Gradually, Then Suddenly

Blogpost by Tim O’Reilly: “There’s a passage in Ernest Hemingway’s novel The Sun Also Rises in which a character named Mike is asked how he went bankrupt. “Two ways,” he answers. “Gradually, then suddenly.”

Technological change happens in much the same way. Small changes accumulate, and suddenly the world is a different place. Throughout my career at O’Reilly Media, we’ve tracked and fostered a lot of “gradually, then suddenly” movements: the World Wide Web, open source software, big data, cloud computing, sensors and ubiquitous computing, and now the pervasive effects of AI and algorithmic systems on society and the economy.

What are some of the things that are in the middle of their “gradually, then suddenly” transition right now? The list is long; here are a few of the areas that are on my mind.

1) AI and algorithms are everywhere

The most important trend for readers of this newsletter to focus on is the development of new kinds of partnership between human and machine. We take for granted that algorithmic systems do much of the work at online sites like Google, Facebook, Amazon, and Twitter, but we haven’t fully grasped the implications. These systems are hybrids of human and machine. Uber, Lyft, and Amazon Robotics brought this pattern to the physical world, reframing the corporation as a vast, buzzing network of humans both guiding and guided by machines. In these systems, the algorithms decide who gets what and why; they’re changing the fundamentals of market coordination in ways that gradually, then suddenly, will become apparent.

2) The rest of the world is leapfrogging the US

The volume of mobile payments in China is $13 trillion versus the US’s $50 billion, while credit cards never took hold. Already Zipline’s on-demand drones are delivering 20% of all blood supplies in Rwanda and will be coming soon to other countries (including the US). In each case, the lack of existing infrastructure turned out to be an advantage in adopting a radically new model. Expect to see this pattern recur, as incumbents and old thinking hold back the adoption of new models..

9) The crisis of faith in government

Ever since Jennifer Pahlka and I began working on the Gov 2.0 Summit back in 2008, we’ve been concerned that if we can’t get government up to speed on 21st century technology, a critical pillar of the good society will crumble. When we started that effort, we were focused primarily on government innovation; over time, through Jen’s work at Code for America and the United States Digital Service, that shifted to a focus on making sure that government services actually work for those who need them most. Michael Lewis’s latest book, The Fifth Risk, highlights just how bad things might get if we continue to neglect and undermine the machinery of government. It’s not just the political fracturing of our country that should concern us; it’s the fact that government plays a critical role in infrastructure, in innovation, and in the safety net. That role has gradually been eroded, and the cracks that are appearing in the foundation of our society are coming at the worst possible time….(More)”.