- Azeem Azhar, Exponential: How Accelerating Technology Is Leaving us Behind and What to Do About It, Cornerstone, 2021
The central message of Azeem Azhar’s new book, ‘Exponential’, is that technology is a force that humanity can direct, rather than a force which will enslave us. This may seem optimistic, given the alarmingly fast rate of change which new technologies are bringing about in the world, but as well as explaining in clear terms why these changes are happening so fast and why this is a problem, the book also sets out a manifesto for how we can match technology to meet human needs and begin to address some of the social impacts of rapid change.
‘Exponential’ identifies four key technology domains which form the bedrock of the global economy and where capabilities are accelerating at ever-increasing rates while, at the same time costs are plummeting. The four technologies are computer science, where improvements are driven by faster processors and access to vast data sets; energy, where renewables are causing the price of generating power to drop rapidly; the life sciences, where gene sequencing and synthetic biology are allowing us to develop novel biological components and systems, and manufacturing, where 3D printing is enabling the rapid, localized production of anything from a concrete building to plant-based steaks. These are all ‘general purpose technologies’: just like electricity, the printing press, and the car, they have broad utility and the potential to change just about everything.
However, while these technologies are taking off at an exponential rate, society has been unable to keep up. Businesses, laws, markets, working patterns, and other human institutions have at the same time been able to evolve only incrementally and are struggling to adapt. Azhar calls this the ‘exponential gap’ – the rift between the potential of the technologies and the different types of management that they demand. Understanding the exponential gap can help explain why we are now facing technology-induced problems like market domination by ‘winner takes all’ businesses such as Amazon, the gig economy, and the spread of misinformation on social media.
The book detail the impacts of the exponential growth in technology on business and employment as well as on geopolitical issues such as trade, conflict, and the global balance of power. It shows how the ‘exponential gap’ is shaping relations between citizens and society through the power of tech giants which increasingly provide platforms for our conversations and relationships while collecting and commodifying data about us in order to manipulate our choices. Read more