The fast rise and fall of two industries show the coming singularity. Let’s prepare now.

Summary: A new industrial revolution has begun. Here are two small examples to illustrate what it will be like. Extrapolate these a thousand fold. Then do so again. That’s what will happen in the next 70 years. Let’s start to prepare now.

“One conversation centered on the ever accelerating progress of technology and changes in the mode of human life, which gives the appearance of approaching some essential singularity in the history of the race beyond which human affairs, as we know them, could not continue.”

— From a conversation of two geniuses: Stanislaw Ulam and John von Neumann. From “Tribute to John von Neumann“, Bulletin of the American Mathematical Society, May 1958.

Singularity

Industrial revolutions have created modern history. Waterwheels and windmills powered the 18th century launch of the industrial revolution. Coal powered steam engines drove the 19th century. Oil powered the 20th century.

But new technological revolutions are coming faster. Mechanical calculators did much of the rote arithmetic for the first half of the 20th century. Electronic calculators and computers played a larger role in the second half. Intelligent machines are already carving out an even larger role in the early 21st century.

The singularity comes

The “singularity” assumes that the rate of technological progress will accelerate, with industrial revolutions coming every few decades instead of over centuries. Especially watch the potential breakthrough technologies of intelligent machines, communications, energy (e.g., cheap solar, fusion), genetic engineering, nanotechnology, and transportation (e.g., magnetic levitation for trains, practical supersonic aircraft).  See the links at the end for more about this.

At that rate the world will be unrecognizable to us in a few generations. We might already be seeing this happen, on a small scale. These give us a look at what the future holds for us.

Blockbuster store closing

Video stores.

In 1977 Andre Blay’s Magnetic Video Corporation persuaded 20th Century Fox to license fifty of their films for home video release in VHS and Betamax formats. The video store revolution had begun. By 1985 the US has 15 thousand video rental stores, and Blockbuster opened its first chain store to start the great consolidation.

They peaked in 2004 as the largest in America, with 9,000 stores. They closed in 2013, destroyed by online sales of DVDs and direct online delivery of entertainment by cable and the internet — by subscription, rental, and purchase. Peak to crash in nine years!

The number two video chain, Movie Gallery (4700 stores), went bankrupt in 2010.

You've Got Mail
Available at Amazon.

Bookstore chains

In 1975 Borders opened one of the first superstores for books, a two-story, 10,000-square-foot storefront at 303 S. State Street in Ann Arbor. By 1998 the mega-chains had exterminated a large fraction of the independent bookstores and enlarged the market, a process lionized in that’s year’s hit film You’ve Got Mail — as Tom Hank’s chain destroys Meg Ryan’s beloved second-generation small store.

By 2004 they were the second largest book seller in the US, with 36 thousand employees in over 1,200 stores around the world. They closed the last of their stores in 2011. Peak to crash in seven years!

Many other bookstore chains have also folded. Crown Books, formerly number 3, Booksellers in Cleveland, Oxford in Atlanta, Kroch’s in Chicago, Scribner’s in New York, and many others. All destroyed by the same process of creative destruction that brought them success.

Looking to the future

We see these changes as isolated events, each with an individual story. This is like viewing the first few snowflakes as individual events, and studying the unique design of each for insights about winter. This is the future. Rapid change creating a new world during a single lifetime.

Perhaps on the same scale as 1875-1945. In that seventy-year long revolution people born in log cabins died in a world with running water, electricity, refrigerators, telephones, radio, cars, airplanes, ballistic missiles, and atomic bombs). If that happens, the small question is what will the world of 2077 look like? The more important question is how we will get there — with changes like the video store and bookstore revolutions happening across society with fantastic speed.

I have no answers. But I will bet big that our descendants will consider our actions today to be quite mad, as our politics becomes bickering about trivial personalities and exchanging insults — while the next industrial revolution begins.

For More Information

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. See all posts about forecasts, about the new industrial revolution, about good news for America, and especially these…

  1. — Comparing our stable lives to the previous period of rapid disruption.
  2. Our future will be Jupiter Ascending, unless we make it Star Trek.
  3. Potentially horrific effects of drugs and machines making people smarter & stronger.
  4. Has America grown old, and can no longer grow? Or are wonders like the singularity in our future?
  5. Looking at technological singularities in our past & future.
  6. Good news: the singularity approaches!

Two books show our future. One fiction, one fact.

Here are two books about the accelerating growth leading to our unimaginable future. The first is science fiction; the second is fact. Eventually the difference will blur.

Marooned in Realtime
Available at Amazon.
Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future
Available at Amazon.

26 thoughts on “The fast rise and fall of two industries show the coming singularity. Let’s prepare now.

  1. FM-

    Some running thoughts and context…

    1. Martech’s Law. Technology changes at an exponential rate. Organizations change at a logarithmic rate (http://chiefmartec.com/2016/11/martecs-law-great-management-challenge-21st-century/).

    2. Books / Movie Rental (more generally Entertainment and Retail) are / were soft-targets for disruption. The collapse of the standard quo may not seem profound institutionally, but it will wreck havoc on lower and middle class workers.

    3. Finance, Insurance, Health, Agriculture, Energy are more entrenched (protected by laws, lobbyists, etc). The collapse of these institutions would be profound and completely change society.

    -Mike

    1. Mike,

      Thanks for the comment!

      (1) Martech’s Law has not applied to our past. There have been bursts of tech progress, followed by slow periods. 1877-1947 (somewhat arbitrarily dated) was 70 years of tech boom. The next 70 years were much slower, with tech progress in computers and communication — and less everywhere else. Organizations, and overall society, evolve at different rates — at different times.

      (2) “Books / Movie Rental (more generally Entertainment and Retail) are / were soft-targets for disruption.”

      The first to go are often seen as “soft targets”. Some of the next to go will be seen as “soft targets”. Perhaps so, but I’m skeptical that is a meaningful distinction.

      (3) “Finance, Insurance, Health, Agriculture, Energy are more entrenched”

      Perhaps so. I’m skeptical. The intensely regulated taxi business was seen as entrenched, yet Uber disrupted it in five years. I doubt we can accurately predict which industries will be the next to go, or how quickly change will hit them. For example, the investment business is in the early stages of almost total disruption – yet even people in it are unaware of this.

      (4) “The collapse of these institutions would be profound and completely change society.”

      Yes. Finance (which includes insurance), health, agriculture, and energy are sectors — not industries — and so are several orders of magnitude larger than the bookstores and video rental industries. But while industries can “collapse”, sectors don’t. No matter how society and tech change, we will still need finance and food, etc. These sectors might radically change, but that’s not “collapse”.

    2. Mike,

      Got it! Thanks for the explanation. It will feel like a “collapse” to the industry leaders.

      For example, the next generation will look back at all the hedge fund billionaires (giants in our society) as oddities — paid for their leverage, luck, and volatility (i.e., exploiting their clients’ ignorance and greed) — with amazement.

    3. The combination of those log and exponential rates gives the “S” curve which is exactly how all new tech is adopted. Search for the “S” curves of various tech over the last century. They all look the same except that the later they are introduced, the more vertical they get squished.

    4. Todd,

      Some are “squished”. Some are not. These are small samples, often with weak data — susceptible to cherrypicking, and difficult to compare. The rate of adoption of microwave ovens now doesn’t compare well to adoption of electricity by factories and homes in the early 20th C. The magnitude of the phenomena are quite different.

      Even superficially similar techs are complex to compare, such as the rate of adoption of telephones (land lines) to cell phones. The first was a far larger revolution in people’s lives than the second (the former made instant communication possible, the latter made it easier).

      We see the changes in our lives clearly, but ignore the far larger changes during the past. See Good news: a new industrial revolution has begun! for a comparison of the our stable lives to the previous period of massive disruption.

  2. If you look at what is needed technically for the next leaving in a given industry, it’s easy to predict fairly well when the disruption will occur. I watch this on most industries and have been pretty accurate so far.

    I don’t say this to brag but rather to show that coming advancements are going to be increasingly lumped together. The reason is that most industries are all waiting for the same breakthroughs to happen. Fri example, 3D printed, finished metal parts will open up dozens of new disruptions. New and better lidar will commence the disruption of driving and everything related to scanning and mapping rooms, buildings, the environment and mechanical parts. Physics based intelligent CAD will disappointed many engineering fields. But here’s the kicker… All these are now nearly done and on the market, simultaneously.

    1. Todd,

      “I watch this on most industries and have been pretty accurate so far.”

      I suggest you publish. You’ll be pretty much the only person in America capable of doing this. The track record of most doing this is worse than spotty.

      Me, too. Long ago I saw my secretary with an earphone connected to a small box. She explained it had all her music on it. I thought that was mildly interesting, and such devices might sell well.

      But predicting tech is a smaller challenge than predicting the effect of tech on businesses. Insiders of an industry can sometimes — sometimes — see what’s happening. But usually not. Outsiders have almost zero ability to predict such things. As a Boy Scout leader I saw the first large-scale use of pirated music. It never occurred to me that this might radically change the economics of the music industry.

      Futurists make a good living telling stories, but have astrologer-like prediction records in these two areas.

  3. There was nothing “creative” about the destruction of American bookstores. In fact, if you leave the U.S., something every American ought to do for they might actually learn something, one thing you’ll notice is that bookstores are still thriving in most other countries. Instead it reflects the profound ignorance of a sick, depraved society that never really valued “book learnin'” in the first place.

    1. Karl,

      You appear confused. Let’s sort out the facts!

      (1) “Instead it reflects the profound ignorance of a sick, depraved society that never really valued “book learnin’” in the first place.”

      First, that is historically false. Second, you confuse change in the medium of book sales (the subject of this post) with total book sales. The turmoil in the former hasn’t affected the latter. Book sales move up and down over time, but have remained stable.

      (2) “one thing you’ll notice is that bookstores are still thriving in most other countries.”

      Why is that a good thing? Do you pine for the day of the tiny general store (before supermarkets)?

      (3) “There was nothing “creative” about the destruction of American bookstores”

      “Creative destruction” is the term created by the great economist Joseph Schumpeter in 1942 to describe innovations in production and sales. He considered this to be “the essential fact about capitalism”. See how this has worked in America’s book markets.

      • Amazon has revitalized the used book market, making obscure or lost titles easily available — and so drastically reduced the cost of books (and dvds).
      • Self-published book sales are rapidly rising in the US, thanks to Amazon — breaking the monopoly of publishers over what gets published.
      • E-books are 17% of sales in the US vs. 4% in Germany. They created the e-book market, with its many advantages over physical books (still in its earliest stages).
  4. What never seems to be faced by those proposing these revolutions is the changes in the nature of what might be called the core element of each of these industries, in this case books or films. What used to be a complex experience is reduced to a transaction, with a commodity at its centre, while the social processes which used to be at the heart, such as an evening at the pictures, or the widespread social dialogue of which a book was a part, have been permanently changed, usually without comment.

    You mention your secretary with earbuds; nowhere is this process of change as apparent as with music. Not only did the I-whatever change the method by which music is experienced, with all the consequences for musicians and others; the MP3 format and the usual heavy compression have produced a couple of generations who cannot appreciate music of any real significance. And so we hear of schools of classical music having to accept the fact that each new intake of students has less appreciation, indeed, less tolerance, for music of any tonal range or complexity.

    The next logical step, I suppose, is seen in the way Facebook and others are trying to commoditize ( is that a word? ) human relationships; it should come as no surprise that much of the behaviour of those who use these sites seems very like that of a mob, that anonymous cloak for the baser element of human nature. Again, there is a collective wringing of hands, but little or no comment on the fundamental changes that are implied.

    So we rush towards the future; will we regret what is lost along the way, or is it all just excess baggage?

    1. Chirs,

      Thank you for your provocative comment. Most of this is over my pay grade, but here are a few comments.

      “What never seems to be faced by those proposing these revolutions is the changes in the nature of what might be called the core element of each of these industries, in this case books or films.”

      A small point: I was describing events, not proposing them. These are facts.

      “Not only did the I-whatever change the method by which music is experienced, with all the consequences for musicians and others; the MP3 format and the usual heavy compression have produced a couple of generations who cannot appreciate music of any real significance.”

      When was this wonderful time when a large faction of the population “appreciate music of any real significance”? 200 AD Britain, where my ancestors painted themselves blue and worshiped trees? 1850 America, when 95% of the population lived on farms without indoor plumbing — where women were old at 35 from hard work and childbirths?

      A good friend of mine once explained the deep musical significance of the classic Christian hymns sung in Baptist Churches. I didn’t have the heart to tell him than Luther adopted many of these from popular music of his time, sung in pubs.

      “in this case books or films. What used to be a complex experience is reduced to a transaction, with a commodity at its centre, while the social processes which used to be at the heart, such as an evening at the pictures, or the widespread social dialogue of which a book was a part, have been permanently changed, usually without comment.”

      That makes little sense to me. Why are e-books less part of a “widespread social dialogue”? Also, I find e-books superior in many ways. I love the ability to search, an easy way to look back — and compare books with each other. Also, the ability to instantly get word definitions is fantastic!

      As for films, my family finds it much easier to discuss them when seen at home. We stop and discuss them, and watch them several times. That’s not to everybody’s taste (it drives my wife crazy), but I find it a valuable aspect of new tech.

      “So we rush towards the future; will we regret what is lost along the way, or is it all just excess baggage?”

      New media change experiences and always have. Our experiences as individuals and societies change, with advantages and disadvantages. That’s life. We’re on a riven, swept along by the currents of time. But life has become better over time in countless ways — and with a little luck and wisdom will continue to do so.

  5. No,No Fabius, I’m not having a go at you. I also watch what is happening; I just remember my grandmother’s words: this will end in tears, and wonder what she would say now.
    And no, not above your pay grade, don’t put yourself down. I just left out half of what I should have included. No, I’m not talking about a golden past, just a couple of decades ago. Here’s a link which says some of it: “Compression is killing your music“. https://www.cnet.com/news/compression-is-killing-your-music/ and there’s many more, from both the tech side and the music side.

    Likewise a book. When it was part of a dead tree, it was permanent, not able to be edited. So there was a certain caution, reserve, whatever in committing words to paper. Why be cautious when it can be edited in an instant? Equally, how can I be sure that what I read yesterday will still be there tomorrow? You have read 1984 perhaps?

    So, no, I’m not aiming at you, just at a society that goes blindly over the cliff without even stopping to reflect on whether there might not be a better way to reach the same end.
    Anyway, I have to rush, and will be away for a few day perhaps. I read your reply when I return. ( You are perhaps up late anyway? Or early ? I get confused with timezones. )
    Best wishes. Go well. Not everybody is being critical; some of us are just concerned.

    cjp

    1. Chris,

      Now you are on narrower grounds (i.e., more specific), rather than your provocative but too-big-for-me cultural analysis. Which might easily be correct. Who can say? These narrower grounds I disagree with, somewhat.

      (1) Effects of compression of music.

      It’s a temporary thing, a problem for a heartbeat of time. VHS video was a crude 333 (much worse than theater quality), then came 480 (equivalent to old TV screens, then HD 720, then 1080, now 4000 ulta-HD. In the future we’ll have HD 3D, then smell-o-vision. So it is with sound. My great-grandchildren will consider wax cylinder recordings to be roughly the same as vinyl records.

      (2) “Why be cautious when it can be edited in an instant?”

      Again you are worrying about an inconvenience that exists for a eyeblink of history. My kindle ebooks are stored in the cloud due to the high cost of storage — which is dropping fast.

      The median e-book is about 3 megabytes. We now have 3 terabyte flash drives. You can keep a few in your pocket to hold all your books (albeit expensively). A 2T external hard drive is $70. The costs of both are dropping fast.

      My house has 9 bookcases. That’s roughly 1000 books. Three terabytes would hold them all. Six T or 9T including back-ups (plus a cloud account as a tertiary backup). Good luck with the Ministry of Truth changing those. The cost of storage would be only a little higher for someone with more books than I have.

      “this will end in tears”

      People have been saying that constantly since the dawn of history. But history advances. Unfortunately with 2 steps forward and one back. But we keep advancing. I see no reason to assume that will stop.

      “and wonder what she would say now.”

      People who believe things will end in tears are sometimes right but usually wrong. It’s often just a fixed perspective. And perhaps it’s an operationally useful one: prepare for the worse, hope for the best, and avoid disappointment.

  6. Well, I admire your optimism. I hope you are right.
    I suspect we have more on which we agree than not; the singularity is upon us, we will all have to live with what happens, the best way to start that process is to face the situation as honestly as we know how. I just find it a bit sad that so much is lost along with that which is gained.
    Then again,I can always follow the fashion and blame my environment or something for making me pessimistic..! It does seem at times that my country ( Australia ) seems to be over represented in history’s Hall of Fame for Heroic Failures…
    More importantly, I realized while I was away that I failed to say how much I appreciate this website. One of the few places where one finds sane commentary.; my thanks and best wishes to all concerned. ( I hope I haven’t left my thanks too late to be noticed.)

    cjp

    1. Chris,

      “I admire your optimism. I hope you are right.”

      Me, too. It’s a struggle to be optimistic these days. But it is important to remember that we have the ability to produce good outcomes from the next industrial revolution. It requires only that we stand together, work together, and exercise a little wisdom.

      “It does seem at times that my country ( Australia ) seems to be over represented in history’s Hall of Fame for Heroic Failures…”

      Being a typical parochial American, I know little about Australian history. Isn’t it called the “lucky country”? What are some of these failures?

      “I hope I haven’t left my thanks too late to be noticed.”

      Thanks are rare and so always appreciated.

      Most of the content here is on the edge of the known and contrary to consensus opinion. So it is understandable that the comments run about 90% critical. That keeps me sharp, with my errors and sloppy logic quickly revealed.

  7. Hello again . ( Are you still reading? You are patient)

    The Lucky Country was the title of a book by Donald Horne in the 1960s. He spent a great deal of time thereafter complaining that this was only a partial quote. He would have preferred the full version ( it’s on Wikipedia these days ) but stated that he would be willing to settle for those who used the phrase at least completing the sentence, which runs… Australia is a lucky country, run by second raters who share her luck. Which leads us into politics, where we won’t go…

    I used to tell people who want to understand Australia to read Henry Lawson; I don’t know whether that is still good advice. Lawson certainly paints a picture as well as does, say, Steinbeck, but I suspect we have moved away from the people of his stories. Still, stories such as ” The Drover’s Wife” have a permanence about them. ( And if you want a good laugh try “The Loaded Dog”; most of his stuff is on Gutenberg)
    Lawson himself died in poverty at 57; he was treated poorly while alive, and largely forgotten now. And that for one of the founders of Australian literature.

    I have been reflecting, and I now wonder whether categories such as optimist or pessimist are adequate to describe attitudes and reactions to change and its consequences. There is a story I picked up somewhere which might say something, if it doesn’t offend; I try and leave out most of the Australianisms …

    Three diggers ( troops? GIs ?) had become separated from their respective units, and were walking to try and catch up, when they came across a car abandoned by the road.
    The American ( yes, it’s one of THOSE stories ) did a quick once over, and announced that they were saved, as the vehicle had at least half a tank of fuel.
    The Englishman had a more careful look, and stated that he wasn’t sure they would make it, as there was no more than half a tank of fuel.
    The Australian, who had meanwhile been poking under the bonnet, looked at the two of them with disgust. Stop arguing, you two, he said. This bloody car won’t start anyway, so we’ll just have to keep walking.

    And then there is Breaker Morant, aka Lieut Harry Morant of the Bush Veldt Carboneers. Executed for war crimes in Pretoria towards the end of the Boer War, various attempts since to gain him a posthumous pardon have failed. There is a fair bit about him online, but the best introduction is still the supposed autobiography of one of his co-accused, George Witton; the book is called Scapegoats of the Empire, and is on Gutenberg. It’s a good read, but don’t expect a dispassionate history.

    Well, Breaker Morant was also a poet and author. His poems are freely available ( some have been set to music ) but his stories are very hard to get. There is a quote in one of them, which I no longer have, and so will have to lean on my memory, which is always dangerous. He wrote something along these lines…

    The Great Lie by which much of mankind has been hoodwinked for years is that tomorrow will be better. It is almost as bad as that other great lie, that tomorrow will be worse. For the awful truth is that tomorrow will be the same, and the day after, and the day after that, right through to the end of our days.

    What he could have added, but didn’t need to for Australian readers, was something like….

    But don’t worry, whatever tomorrow brings, we’ll deal with it. We always have, we always will, even if the only result is that we get another rocket from headquarters.

    Somewhere in there, I suspect, is an Australian attitude which I think I share.

    You are patient in the extreme if you follow my ramblings this far. Besides, there are fresh commentaries on the site, all thoughtful, all relevant. Don’t let me monopolize your attention, in these days of busyness that is not kind.

    best wishes

    cjp

    1. Chris,

      Thank you for your explanation! I found it difficult to understand (did the American not look under the bonnet?), but then I find America difficult to understand. And I’ve lived here for 60 years

      “The Great Lie by which much of mankind has been hoodwinked for years is that tomorrow will be better. …For the awful truth is that tomorrow will be the same, and the day after, and the day after that, right through to the end of our days.”

      That is quite false for an increasing fraction of humanity. For centuries it has usually been false for people in the West. It’s false today for billions of people in the underdeveloped nations. Progress in the past fifty years has been beyond anything seen since the invention of agriculture or fire.

      There is no evidence that this progress will stop for humanity in the foreseeable future. We appear to be starting a new industrial revolution, bringing new wonders to humanity.

      That does not mean thing will improve for most people in America or Australia, however. Errors are always possible.

  8. My friend, I suspect we are digging somewhere close to the boundary between the things we each believe. Sometimes that can appear as stark as a seismic fault line, but it always good to explore those beliefs that make each of us who we are, especially when we uncover important differences.
    I hear in The Breaker’s words, for all his exaggeration, the belief that the business of being human will not change significantly, at least not in anything of importance,no matter how the forms and structures around us do; I suspect they haven’t changed greatly since the last Ice Age. But I recognize that not everybody agrees with me; we may well diverge right there.
    It seems to hinge on how we see progress. Whether progress is the process of each human being realizing more of the potential they have, or becoming someone that they were not.
    Which itself is not the stark choice it sounds; both are probably at work. I began this exchange with the concern that the changes we are experiencing may threaten activities which are a part of that process of growth, such as means of self expression and communication. I rather think that such social constructs as writing and singing, whatever shape they take, must allow, perhaps encourage, that process of personal growth that I would see as progress if they are to be of any value.
    But I may be wrong. Or my perspective may be only part of the whole story.
    I apologize for dragging my feet. My time for relaxation has been rather limited of late. And I am off for a long weekend shortly.
    My best wishes, keep going, the questioning on your website is, I believe, very much needed right now.

    cjp

    1. Chris,

      “It seems to hinge on how we see progress.”

      Don’t try to find one measure. Think of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

      “progress is the process of each human being realizing more of the potential they have, or becoming someone that they were not.”

      People watching their children die like flies from starvation and plague don’t care about that. We have made fantastic progress on the lower levels — food, health care, security. Only then do the higher levels matter.

  9. This is the kind of civilized exchange that can scarcely exist these days. It may look naive in a few years, but in its intentions and its fearlessness in the face of great questions it exceeds the late life correspondence of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. Well done, you two, and gracefully.

    1. Scott,

      Thank you for the feedback. It’s always appreciated, whether for good or ill. I try to encourage the good commenters (whether critical or favorable about the content), and should work harder to do so. But answering comments is discouraging, and doesn’t produce a happy state of mind.

      Comment sections are difficult to manage (see these notes by operators of major websites). It’s not something I do well. My co-authors here are all far better at this, but too wise to do it. As those notes from big websites show, the internet overflows with trolls. They are like orks or zombies in the films. We don’t know where they come from or their goals. Only the harshest measures can beat them back, day by day.

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