Tuesday, November 21, 2006

The Needham question, 9/11 and the next fifty years

I've not much time to develop this thesis, so I'll go quickly here. Maybe I'll get to it later.

There are four parts to this:
The Needham question is basically: "Why didn't China sail a steamship bristling with canon into Manhattan @ 1750?".

The Falling Cost of Havoc is the observation that small groups of individuals can now afford some of the military capabilities (bioweapons, worldwide secure communication channels, advanced data mining, evolved terrorist techniques) that were once available only to nations.

The Next Fifty years is my post suggesting, somewhat to my own surprise, that the next fifty years may not be all that different from the last fifty years. (Speaking Mandarin and using low speed low energy vehicles is not that big a difference.)

The Innovator's Dilemma is a fascinating business book pointing out that well run dominant enterprises are appropriately good at stifling disruptive technologies.

The thesis is that these are connected.

The best current answer to the Needham question is that China was doing pretty well during the 14th through 18th centuries, and it had developed a governmental system that was very stable* and very good at eliminating disruptive interruptions. In other words, it behaved like a well run corporation. Innovation is disruptive, disruption is dangerous.

If the next fifty years is to resemble the last fifty years (by no means the worst outcome), then the world must become far better at stifling disruption and managing the falling cost of havoc. The world will rediscover China's answer to the Needham question. (Ironically, China will need to rediscover it too ....)

My guess is that the world will do this, whether geeks like me like it or not. I think the history of the counter-revolution has been greatly under appreciated.

Ok, that's all for now.

* The past 5 years of US history has dramatically diminished my faith in the stability of democracies.

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