John Sundman is on parr with Bruce Sterling and William Gibson in future-telling and he sat down with me for a few minutes at Disrupt in Brooklyn to talk about the future of nanobots, CRISPR, and genetic engineering.
It’s been a habit of mine since birth and I’m sure you share it: I try to check out bookshelves whenever I can. During dinner parties I gravitate to the host’s stacks in an effort to suss out their taste and opinions. Homes without bookshelves are as sterile as Intel clean rooms. They show that either the host is an insufferable bore or they are one of those weirdos who gave up all possessions. Either way, as John Waters said, “if you go home with somebody, and they don’t have books, don’t fuck ‘em!”
What’s the point? The point is that we are fast approaching an era when books will be as cumbersome and unnecessary as vinyl. The olds among us will remember the days of packing your vinyl into THOU SHALT NOT STEAL milk crates and driving them cross country next to bulging boxes of paperbacks. These days my music is in my phone alongside my books. I have one crate of vinyl that I haven’t listened to since I was 21 and I have shelves of books that I rarely look at except in quiet reverie.
And printed books are in trouble. Don’t let the publishers tell you otherwise. They’re falling rapidly at a rate that will put them equal ebook sales in 2017. It’s bad news for folks who love slipcovers.
You are hurtling towards a strange future, a future full of invisible nanobots, amazing technology, and, ultimately, ready access to delicious coffee and croissants served at a street-side cafe as life washes by your contented brain. In short, the future won’t be full of Blade-Runner-esque horrors and endless rain. It will be a nice day in a nice place — everywhere in the world.
I cribbed this vision of the future from one of my podcast guests, Ben Hammersley. Ben, like me, is a techno-optimist. He believes that a truly developed world, one where robots take over our driving and travel and technology becomes ubiquitous and invisible, looks more like a nice walk in Barcelona than the Warriors. Why? Because as good things become generally available and we have to work less to get them the future will be far more pleasant than we all imagine.
You get fat. That’s the worst thing. I’ve watched every single one of the writers I’ve grown up with — with a few very rare exceptions — get fat. It’s actually quite funny. Look for old videos of me. I was once a calm, skinny early 30-something and now I look like a nervous beluga. There is nothing healthy about this lifestyle. Either accept that or get out now. You can exercise but unless you’re an ectomorph or willing to run more than you write then you’re stuck. You can quit and start surfing and get skinny again, but this requires you live in Hawaii.
You learn how to write fast. I can put up a blog post in five minutes. I’m not proud. I’ve been sprinting so long that writing anything longer than 1,000 words is an odd feeling. To be a true long-form writer you have to produce, edit, and revise for hours. I learned that blogging ruins long-form when I wrote my books, most notably Marie Antoinette’s Watch. I could not hold a thread and my writing, while dense, was imperfect. I didn’t have the discipline necessary to write long. Here’s hoping I can get it back. Treasure it if you have it, even if it won’t make you any money.
We are now in an era of technological stagnation, a true plateau. The last time this happened — between 1990 and 2000 — we lived in a world that changed little over a decade with incremental and short-sighted technological improvements standing in for real change. The current stagnation began in about 2008 and I expect it will end in five years.
I realize this is a lot to swallow but consider the facts: between 1990s and 2000 little changed. The Web, which was in its infancy, was still considered a plaything or snake oil by an important subset of the technologically savvy and Bill Gates didn’t get publicly bullish on the Internet until 1997. The browser was an enemy and most businesses fell back to Lotus Notes and private networks in an effort to keep their employees from potentially using company time to connect their business to the world. Linux was a plaything and open source was a haven for zealots and the socially awkward.
I’ve written about startups for a decade. I’ve interviewed founders, spoke at conferences, and flapped my gums about best ways forward and how silly/cool a product was. What I didn’t know, and what I know now, is that I wasn’t giving startup founders their due.
In short, I didn’t see two things: the fire in their bellies when it came to their idea and the fire in their bodies that was slowly burning them down. Just as the drive forward immolates you from the inside the same drive immolates our physical body. Dreaming up a business is often as easy as sitting down at a table and starting to think. Bringing a startup to life is akin to entering some sort of maniacal roller-coaster of your own devising. Finding an equilibrium is the hardest thing an entrepreneur can do and finding true calm comes only with practice.
I’m getting there, but it’s hard.
Another day, another hour-long discussion of bitcoin and blockchain on the main stage of one of the biggest and most interesting shows in the world. This time I’m with the Winklevosses at SXSW where we talk about block size, the future of cryptocurrency, and their odd genetic quirks.