It's about economics
In our research, economic analysis tends to have a central place. We believe that economic constraints and opportunities are key driving forces shaping the future. Unfortunately, these forces are often overlooked or played down by many futurists. To be a key component of any scenario, any upcoming technology will need not only to justify its economic value, but to demonstrate that it can scale and be sustained in a realistic way.
Lure and limits of science-fiction
The most common issue in futurism is to look too much for inspiration from science-fiction. Unfortunately, looking back at the last century, science-fiction authors have achieve on average a very poor job at predicting our future. To their credit, accurate prediction was not their purpose. What makes a good story has nothing to do with what makes a realistic one.
The development of so-called hard science-fiction as a whole subcategory was an attempt to address this issue of realism. Those stories were supposed to ensure that any future world described would be constrained by basic scientific consistency and accuracy. However, this effort to introduce a minimum level of rigor has been a bit misleading, providing a false sense that these stories might represent a realistic description of our future.
The basic flawed assumption of this approach is that anything compatible with our current understanding of science and for which we can imagine a logical purpose will be eventually on the table. In other words, as long as we are not violating physical laws, we should consider that it’s just a matter of time for any cool tech to become available.
Unfortunately, this assumption completely overlooks that in the real world, 99% of technologies that are routinely invented tend to fail from the start or collapse way before getting mainstream.
Why technology innovations fail
There are many reasons why technology innovations suffer multiple and repeat failures. Overall, those reasons broadly fall into two categories:
1. The innovation itself doesn’t solve any real life problem. The start-up world is filled with great concepts that ended in the grave, sometimes after some considerable funding, because there was just no viable market to support their technology. There is so much competition for resources that any tech which is just “nice to have” is doomed.
2. The innovation overlooks the cold-start problem. For a lot of technologies, it’s relatively easy to claim their economic value once they operate at a large scale. However, they also need to provide some meaningful value at a much more modest scale. Otherwise they won’t be able to sustain themselves until they get to the tipping point.
The elusive post-scarcity world
Futurists often try to go around those innovation dilemmas by assuming that at some point in the future, we’ll be living in a post-scarcity world, where economic considerations will become largely irrelevant.
The justification of such assumption is based two core pillars: very cheap energy production and full artificial automation. In a world where an infinite army of super versatile robots have access to almost unlimited energy, any project becomes feasible, regardless of its true utility.
One of our core assumptions is that this post-scarcity ideal state is largely a fantasy. In other words, scarcity is unfortunately entrenched in the very fabric of our economy. Some assets are intrinsically rare like premium real-estate, or made deliberately rare like luxury goods.
The ultimate rare commodity is human attention span which has no room for expansion and creates a hard cap on all our options.
Due to those structural factors, there will always be opportunity cost to consider for any project. Whenever we like it or not, humanity will always have to make difficult trade-offs between competing ideas. As a result, any sustainable project of any meaningful scale will have to justify its value compared to the capital investment required to build and maintain it running.
Zenon is producing both research in partnership with academics and also videos for the general public.