The Exponential Age
Text Claire L. Evans
IMAGES Kühl & Han
Issue 03

We are living on the cusp of extraordinary, unprecedented technological change that will soon transform the way we work, live, and relate to the world around us. Modem has partnered with Los Angeles-based writer Claire L. Evans to envision how human minds and institutions could thrive in the midst of exponential change.

The legend goes something like this: an ancient Persian king asks his closest advisor, his vizier, for a new game. The vizier returns with a simple wooden board, marked with 64 squares and pieces of various sizes. The most important piece is the king. The second-most important piece, of course, is the vizier. The object of the game is to capture the opponent’s king by guile and strategy. And so the game comes to be known, in Persian, as shahmat–death to the king. In English, we call it chess.

The king is so pleased with the new invention that he tells the vizier to name his own reward. The vizier doesn’t want much—no palaces, no jewels. He gestures to the chess board, with its neat rows of squares, and says, give me one grain of rice for the first square, two for the second, and so on, until the board is full.

What the king doesn’t realize, when he accepts this bargain, was that his vizier’s request was exponential in nature. Although the piles of rice are manageable to begin with, they grow to colossal size as they double: 1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, 128, 256. By the time the king reaches the final square, he’s ruined. The vizier has earned 18.5 quintillion grains, more than all the rice in the world.

It’s an old story, and apocryphal. But not much has changed. In the game of chess, the vizier became the queen, inheriting the vizier’s powers. And the king is all of us—vulnerable, broke, and utterly unable to visualize exponential growth.

We’re accustomed to thinking of growth as a linear process. Economic psychologists have shown that people consistently underestimate the magnitude of compounding interest, which piles up like those grains of rice. They call the phenomenon “exponential growth bias,” and it’s not limited to saving money. It also makes it difficult to comprehend the spread of a virus like COVID-19, and can blind us to the exponential nature of the technological changes around us, as computing power, solar panels, drones, virtual reality headsets, satellites, electric vehicle batteries, and 3D printers get faster and cheaper. We are on the cusp of extraordinary, accelerated, irreversible technological change. And like the king, we cannot see it coming.   

From the dirt-cheap computing power that makes machine learning possible to the DNA sequencing and gene therapies that will drive revolutions in medicine, technological innovation is accelerating at an unprecedented pace. So, too, are its myriad interrelations, which are already causing our physical, biological, and digital worlds to converge. Simultaneous breakthroughs in AI, nanotechnology, biotechnology, materials science, energy storage, and quantum computing will bootstrap one another, multiplying emergent possibilities. Some economists refer to this coming transformation as the “Fourth Industrial Revolution;” the London-based entrepreneur and writer Azeem Azhar prefers the term “Exponential Age.”

According to Azhar, the Exponential Age will usher in “a wholly new era of human society and economic organisation.” He writes that those people and companies able to harness exponential technology will take over the world—while our institutions, “all the lasting norms that define how we live,” will be left behind. That is to say, although technology moves quickly, culture only adapts to that change incrementally. 

Of course, this is by design—stability is what defines an institution to begin with—but it’s a design drafted in a different age. Today, we’re witnessing extreme tension between an old-world, linear model of change, and the reality at our fingertips. Decision-makers are frequently unable to look beyond electoral cycles; laws, social norms, and political systems aren’t equipped to move on an exponential curve. This latency, which Azhar calls the “exponential gap,” is at the root of the world’s most pressing problems, from income inequality to the polarization of our politics. Not only do we struggle to visualize the cadence of exponential growth, but we fail to adapt to it—at our peril.  

So here we are, looking at a graph with two lines. One line represents the exponential growth of technology, a cumulative metric of halving battery sizes, bigger machine learning models, plunging cloud computing costs and faster processing speeds. It looks like an upside-down roller coaster, moving from a slowly ramping, nearly imperceptible climb to a sudden liftoff. The second, flatter line is the plodding linear growth of our institutions, customs, and practices. Can we split the difference? Do we want to?

Azhar is bullish; he believes the rise of the top line cannot be slowed. Acceleration is already baked into our economies, the processes of today’s technological innovations are decentralized and difficult to control. Further, we actually need exponential change, as our most urgent problems can only be tackled with the help of exponential technology. We cannot hope to decarbonize our economies, for example, without cheaper, more efficient solar cells, smaller, longer-lasting batteries, and innovative, low-carbon building practices, like large-scale, on-site 3D printing. Climate change, too, is exponential—and we have no choice but to keep up.

The only thing to do, then, is speed the bottom line along, helping our institutions “harness the power of exponentiality, and the rules and norms that can shape, for the needs of our society.” There is some precedent for this. The cultural transformations that took place worldwide after the Second World War led to the very rapid creation of new institutions like the International Monetary Fund and the United Nations. In our current cultural moment, the COVID-19 pandemic plays a similar role, acting as a catalyst for the rapid adoption of previously-unimagined cultural changes: the digitization of education, the re-appraisal of the very nature of work, and so forth.  

If trauma is what facilitates the evolution of social norms and slow-moving institutions, then we’re in a dark kind of luck; the future will not be short of upheavals. But disaster often brings people together, providing a context for purposeful, community action that doesn’t always exist in daily life. Perhaps exponential change—and its own seismic effects—can also spur positive change, by reminding us of our shared destinies.

Carl Sagan tells the story of the Persian chess board in his final book, comparing the grains of rice to the reproduction of bacteria: a single bacterium divides in two, its daughters do the same, until a single bacterium becomes millions, then billions, gobbling up the world. Of course, this has never happened, because exponential growth, in nature, always comes up against obstacles—lack of food, predation, disease. “Exponentials can’t go on forever,” Sagan explains. With this, he evokes the inherent capacity, shared by all living systems, to correct themselves. Sagan is referring to ecological stability—the capacity of a system to return to a state of equilibrium after an upheaval. But in the face of a technological exponential curve, upheaval never ends. There will be no time for bouncing back, no place to which we can return. And so our institutions, which have been so long been defined by their stability, will need to borrow a different concept from ecology: resilience

According to the ecologist C.S. Holling, whose definition of resilience was fundamental to the systems ecology discourse of the 1970s, the constancy of a system’s behavior—its stability—is less important than the persistence of its relationships. A system may change beyond recognition, but if its internal relationships remain intact, it persists. In the sea, fish populations wax and wane; in the forests, lichen grow and fall dormant with the seasons. Some years, there are more mice; other years, owls. Resilience is not about maintaining an image, but a pattern. With this understanding, we should prioritize flexibility over equilibrium, and variability over consistency. Sameness leads to extinction. 

Since the 1970s, the term “resilience” has spread from ecology to the social sciences, evolving stepwise from a theory of persistence to a concept emphasizing the adaptability of social-ecological systems and their capacity to transform in the face of global change. It’s an inherently dynamic process, and dependent on our access to resources, the strength of our social bonds, our ability to learn from our mistakes, and our capacity to participate in—and transform—the governance processes of our society. We don’t know how best to cultivate resilience in the face of exponential change. Like chess, it’s a game with infinitely complex outcomes, beyond our capacity to model or comprehend. But that has never stopped us from playing. 

Chess teaches us that complexity is fruitful; that the unknowable creates a space of possibility that can be profoundly rewarding in its own right. Our willingness to accept, even embrace, the possibility of a life radically different from anything we have ever known is also a question of our willingness to play—how game we are to move into complexity in a ludic spirit of exploration. Artists have always done this. In 1971, the great British science fiction writer J.G. Ballard predicted that the window of time between the literary and cinematic imaginations of the present day and their manifestation in the future was about a decade, although he acknowledged that window was likely narrowing quickly. Today, what we imagine is already here. “The future is a better key to the present than the past,” Ballard wrote

The future, like the present, is always changing. And although we may never fully understand the exponential nature of that change, it’s not entirely beyond our control—or our imagination. We are all, in our own ways, designing the future. In the midst of this transformation, we can make the choice to embrace the exponential, help others through it, and bring forth collective abundance using the only technologies that we can be sure will never change: the playfulness, resilience, and empathy we all share. If we can do that, nothing will ever be the same.

Issue 03
Text Claire L. Evans
Images Kühl & Han
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Partner Studio Bjørn Ibsen
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