The introduction of writing and agriculture were watershed events for humanity, and are forever interlinked. People have been telling stories – made up and otherwise – and sharing information about the real world for perhaps hundreds of thousands of years as they roamed the Earth looking for food and shelter and avoiding enemies and threats. But when they settled down, we think to make alcohol – which is fun, which is a great pain killer, and which is still the reason a lot of us got created in the first place.
Bread came after alcohol, people. Anyone who knows people knows that.
Suddenly, there was a surplus of food that created wealth, and there was a need for a hierarchy to track that wealth and to maintain the human-powered machine that created it on a scale that our nomadic predecessors could not have imagined.
And here we are, some tens of thousands of years later, technology advance after advance, tiny steps at a time, at a point that any civilization eventually reaches if they don’t blow themselves to Kingdom Come with nuclear weapons: The rise of the machines. It is, perhaps, speaking abstractly about a Universe so vast, happening millions of times to zillions of worlds in various states of evolution, in the immediate vicinity of the Milk Way galaxy. Or, perhaps we are the only one. Perhaps the Universe is designed with vast distances in space and time specifically to make it hard for us to know, perhaps specifically to keep us from interfering with each other if there are indeed many worlds. Perhaps a Universe is a big ensemble model, changing initial conditions here and there to see how it all plays out. Who can know for sure?
In this sense, we are on our own, and each world either gets through it or doesn’t. What we can know for sure is that this is happening to us now.
By their very nature, writers are hoarders of information and experience. And we were always writers, from the womb, and long before we ever became journalists in the tech field. Nicole and I are the same kind of animal, the only other ones of our kind we have ever found, and we found each other because of this fascinating business of high performance computing. And because we love story, a decanting and recanting of what others have experienced for the sake of you, we are concerned about what is happening now in a way that we have never felt before.
Collectively, we have seen quite a bit of change not only in systems, but in the value of information, of experience, and of creation.
Back in the days before the commercial Internet, in the wake of the Wall Street crash of 1987 that tipped us into recession a year and a half later, I started my career in boutique IT newsletter publishing. We printed actual newsletters – I learned to cut columns and paste them on boards with wax to send of pages to the printer, which is where the term cut and paste comes from – and made our money through direct subscriptions. We made enough money on each publication to support one or two writers, a shared office manager, and pay the rent in a pretty large office in SoHo in New York City. About half of the money went to printing and mailing.
At the time, getting the feeds and speeds and prices on anything was difficult, and those of us who worked at Technology News were very good collectors of information, which when used properly could save our subscribers thousands to millions of dollars as they configured systems and negotiated with vendors. This more than covered the cost of the publication.
The relentless pace of Moore’s Law and Dennard scaling meant that systems were getting more powerful and more capacious, often faster than commercial datacenters could consume each new generation. At some point in the 1990s, the price of storage and compute became cheap enough that the world could start storing all kinds of things – and it did. And then along came TCP/IP and HTML and the commercial Internet, and everything changed. Compute was cheap, and the value of data went down because things that were hard to gather became easier; information – providing insight – was still valuable, and if you gave enough of that insight, then you could still make a living.
You could make a very good living if you created a very good search engine for all of this information, as it turns out.
Making money with a subscription model on publications was pretty much done. The barrier to entry – those high printing and mailing costs – was destroyed by the Web, and so everyone had to switch to an advertising model to make money. The net effect of that over the course of a decade is that to make the same amount of money as we made in subscriptions required many orders of magnitude more readers and about an order of magnitude more content to have the numbers work out.
During the Dot Com Boom and in its aftermath, I wrote an enormous amount of stuff – somewhere between 1.5 million and 2 million words a year across the several publications I have worked for – and when the data analytics boom hit after the Great Recession, Nicole founded Datanami and was hammering the keyboard at about the same rate.
One of the reasons we founded The Next Platform together is because we wanted to go deeper into a story rather than to chase so many stories. We wanted to provide a higher value product, not a more voluminous one. Around the same time we were doing this, the value of data and the cost of storing it went pretty close to zero for people, but became of enormous value when aggregated across hundreds of million or billions of users. This is a trend that we both have independently projected would happen.
Here is a good, human illustration of how data is not worth much.
Do you know your home phone number when you were a kid? Of course you do. Mine is 201-293-3028. Who is the owner of the last phone number that I memorized, and that I will ever memorize for that matter? Nicole Hemsoth Prickett. What are the three numbers that I never memorized because I had a smartphone when they got smartphones? Those of my three oldest children: Ellie, Henry, and Chloe. I am pretty sure I won’t know Mia’s number when she gets a phone maybe five years from now. Here’s the point: I went from an oral tradition of memorization – of storing the data in my own head – to letting my phone keep track of all of this. You can call that progress, but something has been lost, too. My brain is out of the habit of storing data.
Search engines have destroyed how many funny and sometimes combative conversations around the dinner tables and bars of the world? We have been able to check any fact at any time for the past two and a half decades now, and how much human interaction did that eliminate?
Social media is another thing that is called progress, but maybe it cuts both ways. Social media does indeed allow us to keep in touch with each other as we have spread out across our nations in pursuit of work, home, and happiness. But the negative side effect of social media is that people don’t actually get together as much. We have gotten lazy about the physical thanks to the virtual, particularly given the larger distances we all live from each other once we leave the nest. And in some cases, people have been deepfaking themselves for years on Facebook and other social media to keep up appearances. We prefer actual interaction, although we must admit that the birthday reminders on Facebook are very useful for people outside of our immediate family and long-time close friends.
And now we are coming to the point where the value of information, the synthesis of data into a coherent story, and the value of creation are now a few points down further on a Moore’s Law curve thanks to generative AI. What set us to writing was the episode of the South Park cartoon that was released this week, all generated by AI Showrunner. No wonder the members of the Screen Actors Guild are on strike. All knowledge workers are concerned – from writers to lawyers to programmers – because these systems could evolve to replace them.
Here is a fun aside to ponder: Imagine how fast this would be happening if Moore’s Law was still going gangbusters, and how much faster it would be happening if money were free like it was only a couple of years ago. . . .
We think that the rise of the machines was always inevitable, but we also know it is hard to really feel an exponential curve. This is happening fast.
The people who have created these AI systems might be experts in complex mathematics, semantics, statistics, and system architecture, but that does not necessarily give them any higher authority about how this AI technology should be deployed or better insight than the rest of us about the effect AI systems will have on our work and home lives. In fact, the joy they get from pursuing artificial general intelligence, from the competition and collaboration with their peers in this high science, might blind them from thinking as carefully about consequences. We can’t tell you the number of times that we have talked to the executives at the upper echelons of the companies we write about here at The Next Platform and it always comes down to the same old arguments: We need to make money and if I don’t invent it, someone else will.
These are obviously true in every case, and the rest of us need to make a living – unless you want to go down some Black Mirror path where we are all on universal basic income consuming media all day. This is repugnant, and it smells of death and despair. Life is a gift, given to the living for such a short period of time that it is the most precious of commodities, as is this wonderful blue ball circling an average sun on one of the spinning arms of a perfectly normal spiral galaxy. It is so improbable that we are alive at all, really.
Remember: We are still a democratic republic, not a technocracy, and we all have a say in how we want our world to change. So, here is our advice: Think your own thoughts. Be tenacious about this, and be as smart as you can be. Your thoughts are precious and unique, invaluable as in beyond value, and that is why you were endowed by your Creator.
Note: Yes, the feature image is not an asymptote to zero. But I had never seen that one before, and it was more interresting.
Sign up to our Newsletter
Featuring highlights, analysis, and stories from the week directly from us to your inbox with nothing in between.