Tom Hayes‘ Jump Point, a recent addition to the emerging World 2.0 canon presents an argument that evokes a foggy sort of deja vu. If you’ve been keeping up with the literature, you’ll probably frown a bit and think, “wait, this is familiar, somebody’s said this before.” But as you process the argument, you’ll realize that though it is fairly straightforward, and something others have flirted with (The World is Flat and Wikinomics being the prominent ones), nobody has said it quite this way before. The argument is this — we won’t feel the full-scale impact of the Internet until penetration levels are near complete. At that point, we’ll see a massive structural impact on the world that will make what we’ve seen so far pale in comparison. For Hayes, the critical moment is the moment when the 3 billionth human gets connected to the Internet (which current projections suggest will happen around 2011). The number 3 billion isn’t arbitrary — it is roughly the size of the global workforce. So Hayes’ argument is that something dramatic will happen when the world’s workforce gets completely wired. What and Why are the subjects of the book.
The Basic Argument
Let’s get the basic argument out of the way quickly, with a visualization:
By analogy to the history of the impact of technologies such as electricity and the railroad, Hayes argues that there is a response latency between the first emergence of an enabling technology, and its extended structural impact. A simple example (first observed by McLuhan) is the lag America experienced between the invention of the automobile and the deep structural impacts such as the construction of the interstate highway system, the emergence of suburban communities, and the decline of railroads. It took nearly a century for human life to be reorganized around the automobile. You can analyze electricity (as Nicholas Carr does very well in The Big Switch) and the airplane in similar ways.
For the Internet, the picture captures the gist of Hayes’ argument. The main enabling event happened around 1993, with the Web (with smaller enabling jumps with Web 2.0 and probably wireless coming next — the fundamental innovations of course go way back to 1945). The enabling technology created what you might call the sector impact — the growth (with overshoot bubble dynamics) of the directly-related Internet sector. The bubble (and the hopefully smaller Web 2.0 pop) represent the inevitable workings of evolutionary processes, which I talked about before. What is new in Hayes’ argument is that we should expect the most significant impacts to appear only when the network approaches near-full connectivity within the economically active population. If Hayes is right, the approximately 18 year response latency would be the shortest among historical technology impacts of comparable magnitude.
In other words, we should expect to see broad social effects, comparable to urbanization and suburbuanization in magnitude, starting around 2011. We’ve only seen the pre-game show so far. Let’s take a look at Hayes’ predictions about the post-2011 world, before examining the validity of the argument.
Hayes’ predictions aren’t new as far as substance goes. Like other authors, he picks up on the same themes — the attention economy, the role of trust, viral/pandemic economics, freeconomics, the compression of (the social construct of) time, the rise of free agency and Coase economics, balkanized Internet cultures, and so forth. Some minor differences in emphasis and a few new tidbits aside, the content of the impact predictions are the familiar ones.
What Hayes’ asserts explicitly for the first time is that the manifestations of these themes (from Facebook to crowdsourcing) will become the normal patterns of organization of economic and cultural life. He has a happy turn of phrase for this in the case of markets. The online selling channels for any product or commodity have so far been viewed as what he calls a ‘plus’ market — a tacked-on low-marginal cost appendage to normal selling operations. Markets organized primarily around Internet channels are still a rarity, even in lead sectors like books. B&N continues to exist despite Amazon.
If you take a moment to think about it, the idea that the Internet can go from being the secondary to the primary medium of economic activity is more profound than you might think. To calibrate, consider what happened when railroads and highways displaced the Erie canal as the primary economic pipeline connect the US east coast to the interior. What was an artery suddenly became a mildly amusing tourist backwater.
Note that this is not a bricks-vs.-clicks argument. Physical life is still going to be lived in physical geographies, but the structure of the physical geography is going to be shaped by the logic and dynamics of the virtual geography, as I have argued elsewhere. (Homework problem: re-imagine coffee shops after the Jump Point; email me if your imagination fails you)
So if Hayes’ Jump Point argument is valid, the implications are definitely enormous, and go way beyond what we think we have already anticipated. So let’s finish up by examining the validity.
Is the Jump Point Argument Valid?
Even though Hayes’ possibly intended his 2011 prediction as a rhetorical/dramatic device, let’s see where we get by taking it seriously and playing devil’s advocate for a bit. The Jump Point argument stands on three separate ideas. The idea that the full impact of the Internet is going to be sudden (a phase transformation), that it is likely to be driven by the workforce-connectivity variable, and that this event will happen around 2011 or 3 billion humans.
The expectation of suddenness stands on both historical and mathematical evidence. McLuhan talked about “break boundaries” in Understanding Media, Kuhn talked about paradigm shifts in scientific culture, Christensen talked of disruptive innovation happening via the intersection of technology S-curves, and Gould talked of punctuated equilibria and speciation cascades in biological evolution. In each of these historical/phenomenological models, the reasoning is distinct, but the conclusions are similar: sudden change. Going slightly more formal, you have the ideas of self-organized criticality in Physics and solvability phase transformations in computational complexity. On the formal end of the spectrum, you have the catastrophe theory of Rene Thom that eventually led to the more computational chaos theories.
Point being, the idea that this sort of impact and change is likely to be sudden rather than gradual is a pretty solid one. What Hayes’ misses though, is a key phenomenological observation: widespread sudden changes are most often caused by sudden decline and extinction (or marginalization/trivialization) of the old and equally sudden growth of the new. It is unlikely that you can have suddenness alongside non-destructive transformation of the old. As the saying goes, revolutionary ideas in science don’t go mainstream because the critics accept them. They go mainstream because the critics die within a generation. To the extent that extinction/marginalization-driven-suddenness is unlikely, the suddenness itself is unlikely. Can you imagine Boeing becoming extinct or irrelevant? If not, the change cannot be any more sudden than the time it takes Boeing to go 2.0 via an evolutionary, rather than revolutionary path, given the fundamental role of Boeing in our world.
Let’s take the Jump Point driver variable — workforce connectivity. This conclusion is more suspect. It is not clear to me why, causally, “workforce connectivity” is the critical variable. In mathematical models of phase transition phenomena, one usually finds rather specific (and sometimes counter-intuitive) critical “temperature” variables, and it takes significant work to figure out which variable is critical and why. [Techie aside: for example, check out out this paper, one of the seminal ones that discussed phase transitions in computational complexity]. A further problem is that it is not clear that “being connected to the Internet” is a binary variable, even approximately. A poor village woman in Bangladesh connected via a shared, occasionally-used Grameen phone is not quite the same member of the workforce as an information worker with a broadband-wireless enabled laptop in Starbucks. For her to catch up to me in Starbucks might take long enough to dissipate the sharpness of a jump point driven by the “workforce connectivity” variable.
Assuming though, that Hayes has picked the right variable, for the final element, the 2011/3 billion guess, again, there is some doubt here. I don’t doubt the estimate that we’ll hit 3 billion in 2011 (modulo the non-binary concern), what I doubt is that 3 billion (connected workforce ~ 100%) is the critical point. Could it be that the Jump Point already passed us, at say, 50%? Is the Web 2.0 wave ‘it’?
We’ll only really know with the benefit of hindsight. As far as I am concerned, the specifics of Hayes’ Jump Point guesstimated model rank as ‘believable.’
What really makes me pause is a concern entirely unaddressed by Hayes — that a competing Jump Point is galloping towards us, one that has nothing to do with the Internet. This, of course, is the feared one involving oil, water and food shocks, along with global warming and AIDS (global terrorism, serious though it is, has never been in my mind a Jump Point level force on par with say, the looming global water scarcity). In a way, it is a race between two Jump Points that will determine whether we destroy our world or pull back from the brink.