When the harvest of 1621 delivered a bounty to the early Plymouth settlers, they gave thanks for an abundance that, today, we would scarcely notice. They crossed an ocean to find not an easy life but a life of increased freedom and possibility. They worked all year hoping for a yield to sustain them through the winter. And yet, as the years (and centuries) went by, in both good harvests and bad, they and those who followed gave thanks.
The intervening Industrial and Information Revolutions made agricultural abundance an afterthought for most. But despite our material abundance and widespread modern cynicism, a few things still have the power to inspire wonder.
The digital economy is one of those things. It generates abundance – of information, and often of wealth – like nothing we’ve known. Even when this information does not lead to wealth or material wellbeing, however, it brings a richness to our lives and to the world.
In 1947, Bell Labs scientists assembled the first transistor (singular) by hand. As you can see in this photo (0), it looks primitive, perhaps closer in time to the Pilgrims than to Pinterest. Today, a transistor doesn’t look like anything because, for decades, we’ve not been able to see one with the naked eye. Intel reports that 100 million of its 22-nanometer transistors now fit on the head of a pin. An Nvidia graphics chip that powers your PC or game machine now contains seven billion transistors. In all, semiconductor fabs worldwide this year will manufacture more than one quintillion (1018) of these digital switches that were unknown as recently as World War II. That’s abundance!
Or consider the corresponding exponential growth in our power to communicate. When that first ugly transistor was glued together, a standard copper telephone line transmitted a 3-kilohertz (or kilobit) signal. Today, NEC and Corning have demonstrated a fiber optic system that sends 1.05 petabits per second over a distance of 50 kilometers. That’s a nearly trillion-fold leap in the capacity of a single “wire.”
The result of this hardware abundance, where over the last 15 years U.S. firms invested some $1.2 trillion in broadband infrastructure, is an even greater and richer abundance of software and content. Think Google’s Android, with more than a billion users, or Apple’s iOS, which in a little more than five years generated more than 100 billion app downloads. Or nearly 20 exabytes (1018) of IP traffic across the U.S. this year. Or the Amazonian abundance of Jeff Bezos’s warehouses, both on earth and in the cloud. Or the twitterific bank accounts of the entrepreneurs who bring these ideas to life.
These, however, are just the metrics of bits and bytes, dollars and cents. These are the things we can chart and graph. Important, to be sure, but they are not the only upside of the information abundance.
In the same way the Pilgrims were seeking more than material abundance, the digital economy’s fruits are not all measurable. Our digital world does not create a heaven on earth, but it does empower more people than ever before to express themselves more fully through work, commerce, art, science, community, and civic activism. It may not free oppressed nations, at least not immediately, but it does carry voices further and faster than before. It may not resolve persistent unemployment, but it does allow more people to pursue particular passions and match their talents with the world’s needs. It fuels the engine of knowledge creation and accumulation that we now believe is the basis of economic growth, not to mention the Aristotelian ideal.
Perhaps most importantly, this great transmission of information and accumulation of knowledge opens up vast new horizons of the unknown. It expands freedom and multiplies possibility. Knowledge reveals ignorance. Information leads to the next adventure, the next discovery, the next New World. And for this never ending search, we all give thanks.