Why I’m an Optimist: Large Scale Macro Trends

A symbol to me of the power of our future, and our technology. I traveled thousands of miles in mere hours to snap this digital photo and capture it on a chip the size of a postage stamp.

While we move forward in technology at a furious pace there certainly are some huge gaps, and as those gaps and verges close we will see many new things that nobody predicted nor could have predicted; and we will see old things fade away. The largest scale macro trends will continue regardless of gaps and pitfalls; if one path to the future closes a thousand others will open. It’s been that way for most of our history and that’s a large scale macro trend I don’t expect to falter.

In future articles I’m going to outline some gaps I’ve seen, and potential means to close them. Please keep in mind however that nobody can predict the future – that you can only predict trends. Even when predicting trends you are likely to get the future wrong if you look at micro or macro trends — you cannot predict which trends will continue, and which will end, you can only look at the large confluences of trends and attempt guesses at which are most likely to continue. In other words you know that it’s likely that the Mississippi will make it to the Gulf of Mexico regardless of the oxbows and loops it makes.

Think of the sharp trend lines and market charts once there of VHS and Beta Max tape manufacturing and sales to get an idea of what I mean. At the dawn of the tape age, none could predict with certainty the micro trend of the war between the formats, or whether the macro trend of tape sales in general would continue, but it was easy to step back and see the larger scale macro trend of generic technology – data storage media would continue to change, but storage would continue to become less expensive, smaller in form and format, and more widely available.

Whether that tape machine was capturing and streaming back data in your Betamax, VHS, or computer room backup tape carousel it was all same-same when you consider the larger macro function of the technology: Capturing data for preservation and/or later playback. That was global.

The generic larger purpose of tapes and the various tape formats was to record and preserve data. The real trend wasn’t between the formats or the physical shape or the protocols: it was really towards more data in less physical space and for less cost. That large scale macro trend was occurring in all formats, from silicon to tape to hard drives to optical and it continues through this day. It’s also quite possible that some other technology will replace both Blue Ray and HD-DVD before that format battle ever finishes.

A few years back it would have been a massive project in capital and expense to perform a one time physical transfer of 650 gigabytes of data between two companies or vendors – however right now a single person could pop into SAM’s or Best Buy and pick up at 1 Terabyte or 2 Terabyte USB drive and get that transfer done in under two hours if you eliminate the travel time. Even better than that you can see storage devices becoming something a bit more than just storage devices. One example is the “Eye-Fi” chip – it’s specialized storage for Digital cameras, but it’s also a GPS and a Wifi network adapter for your camera. It’s the size of a postage stamp, and the width of a couple of quarters.

There are cards with larger memory space, and you could put an entire K-12 education in the space of one of these postage stamp cards if you worked at it.

So when looking at the longer term future to get to accurate predictions of trends you must take them to higher functional large scale levels, or look at them as very large scale macro trends. Worldwide soybean production going up is not a large scale macro trend. The large scale macro trend behind that simplex market trend is that food supplies and therefor diets are diversifying globally.

This large scale macro trend is the confluence of several technologies crossing verges, and no particular macro trend (in the marketing, woo-woo “we are trying to sell you something” definition of macro trends) is responsible.

Instead all are somewhat needed, including better packaging, preservation, transport, free trade, the internet and television proliferation of diverse cultural methods of cooking,  etc . etc.  Don’t worry however foodies: if any of these smaller macro trends falters, something else will take its place. The large scale macro trend of more diverse diets and food supplies is not going to end anytime soon because large scale macro trends are measured in centuries and millenniums, not years and decades. They are determined only in part by demographics and desires as marketers would tell you, but also by technology.  There might be momentary fluctuations – some that last a decade or two, or even some like the Dark Ages that last centuries, but the large macro trends will continue. Other examples of large scale macro trends:

  • Worldwide capital increases
  • Our sources of energy multiply
  • Our ability to store and transfer knowledge increases
  • Life spans increase

Technology becomes more complex, and more capable, while becoming more accessible as individual powers and capabilities increase. In my garage sits a car with more horsepower than most medieval kings could muster in a few moments, in my computer is a powerful media studio that can broadcast to the world over the internet, on tap at the nearest electrical outlet is more energy than that held by all of the tyrants in history who ever held human slaves.

The particular spots or time where these large scale macro trends fail are the exceptions not the rule. Afghanistan and Sub-Saharan Africa are two places where these overall trends break right now,  but they are the exceptions not the rule, and over time even those places will improve.

So it is that I am a confident optimist based on the past example of our long history. Whatever pratfalls, missteps, and tumbles that humanity has taken we have always managed to dust off and carry on with the journey after. As we witness one of those pratfalls that will become the biggest environmental disaster since we started recording them in the Gulf of Mexico I am also confident that over time the problem can be overcome.