One of the most fascinating minds of the twentieth century belonged to Buckminster Fuller. Systems theorist. Inventor. Mathematician. Cultural critic. Fuller was an anachronistic figure in his own time, whose enigmatic ideas about the future of the human race and the advent of technology marked him as an intellectual eccentric possessed of alien ideas. Fuller’s ideas were so constrained by the language and terminology available that he occasionally created his own words to describe his novel concepts. One of these was ephemeralization.
Fuller defined ephemeralization as the ability to do “more and more with less and less until eventually you can do everything with nothing.” That last word seems like an impossibility, but Fuller looked at the solar system and beyond as evidence that some complex systems can occur with invisible forces; that invisible force may be the enigma that is gravity, but it is a variable nonetheless.
If you dial back from the extremity of that statement, you can find that this is a prescient concept. Automation in the workforce is accelerating and will surely factor out the human element of the equation in many industries and circumstances. Manufacturing will be done by robots. Robots will be directed by algorithms and artificial intelligence, which will also displace white-collar jobs such as insurance, financial planning, and entry-level programming. Our status as masters of these creations is debatable. The recursive element of technological progress and creation itself will always put us at the mercy of what we put into the world.
Moore’s Law is often compared to ephemeralization. It posits that computing power doubles at least every two years as we are able to have more transistors on an integrated circuit. After all, the computers we carry around in our pocket are exponentially more advanced than those which used to fill entire warehouses not too long ago. How far will this trend go? Hard to say. When we figure out quantum computing the notion of Moore’s Law will be shaken up. Nonetheless, that is hardware. What about software?
I believe that blockchain is a potent enough revolution of our digital infrastructure to earn a significant place in the discussion of Fuller’s concept. Blockchain is gathering more and more advocates and acolytes for its promise of decentralization in many industries and the disruption of old paradigms. The notion of smart contracts in particular democratizes the power of executables, facilitating and streamlining connections and collaborations between individuals to achieve certain results. Business and the nature of work itself will change drastically within the next ten years as transaction costs of operating a business are reduced to the point of making the traditional 9–5 work week obsolete. Programmatic agreements in systems that simply work. Imagine speaking in plain language the conditions of a contract to Alexa, Cortana, and the like as they compile the smart contract code, verify and double-check its content with you, and then send it to a blockchain. If the technology is ever fine-tuned and implemented on a large scale, brain machine interfaces will give personal computation the semblance of magic. The strands of the future will intersect in such novel ways that the only sources we can refer to for clarity will be science fiction (and any regulation or legislation on the matter will read as a science fiction device.)
While there is an immense amount of infrastructural R & D for this to occur on a global scale, it is entirely feasible. While the end spectrum of Fuller’s ephemeralization would probably demand us harnessing some of the quantum weirdness of our universe, blockchain, smart contracts, and other technologies here and now could lead to relationships between ourselves and our systems where things simply work efficiently and effectively to our design.
Empowering generations and giving them agency in the world. That is the goal.
It sounds like magic.
But then again, what’s the difference?
Originally published at Embermine.com and my Medium blog.
B. Fuller image via Wired.com