks, while saving millions of lives.
- Drones = superpower to easily function in the air just like we do on the ground; see from the sky, deliver in the air, and fly in virtual reality.
Implications Of The Growth Of Tech Superpowers
First, some tech superpowers help us as consumers, but many upgrade us as creators, builders, inventors, designers, artists: *producers*. While it is true that tech superpowers can replace the need for prior manual labor, it’s also true that they enhance our ability to produce.
Both sides of the equation are critical, otherwise one collapses into the Luddite fallacy and holds back progress that benefits everyone. This is also why I think we need an ongoing vigorous social safety net, to help people bridge gaps in their lives as tech leaps forward.
Second, tech superpowers at this point are being applied more or less equally to individuals, governments, and businesses. In Orwell’s vision, government has all the tech superpowers. In our world, everyone seems to be getting them all at the same time. The same tech advances that enable NSA surveillance also enabled Edward Snowden to walk out of NSA with 1.7 million classified documents. The ability to use a web crawler and a thumb drive would have been the fantasy of all time for Kim Philby. Times have changed.
The impact of tech superpower upgrading of individuals, businesses, and governments radically shifts power balances between the three. The politics of the next 30 years will be in large part defined by the shifting impact of tech superpowers across individuals, businesses, and government.
Prior conflicts like Snowden, SOPA, the Arab Spring, and cybercrime are only open gambits — the real drama is yet to come.