Discover more from Not Boring by Packy McCormick
Working Harder and Smarter
Or why more energy + software = progress
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Hi friends 👋,
Happy Monday! I’m baaaaackkkkk.
I was a little nervous to take a month off, but I’m really happy with the decision. It was awesome getting to spend a month of family time, and everything they tell you about how wild it is trying to wrangle two kids is true. Puja, Dev, and Maya are all happy and healthy, you’re all still here, and I couldn’t be more excited to dive back into Not Boring, recharged if not rested.
To kick things back off, I decided to go where I feel most comfortable: in unfamiliar territory. It’s become clear over the past few months that writing about tech, markets, and the future is impossible without some understanding of macroeconomics, geopolitics, and energy. “We make apps and the world laughs” is the tech equivalent of “We make plans and God laughs.”
Since we’ve been away from each other, let me remind you: I’m an idiot, and there are people who are a lot smarter on every topic that I write about than I am. I try to read and talk to as many of them as possible to inform what I write, but especially when we’re talking about topics as big as we’re talking about today, I’m going to miss a lot of nuance, and probably get some things wrong. We’re learning together. But Not Boring’s mission is to make the world more optimistic, and I think that to understand what’s coming next and why things might be better than they seem, it’s important to venture into the great unknown.
Progress in the coming decade and beyond will be dictated by energy, atoms, and bits, and most importantly by how we humans use them. We’ve focused a lot on bits in Not Boring, and will continue to – both on their own and in combination with atoms – and today’s piece is a first attempt of many to understand how they’ll all work together to kick off the next wave of growth.
Let’s get to it.
Working Harder and Smarter
There’s this incredibly dumb twitter debate that roars out of hibernation every few months about whether or not people have to work a lot to succeed.
Someone tweets something like, “You need to work hard, including nights and weekends, to succeed in your career.” Most recently, this very cute (since deleted) tweet set off a firestorm:
Thousands upon thousands of people were seemingly tremendously offended that a young startup would be evil enough to filter for people who want to work really hard during the critical first stage of the company’s life. Oven (Bun) was the focus of the mob’s incredulity this time, but the response is the same every time:
Productivity ≠ Hours Worked
Unless people are getting paid to work more hours, they shouldn’t
Thanks for letting us know where we don’t want to work
Working nights and weekends can lead to burnout
We shouldn’t normalize hustle culture
“I know a guy who makes $2 million a year and only works 3 hours a month.”
Blah blah blah
People need to work smart, not hard
I actually started writing a post taking a stand on the side of hard work after reading the reactions to Oven’s tweet right after watching The Bear…
… but there’s no margin in jumping into that argument. People have picked their sides. People like getting riled up. This debate is just a vessel for that.
Plus, it’s a dumb debate because there’s a clear winner: the answer is that to build anything worldchanging, you need to Work both Smart and Hard.
It is perfectly fine to not want to build something worldchanging, and it’s perfectly fine to question which companies even have a shot at making that kind of impact – certainly, the worldchanging rhetoric has been co-opted by countless startups that aren’t deserving of it – but in those few cases where the thing you’re building is truly going to Change the World™️, there’s no doubt that it will require Hard, Smart Work with a healthy dollop of luck on top.
Anyway, like I said, I don’t want to get into that debate.
The reason I bring it up is that it’s a good framing for a question I’ve been thinking a lot about. In my last essay pre-Maya, Amplified Tribalism, I wrote about another debate taking shape – physical versus digital – and that I wanted to spend time on paternity leave putting my finger on why that dichotomy was also dumb. Instead of just physical abundance or a purely digital future, I want a combination of both: an Abundance Renaissance.
As a quick and dirty shorthand, think about the Abundance Renaissance as the lovechild of the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and the Industrial Revolution, born into the 21st Century.
That’s lofty, and it’s going to take Hard Work, Smart Work, and luck for it to happen. So let’s use the Hard Work versus Smart Work argument to frame it up. The debate is both symptomatic of today’s feeling of stagnation, and metaphorical for the arc of progress.
Symptomatic because there’s no progress without hard work, which is well understood by at least rational people. The fact that hard work is controversial – particularly when the hard work involves typing on computers in air conditioned rooms, often now at home, doing something that you opted into because it’s either something you love or that you think will make you the most money or both – is a sign of the decadence described by Ross Douthat and the lack of seriousness described by Katherine Boyle. It’s antithetical to progress when the low-hanging fruit has been picked and the biggest remaining challenges and opportunities are really big and really complex. In the coming years, we’re going to see the cultural pendulum swing back from Quiet Quitting to Hard Work.
But that’s too on the nose. Of course we need to Work Hard to unlock the next level. You think I’ve been cooking in the lab, not writing the past month, and coming back with a post admonishing you to work harder? C’mon.
What I think is less discussed, and more interesting, is that the Work Hard versus Work Smart debate is a metaphor for the arc of human progress, and that an Abundance Renaissance can come about only if we metaphorically Work both Hard and Smart. Luckily, I think we’re on the precipice of the first time in human history during which humanity is able to simultaneously Work Hard and Smart.
I’ll start to explain, starting with two charts.
The two charts come from J. Storrs Hall’s Where Is My Flying Car? and, taken together, are among the most striking I’ve come across in a long time.
The first shows the Henry Adams Curve. The Henry Adams Curve is the long-term trend of about 7% annual growth in “usable energy available to our civilization,” which “can be factored into a 3% population growth rate, a 2% energy efficiency growth rate, and a 2% growth in actual energy consumed per capita.” Since the scale in this chart is power per capita, the Henry Adams Curve, the light blue line in the chart below, shows only the 2% annual growth in energy usage per capita component, and the dark blue line shows actual energy use per capita.
After nearly two centuries of fitting the curve, per capita energy usage fell off a cliff in the 1970s and then flatlined. If you have your capital-E Environmentalist hat on, that might be cause for celebration. If you have your progress hat on, it might be cause for despair.
There’s a question / mystery in the Progress Studies community succinctly summarized by the name of the website WTF Happened In 1971?. A bunch of economic charts that went up and to the right suddenly dropped and/or flatlined in the 1970s. There are a bunch of explanations. Declining per capita energy usage, while it fell off a couple years after 1971 with 1973’s Oil Embargo, seems like one of the best.
Obviously, though, there has been some wild progress since the 1970s. Here, it’s useful to look at the second chart. This one shows which predictions made by scientifically-inclined sci-fi writers in the first half of the 20th Century came true, and which didn’t, based on their energy intensity.
It’s striking. What it highlights is that sci-fi writers’ predictions about things that require 10 kilowatts (kW) or less of energy had a good shot of coming true – with a cluster at 100% prediction fulfillment, and even a couple at 200% prediction fulfillment – but that none of their predictions that would have required 100kw or more of energy came true.
“That top right half,” Hall wrote of the quadrant above 10kW and 100%, “represents the futures we were promised but were denied. Including flying cars.”
According to Hall, the chart explains that progress continued robustly in one area – “Moore’s Law in computing and communications” – in which energy isn’t a major concern, but flatlined in the energy-intensive, atoms-based areas that made up so much of the progress up until the 1970’s.
The history of human progress up until the 1970s was largely about enhancing our bodies’ capabilities, using new power sources, methods, and materials to create more physical things more quickly and cheaply. As Bill Gates’ favorite author Vaclav Smil writes in How the World Really Works, “In two centuries, the human labor to produce a kilogram of American wheat was reduced from ten minutes to less than two seconds.” As a result, the share of the US population working as farmers declined from 83% in 1800 to 1% today. In other words, new energy sources and materials gave humans a way to Work Harder.
The past fifty years’ progress has primarily been about enhancing our brains’ capabilities, using new computers, algorithms, and modes of communication to create more digital things and connect over 4 billion people to the internet. Smil doesn’t provide similar statistics for information, but there’s an equivalent here, something like, “In 50 years, the brainpower needed to find a piece of information was reduced from an hour (going to the library, finding a book, finding the information in the book) to less than two seconds (a Google search).” As Google’s Eric Schmidt said way back in 2010, “There were 5 Exabytes of information created between the dawn of civilization through 2003, but that much information is now created every 2 days.” While the veracity of the claim is debated, the general point stands. With computers, humans are capable of Working Smarter.
And yet, despite the digital progress, many very smart people agree with Tyler Cowen in his assessment that over the past fifty years, America has been living through The Great Stagnation.
One of the best recent encapsulations of that view comes from Tanner Greer of Scholar’s Stage, who asked Has Technological Progress Stalled? in early August. You should read it. Based on an earlier book of Smil’s, Energy in Nature and Society, Greer came to believe that:
“Economic activity” is just a fancy way to say “energy put to human use.” From this perspective fantastical wealth of the last two centuries was not caused or enabled by humanity’s expanding energy consumption—wealth is our energy consumption, just packaged in goods and services.
If we’re simply Working Smarter and not putting more energy to human use, the logic goes, then we’re not really producing meaningful economic activity.
Smil’s position, with which Greer agrees, is that we’re still coasting off the technical innovations of the period between 1867-1914 – “automobiles, electrification, steel beams, and so forth” – and that part of what the fuck happened in the 1970s is that we had just run out of gains from that period’s inventions to harvest. “The fruits of innovation,” Greer writes, “were not so much ended as expended.”
Greer concludes his essay by arguing that:
A future boom will not come from improvements in organization and information. It will be from inventing new materials to build from, new ways to move what we build, or new sources of energy to power our building.
For this reason I am bearish on the long run economic impact of supercomputers. Like other information age technologies, all they do is coordinate, organize, and calibrate existing modes of production. Something like nanotechnology or bioengineered materials are more promising, for they promise to reshape the physical basis of our built environments.
I agree with the idea that we need more energy, materials, and modes of transportation – something that Hall espouses in his book, too – but vehemently disagree on information age technologies’ role in making those things come to life.
The perception of a Great Stagnation over the past 50 years could be described as a shift from Working Harder (more energy usage, more atoms innovation) to Working Smarter (better computing, more bits innovation).
My hunch is that there’s been a feeling of Stagnation because the benefits of atoms-based innovations are the kind that make more people feel richer and happier than bits-based innovation alone. Getting a refrigerator, car, color TV, or airline ticket for the first time is persistently life-changing in a way that’s hard for an app to be. We need to build more physical things – houses, flying cars, faster planes, affordable cures for diseases, spaceships, and much, much more.
But neither Hard Work nor Smart Work can meet the challenge alone. If the low-hanging fruits from the last boom have been picked, we need to create a new boom.
How are we expected to invent new materials, modes of transport, and sources of energy without tapping into the improvements in organization and information we’ve harnessed over the past 50 years? The next stage of atoms-based innovation will be harder and more complex to unlock than the last.
The sweet spot, as ever, is working both Harder and Smarter.
We need to create and consume more energy, not less. And we need to combine atoms-based innovation with the five decades worth of progress we’ve made in the world of bits.
So how to reverse the trend? While countless factors played a role in material stagnation – from bureaucracy and regulation to specialization and increasing complexity – I like Hall’s Henry Adams Curve and Sci-Fi Predictions Chart’s focus on energy. It’s simple to pick and optimize for one variable, and energy usage is relatively easy to measure.
Let’s focus on energy. For our purposes, more cheap, clean energy consumption is good, less cheap, clean energy consumption is bad.
(Of course, if we just try to maximize this variable by any means necessary, we’re no better than the paperclip-producing AI. This post, for example, argues that Bitcoin mining will get us back on the Henry Adams Curve, and if we consume that much more energy just to mine Bitcoin, I uhhh don’t think it will have been a success.)
Luckily, we’re on the cusp of an energy transition. New energy paradigms create entirely new ecosystems around them. Steam engines enabled steel, railroads, skyscrapers, and even corporations. Fossil fuels powered cars, planes, polymers, plastics, and booming globalization. Abundant clean energy, too, will reshape cities, transportation, and even the global balance of power, but it will require the best of our bits innovation to maximize its potential and coordinate the potentially more distributed systems it makes possible.
I think that if we don’t fuck it up (which, we’re human, so we might), we have a shot at an Abundance Renaissance that combines Working Harder (more energy usage) with Working Smarter (better computing technology) at a scale we’ve never been able to reach in human history to date.
If The Great Stagnation isn’t over yet, it’s about to be.
So let’s dig into that energy transition.
Energy and Atoms
Whoever was responsible for clean energy’s branding over the past couple decades needs to be fired and potentially tried for crimes against humanity.
Clean energy isn’t about efficiency and replacing dirty fuels with clean ones. It’s about being able to do more and better, creating material abundance and distributing it more evenly across the world, and moving past the long stage of human history in which we fight each other for scarce resources and squabble over petty things out of a sense of scarcity-induced frustration. It’s about getting back on, and even ahead of, the Henry Adams Curve without fucking the planet.
Fortunately, despite the awful branding, the Clean Energy Transition seems to be happening right under our noses, and is picking up steam thanks in part to the impacts of the War in Ukraine. In this section, we’ll cover:
Energy is wealth
The shifting energy narrative
The Clean Energy Transition
The benefits of Energy Superabundance
Energy is Wealth
Let’s start with something that should be apparent, but has been downplayed in the push for efficiency: energy is really important.
Energy lets humans “Work Harder” while actually doing less manual labor ourselves. This 2016 post calculated that each American has the equivalent of “nearly 600 full-time ‘human energy servants’” thanks to energy consumption. Even the most ardent Hard Work supporters would never argue that people should work 14,400 hours per day, but that’s the leverage that energy gives us. And that “Hard Work” can work wonders for an economy.
An overly simple way to think about a country’s wealth is the amount of energy each of its citizens is able to consume. As a quick sanity check on that claim, here’s a chart of the countries in the world ranked by per capita kilowatt hours (kWh) consumed per year.
There’s nuance here. Iceland’s electricity consumption, for example, looks so much higher than everyone else’s because, thanks to its cheap and abundant geothermal energy, it’s become the de facto aluminum smelting capital of the world, which drives up its energy consumption (while keeping its CO2 emissions per capita much lower than the United States or China). But that in and of itself is an argument for abundant clean energy as a strategic priority; Iceland has been able to attract large multinational companies, with their money and jobs, because of it.
As a piece of personal anecdata, I got the chance to catch up with my old Au Pair, Gry, a few years ago because of the effects of this chart. Gry is from the #2 country on this chart, Norway, and she and her husband came to visit New York City because it was cheaper for them to fly to the US and buy their Christmas presents in our most expensive city than it was to buy them in Norway. That blew my mind. They were essentially trading their country’s energy riches for our country’s goods.
Overall, that chart looks like a good proxy for wealth. The countries with the most energy consumption per capita are countries you’d expect to see at the top of a wealth list – Iceland, Norway, Bahrain, Qatar, Finland, Canada, Kuwait, Sweden, United Arab Emirates, and United States – and the countries with the least are the ones you’d expect to see at the bottom – Chad, Guinea-Bissau, Somalia, Burundi, Central African Republic, Sierra Leone, Haiti, South Sudan, Rwanda.
Any big diffs between the per capita energy consumption list and the per capita GDP list seem to largely be accounted for by small populations and business-friendly regulations: Lichtenstein, Monaco, Luxembourg, Bermuda, Ireland, Switzerland, Cayman Islands, and Singapore are all countries with higher GDPs per capita than the US without natural energy advantages. They’re also all tax havens.
With the enormous caveat that I’m not an energy or macroeconomics expert, and that I’m sure I’m dramatically oversimplifying in a way that would make real experts throw up, energy abundance seems to be a pretty clean way to think about economic abundance.
That point, and the paragraphs supporting it above, are so obvious-sounding when you write them out that it seems almost silly to waste the ink (and your time) on them, but personally, even though my first real job was on an energy trading desk, it’s one that I hadn’t really given much thought to recently. The defining narrative of the past decade when it comes to energy is that we need to use less of it, not more.
That narrative is shifting.
The Shifting Energy Narrative
In addition to Hall, smart people have been banging the energy abundance drum more loudly over the past year. Last October, Matt Yglesias wrote The case for more energy, arguing:
In the “energy is a necessary evil” frame, we look at our current electricity needs and then ask, “How can we generate all that from zero-carbon sources?” In the alternate framing, you say that to the extent we can develop affordable, zero-carbon sources of electricity, we want to generate tons and tons of electricity. Ideally, we would want to replace much more than 100% of current gas, coal, and oil with zero-carbon sources of electricity and use that to literally power a bold new era of rapid economic growth.
This June, Austin Vernon and Eli Dourado wrote one of my favorite papers of the year: Energy Superabundance: How Cheap, Abundant Energy Will Shape Our Future to explicitly lay out a vision for what the world could do with more energy. In it, they wrote that, “Cheap energy decreases the cost of all the goods and services we consume today that use energy in their production. But more importantly, it also enables us to produce more and new goods and services in ways that are only economical when energy costs are low,” and highlighted benefits of superabundant energy to humanity across Transportation, Agriculture, Water, Materials, New Cities, Developing World Infrastructure, and the Far Future. Their predictions include, of course, flying cars.
If there’s a silver lining to the travesty that is the Russian invasion of Ukraine, it’s that the war seems to have reminded people that energy makes the world go ‘round. In combination with the efforts to produce clean, renewable energy brought on by the fight against Climate Change, the war seems to have moved the Overton Window from “We need to use less energy to save the environment at all costs” to “We need to do whatever we can to produce as much clean, cheap energy ourselves as we possibly can.”
Nuclear power, which many liberal countries were phasing out with haste just months ago, is having a resurgence. California extended Diablo Canyon. Japan, home to the Fukushima nuclear disaster, is planning to reopen shuttered reactors and develop next-gen reactors. Even Germany’s Green Party, historically staunchly and proudly anti-nuclear, may be wavering in that position, faced with the harsh reality of soaring baseload power prices and a cold winter.
Nuclear isn’t the whole answer, and there are economic reasons that large scale nuclear may not even be most of the answer, but it’s certainly been the most demonized of the clean energy sources. The fact that previously anti-nuclear governments are coming around demonstrates the magnitude of the narrative shift that’s happening.
The narrative shift needs to continue in order to achieve the kind of future we want to see over here at Not Boring – that’s part of the reason I’m writing about energy today, adding my voice to a chorus of much more knowledgeable proponents – but the incredible thing, something I didn’t fully appreciate until diving in over the past few months, is that Clean Energy is beginning to win on its own merits. The Clean Energy Transition is happening thanks to market forces.
The Clean Energy Transition
While Hall is strongly pro-nuclear in Where is My Flying Car?, some now believe that new nuclear fission capacity might not even be necessary given the incredible advances in solar and, to a lesser extent, wind.
In August, Noah Smith wrote Solar is happening. Nuclear is (mostly) not., in which he makes the case that solar is winning because it’s getting really cheap and continuing to get cheaper. Solar and wind have an intermittency challenge – the sun doesn’t always shine, and the wind doesn’t always blow – but given the cheap costs, Smith thinks we can dramatically overbuild capacity and produce enough energy to be fine even in the dark winter months. Plus, he predicts that this will be the Decade of the Battery, a complementary technology to wind and solar. Cheaper and more abundant solar and wind can be stored in cheaper and more abundant batteries, and the cost and abundance of each will continue to improve, in a mutually reinforcing cycle.
In a very deep (even by Not Boring standards) dive in March, The Clean Energy Transition, A Guide, Tsung Xu argues that we’re entering the next big energy transition, from fossil fuels to solar, wind, and battery, and that the transition will be both faster and more impactful beyond climate than people expect.
In fact, like many of the curves we’re used to seeing in tech, solar has improved so fast that people consistently dramatically underestimate its growth and cost reductions. Xu cites an Oxford study analyzing historical forecasts, which found that “Such models have consistently failed to produce results in line with past trends.” Even experts are far too pessimistic:
Between 2008 and 2011, he [Gregory Nemet] asked 65 leading solar business pioneers, policy makers and academics to predict the cost of solar in 2030.
In 2018, reality had already exceeded the expert forecasts twelve years early. The cost of solar-powered electricity was already lower than the median predictions for 2030. Remember, these were not pundits, but people who had built the industry.
What’s going on? Xu lays his argument out around four key insights:
Insight 1: Plummeting Solar and Battery Costs Are Now At Tipping Points
It’s now often cheaper to use solar and wind than it is to run existing fossil fuel plants. As a result, over 75% of new installed electricity capacity in 2020 was solar and wind.
Insight 2: As Production Scales, Solar, Wind and Batteries Become Cheaper and Better
Xu writes that, “Since 1976, every doubling of solar capacity has led to 20% reduction in cost, driving 300x price fall as capacity scaled 2 million times.” This is an example of Wright’s Law, which describes a fall in price for every doubling of capacity. These “learning curves” mean that solar and wind should continue to get even cheaper relative to fossil fuels, which don’t benefit from learning curves and even get more expensive as the easiest-to-reach reserves get tapped out.
Insight 3: Cheap, Clean Electricity Enables New Industries
Beyond simply replacing fossil fuels, cheaper and more distributed Clean Energy will let humans do new things that we couldn’t, or couldn’t economically, previously. Xu highlights Direct Air Capture (DAC) and increased graphene production as two potential use cases, but as we’ve discussed relative to bits-based innovation, it’s often hard to foresee what entrepreneurs will dream up with new capabilities in-hand. Those new uses will accelerate demand for solar, wind, and batteries, making them even cheaper and more abundant.
Insight 4: Emerging Energy Sources Scale Up Through Similar Phases
What’s happening in Clean Energy isn’t new. This isn’t the first Energy Transition. Each time, the new source starts niche then grows quickly as it enables, and benefits from, new infrastructure and new materials for which it is well-suited, in a positive flywheel.
The whole post is worth a read, and the implications of the transition are fun to think about.
For one, solar and wind are more evenly distributed and cheaper to harness than, say, natural gas or oil. That means that those African countries at the bottom of the list of per capita electricity usage above might be able to leapfrog fossil fuels and jump straight to distributed solar like they leapfrogged computers and jumped straight to mobile phones. As one promising example, Jaza Energy distributes solar-charged battery packs via hubs in communities in Nigeria and Tanzania that customers can use to power their homes and businesses, cheaply and cleanly. Reliable electricity would provide opportunity to the 600 million people in Africa who live without it today and unleash the potential of one of the world’s most demographically advantaged populations.
For another, as Xu points out, new energy paradigms lead to new materials’ paradigms, helping to address Smil and Greer’s concerns. In another excellent deep dive, he wrote that Biomanufactured materials are coming, much to Elliot’s delight. He also talks about the potential of DAC – using cheap electricity to pull CO2 out of the air and even to turn that CO2 into new materials. On a great Lunar Society podcast episode, Austin Vernon goes into more detail on the potential of DAC and electrolysis to create clean fuels that might one day replace the fossil fuels outside of the electricity grid, like gas and jet fuel.
None of this is to say that the transition is a foregone conclusion, that it will be easy, or that everyone can now stop trying to fight climate change. There’s still a ton of work to be done to not just replace fossil fuels (while using them as needed throughout the transition so that we don’t kill growth and move backwards), but also to discover and execute on new uses for abundant energy and to solve many of the remaining challenges. People more knowledgeable on energy will point out a ton of issues, like intermittency, permitting, land use, environmental studies, transmission, and The Grid. Ezra Klein spelled out a bunch of the issues in a piece yesterday.
But at this point, the curves are moving steadily enough in the right direction that betting on the transition occurring seems safer than betting against it. In fact, in contrast to expert predictions which took all the reasons solar’s improvements wouldn’t continue into consideration, the Oxford researchers found, “forecasts based on trend extrapolation consistently performed much better.”
If anything, this is a time to double-, triple-, and quadruple-down on the innovations and straight up execution necessary to make sure that we produce a shit ton of clean, cheap energy. I want to see it all – wind, solar, geothermal, batteries, nuclear (or Elemental Power), and more – and I think in-fighting among proponents of various clean energy sources are as dumb as maximalism in crypto. I’m a Maximalist Minimalist in all areas.
Abundant, cheap, clean energy of all kinds makes all sorts of things possible that simply weren’t before, and I think will be a huge boon to reversing the Stagnation (real or perceived) of the past 50 years. It will mean more flying cars (looking at you Joby, Lilium, et al), better performance materials, faster travel (hello Boom and Hermeus), more space exploration, less poverty, and more prosperity.
That kind of abundance might also lead to the end of the debate over whether we should work on solving x thing before we do y thing. When SpaceX launches, people yell at Elon for not solving world hunger. When crypto booms, atoms-enthusiasts yell at crypto companies for stealing talent. Energy abundance could lead to a world where fewer people are working on making things more efficient, or just trying to get by, and more are freed up to tackle bold innovations, to make things bigger, faster, stronger, and more fun. The same thing happened as people were freed up from working on the farm to feed themselves.
There’s a lot more to cover on Energy, and if these 2,600 words weren’t enough, I’m sure there are more Not Boring essays coming on the topic, with more detail on the numbers and more stories of the people and companies actually making it happen.
For me, the important takeaway is that we have a very real chance of getting back on the Henry Adams Curve. After fifty years of mainly Working Smarter, we’ll have the power (pun intended) to Work Harder. Then, it’s up to us to figure out how to make decades-old sci-fi predictions finally come true, and to make them look quaint.
Working Harder and Smarter
Progress hasn’t stalled, it’s shifted.
As I discussed in Optimism, a lot of important things have getting better around the world since the 1970s:
And as we highlight every week in Weekly Dose of Optimism, humans are constantly pulling off incredible feats of science, engineering, and innovation.
But in America, at least, the kind of progress we make did change. As the world put itself on an energy diet – and expended the fruits of the last transition’s innovations, and overregulated / overlitigated, but we’ll stick with energy – progress shifted into an arena effectively free from the constraints of energy.
Human History through 1970 was largely about figuring out how to Work Harder: how to convert energy into food and things to keep more of us alive longer. We were so successful in that goal that demand for energy spiked, prices shot up with it, we realized we were hurting the planet, and we turned our attention higher up Maslow’s Hierarchy and towards efficiency.
The past fifty years were about Working Smarter: like the caricature of a software engineer, we tried to figure out how to get the same results with less work. At the same time, millions of brilliant technologists pushed computers to their limits and built some of history’s largest, fastest-growing, and most profitable companies in the process.
Now, with the Clean Energy transition and the renewed focus on building startups that make hard, boundary-pushing physical things, I think we’re on the verge of combining both forms of progress, Working Hard and Working Smart, and I don’t think we’re properly anticipating how dramatic and rapid progress will feel when that kicks off.
When we look back in fifty or one hundred years, I believe that we’ll come to realize that the last fifty years weren’t a period of Stagnation at all. Here’s why. The world up to the 1970s was a lot better at atoms than bits. It’s what we’d always focused on. We needed many of our best minds to spend fifty years focused on information technology, on Working Smart, whether for the nerdy pleasure of doing something novel or the chance to get filthy rich, in order to catch up. We’re emerging from that period with a new set of tools that will supercharge our ability to build things in this next period.
In the world of techbio, AI is mapping the hardest-to-map parts of the human body, and opening new pathways through which we might cure previously intractable diseases and extend healthspans. Deepmind’s AlphaFold used AI to solve the protein-folding problem first introduced in 1960, during the last Golden Age. A startup called Atomic AI followed that up by introducing AlphaFold for RNA.
Importantly, since recent advances in AI have come from essentially throwing as many GPUs at a problem as we can afford, cheap, clean energy will make AI more affordable and cleaner.
SpaceX, Tesla, Boom, Hermeus, and the other leading transportation innovators wouldn’t be able to build as precisely, or economically, without modeling everything out in software before running a single physical machine.
Those are just the earliest of pioneers in the resurgent atoms era. There will be more, and they’ll use increasingly sophisticated software to build increasingly incredible hardware. Cheap, abundant energy will add electrons to the fire.
For his part, Hall talks about this intersection when he predicts what a Second Industrial Revolution might look like:
The three major, interacting, and mutually accelerating technologies in the 21st century are likely to be nuclear, nanotech (biotech is the “low-pressure steam” of nanotech), and AI, coming together in a synergy that I have taken to calling the Second Atomic Age. It could easily improve productivity another couple orders of magnitude. It could almost certainly lengthen our Lives beyond the antediluvian Standard. The science fiction writers of the 1950s imagined mastering the solar system with a slightly advanced version of mature Industrial Revolution technology, but Second Atomic Age technology is much more likely the level needed to make this mastery feasible, viable, and sustainable.
In other words, Working Harder and Smarter is better than Working Harder alone. If we had just stayed on the Henry Adams Curve and added more energy to atoms-based technologies leveraging the same old innovations from the last transition, we wouldn’t end up as far ahead as if we built off of an entirely new set of technological capabilities, powered by the software that we’ve built for the past fifty years.
This new world will call for new software still, and for new ways of organizing ourselves. This is one of the longshot reasons I’m so excited about web3 – if Corporations were a product of the first Industrial Revolution, I think the Second Industrial Revolution will need distributed, internet-native governance and ownership structures.
Meanwhile, after delivering all the world’s information in every pocket, software too is entering a newly magical period, hinted at by early versions of DALL•E, Stable Diffusion, Midjourney, CoPilot, GhostWriter, and more. I’ll write a piece on Magical Software soon. Magical Software is good in its own right – it entertains, makes us smarter, broadens our creative palette, and gives us the equivalent of thousands of brains at our beck and call. But at some point, all of these magical bits might combine with atoms to make the physical world behave like the Metaverse.
When energy is cheap and abundant, when we can use it to pull new materials from the air, what you can do in meatspace expands to the limits of what we can imagine. At some point in the future, human work will look a lot like dreaming, while our machines work Harder and Smarter for us. Then, maybe we can end the Hard Work versus Smart Work argument once and for all.
Thanks to Dan for editing, and to our friends at Secureframe for sponsoring!
That’s all for today. Catch you on Thursday for a special Founder’s Letter.
Thanks for reading,