Waiting for the Fourth Computer Revolution

The first computer revolution was world-shattering.

Within a decade and a half, computers went from expensive monstrosities commonly found deep in the bowels of large organizations to household appliances, as commonplace as refrigerators or televisions. Fortunes were made and lost. Multiple different companies started in nerds' garages and ended up multinational behemoths, still lumbering along today. The big winners were hardware companies making the computers, and software companies selling operating systems and applications to run on them.

The second computer revolution was almost as consequential.

Within a few years of desktop computers showing up on desks across the rich world, almost every one of those desktop computers got hooked into the same open-protocol network--the Internet. Once again, the economy was upended, and the winners claimed great piles of money. The primary beneficiaries were companies that figured out how to sell goods or services on the internet--even services that did not exist outside of the internet ecosystem itself, like search algorithms.

Having witnessed two overlapping computer revolutions, the world had big expectations for the third. And overall, it mostly delivered.

Within a few years, people's primary personal computing devices shrank, migrated into their pockets, and developed wireless internet connections that allowed them to access the full web from anywhere.

Once again, fortunes were made and lost. But this time, a much bigger slice of the spoils went to established players in the computer industry. Apple, born in the first revolution, and Google, a child of the second, positioned themselves as the incumbent heavyweights in the mobile phone market. Amazon cleaned up, as did Facebook and Netflix, but all three of them were already established players in the desktop internet market.

The players who came to prominence in the third revolutions--mobile-first companies like Lyft, Uber, and Airbnb--were floated into dominance by massive subsidies of investment cash, and it's still tough to figure out whether they've made much of a return on it. Uber, for example, has apparently never had a profitable year. It's certainly tough to find a major player in the mobile-focused market which has found any kind of consistent financial success without relying on a bunch of outside investment backing.

This, maybe, suggests a broad observation about how each revolution has been the beneficiary of more investment and support from outside--the winners cleaned up so hard in the first two that our collective economy has a big interest in finding and backing winners in the upcoming shifts. Certainly the investment capital poured into third-revolution companies for a while, hoping to back winners who'd be able to pay off like Microsoft or Amazon paid off their early investors. But the ratio may have shifted--it's perhaps too early to say for sure, but mostly what this investment capital seems to have accomplished is, for example, letting a bunch of people in big cities take subsidized car rides at below market value while the rideshare behemoths battled it out for user share, marching onward in the blind faith that when market share is achieved, profits will surely follow.

So where's the fourth revolution, then? Lots of people are waiting eagerly. It's not like we haven't seen promising candidates -- cryptocurrencies, the "Internet of Things", the "metaverse", "AI". All sorts of money and effort has poured into these various boondoggles. What it all comes down to is that people are trying to spot upcoming revolutions by pattern matching, and get in ahead of the curve so they can make a bunch of money without having to work too hard for it.

It's been long enough though -- we should maybe prepare to consider the possibility that there won't be a fourth. Certainly none of the last few promising candidates have managed to make it out of the hype cycle, despite being showered in investment money and engineering effort from tech companies big and small.

What do we do if there's not a fourth revolution? This would require us to admit that computers and networking technology have stabilized and matured, much like many previous waves of technology have. With that in mind, we should expect that any further advances will be incremental and gradual, not revolutionary, and that shifts within the industry will happen at a slower speed. Obviously certain forms of technology can and will continue to improve, but others may not, and some of the improvements may look like the infinitesimal progress of an asymptotic equation getting close to its limit, instead of the high-speed progress of one just starting out.

This should also cause us to reconsider some even more basic assumptions. For the last few centuries, belief in scientific and technical progress has been an article of faith across much of humanity -- the idea that every day, we humans are adding ever more knowledge to our supply, and improving our tools and societies and collective well-being while doing so. And for a while, this faith seemed so obvious as to be unquestionable -- for example, it took 66 years from the first powered flight to put the first humans on the moon. But it has also been 51 years since the last humans set foot on the moon! Technologies mature, they stabilize, and sometimes they are even lost, usually when the society which created and maintains them loses the resource base or stability to keep them working. Whether and where we may be in such a cycle is a topic beyond the scope of this post, but I hope to examine it in more depth in the future.

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