When you’re in school, you’re often taught history as being simply a story, nothing more than a sequence of events that lead to today, the best time to be alive. Usually this isn’t out of a romanticization of the present but a loathing of the past. But, since we like to think time as working in a linear fashion, it’s no suprise the immediate question then is: What are we moving toward in time?
An answer that gets appreciated in an American context is that we are moving toward a more progressive and egalitarian future. The birth of the United States is a story of liberating people from a monarchy and then establishing a Bill of Rights to grant people their unalienable freedoms. Then, over the next few centuries, we append constitutional amendments to free slaves as well as give women the right to vote. As we move into today with the contested topics of healthcare, university tuitions, and gender dynamics, it’s understandable to think of ourselves as being on a sort of “right path” with the goal being a well represented society. However, as you observe the lack of ‘progressiveness’ in many places from China’s treatment of the Uyghurs to Apartheid to modern day antisemitism, this description only makes more sense to people with agency and separation from these things in the world.
Another theory is that society is being driven by the development of novel technologies. We see changes in phases of history based on the technologies available or introduced in that time. For instance, we have periods like the “Bronze Age” and the “Space race” but nothing for the “Monarchy age” or “Democracy race”. The creation of agricultural tools was a significant one since that broke the limitation of having to be nomadic. The creation of the printing press broke the limitation of information moving slowly among the general population. The creation of the steam engine or automobile are cases of breaking the limitation of speed of transportation. While more instances of steps up can be easily come up with, another neat perk to this theory is that, like the lens of “progressiveness”, we view people of the past as being distinct due to their [or lack of] technology. As an example, watching a movie from the 20th century is a delight to see a snapshot with walkmans, fax machines, and no high speed internet. Or when you step back further to Greek fables, you get to see a time with wooden boats and seemingly primitive weapons or hand-held tools. Reverting the direction of focus to the future, we know or at least have an idea of how the future should have flying cars and space tourism and such forth.
While this theory can certainly explain things in retrospect (like the Great Founder theory as well), it fails at the point of showing why something happens next. It’s correct that the world felt different like it had fundamentally changed when the internet became more mainstream and it will (assuming it does) feel like there’s been a great shift when crypto gets embraced by the general population for more than just investment hype cycles. But before these changes, it becomes a problem of incredible speculation to see these inventions before they actually happen. A piece of empirical evidence for this is that there’s no reproducible formula for venture capital.
As a solution to this problem, it’s important to note that, in each of these theories, the particular subject being paid attention to is never spread evenly throughout society. With politics/progressiveness, there’s an upper echelon of those in power. With technology, there’s a financial barrier to getting the latest smartphone or medicine. However, that leading group almost always has a hold of the particular thing before the rest, as though society is driven by a spillover of the rich.
It makes sense to look at the trend toward progressivess as being a trend of the government/elites granting power to the rest whether it be in subsidies or large companies standing behind social movements (it’s Pride month so that means every company is legally obligated to change their logo to a rainbow for a month unless it’s for the market in Saudi Arabia and the intrigue is not unnoticed). When you look at technology, new or “hard” tech tends to be inaffordable when it’s first created (a full VR setup used to be at least ~$1200 but can now be attained for the price of a bed from Ikea). To take the anecdotes even further, one can observe the paradigms outlined in the Sovereign Individual as being characteristics of the life an aristocrat becoming more widespread in the digital economy.
To apply this theory and see the story painted we can start with universities and ‘higher education’. It was historically a phenomenon that was reserved for those who were wealthy or part of a noble class (or simply had the agency to not have to go to a trade school). And, as time went on to today, we can see that the barrier to entry lowered and even became accessible to people from impoverished communities or immigrants looking to climb themselves up the social ladder. Where, based on the dialouge around tuitions in the states today, the schelling point is one where the lack of burden of college debt is something that would be existent among the masses rather than just those with rich parents.
Translating this to tech and startups (where I have more direct experience), the majority of SaaS or B2B products are simply things that were invented by large companies being modularized and made accessible to earlier stage companies. Stripe and AWS are examples of tools that would have been abstracted away into a team at Google or such but now are abstracted away into a single API. Like how all languages eventually take ideas from LISP, developer tool companies are predicated on a build vs buy question that takes inspiration from the ones that were built in-house at large tech companies. As more companies try to step on the toes of large incumbants, it’s no surprise that they will need similar tooling to match with them.
Even if we take a gander at more consumer oriented applications, the priniciple holds. The sharing economy (ie Uber, Airbnb, Postmates) are examples of luxuries where you can snap your fingers (or press a styled button on a screen) and get exactly what you want right away. Before these apps came about, this sort of ‘superpower’ would have only been available to those with a sufficient degree of wealth. Looking at things that are purely software and don’t involve an offline component - apps like Poparazzi or Twitch grant you your own following, something that would have only existed conceptually for public figures.
So what are the takeaways from this? If you want to live in the future, live where the rich are. As an example of this in tech, San Francisco was a place where you could hear of and see excting things six months before other people do whether that was the first rollout of electric scooters or apps like Clubhouse. If you want a reliable business idea, build something that currently only exists for the elites. If you want to make predictions about what’s going to happen in the future, figure out what will get the rich excited and pulling out their checkbooks.