top of page

What's the Future and Why It's Up to Us

What's the Future and Why It's Up to Us, by Tim O'Reilly

Before reading the entirety of this book, I wrote down my thoughts after reading the introduction and first chapter. I think that Tim is going to make arguments that I don’t agree with, which at first turned me off from reading the book and tempted me to stop reading. But that’s not the point. It will be good for me to read a book with alternate perspectives. O’Reilly believes that AI is displacing jobs. I’m not sure that he goes as far as “AI is taking over the world,” but it seems like it could easily trend towards this direction. He thinks that the computer algorithms we are developing are driving economic separation between the wealthy and poor. He also argues that computer technology is displacing jobs and speaks negatively about this observation. It seems like he is going to blame technology and computers and algorithms for our society’s economic problems. At this point, I disagree. I think that many, if not all, of our problems in the modern world are a result of “the death of God.” We have killed God, which has killed morals, which has led to poor decisions. If algorithms are to blame, using O’Reilly’s argument, then the fundamental problem is actually the people who implement those algorithms. People are the fundamental problem. People who have killed God have no “Tao” and consequently make poor decisions. By removing God, we are removing our society’s foundation, and hence everything is coming tumbling down. Algorithms are one of those features that have suffered as a result of God’s death. I do not see how O’Reilly can blame algorithms and technology. I’m curious to read about his arguments and proposed solutions. He might have some good ideas. And he might not. The only way to find out is to read on.

I liked the following quote: “Life can be much broader once you discover one simple fact: Everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you… Once you learn that, you’ll never be the same again,” ~ Steve Jobs. I love this quote, because I think it’s absolutely true. The more people I meet and speak with, the more I realize that nobody is god. They are all human and no smarter than me. All of the technology that I’m surrounded by was created by men no smarter than me. Men are just men. Athletes feel pain just like I do. Business executives experience failure and frustration just like I do. Once you realize that we’re all human, then you also realize that you can impact the world around you. Once you truly believe that you can make an impact, then that’s when you can make a difference. I believe that now, and I believe it more every day. I know that I can compete in the intellectual playground with (almost) anybody. Just like when I raced bikes, I learned that even the best racers have weaknesses. They feel pain and they can be beaten. Once I realized this, then I was no longer intimidated by athletes. Now, I’m at the point where not athlete or intellectual intimidates me. Well, that might not exactly be true. There are likely people out there. Anyway, I’m at the point where I am wondering, how will I impact the world? What do I want to do? What’s meaningful? Once that question is answered, I can proceed to fulfill it. For now, I will ponder the world and seek opportunities.

After reading the first 2 parts of this book, I do not find it very interesting. There are a few interesting points and observations. Based on O’Reilly’s successes, I should consider his arguments, because they must be credible. Otherwise, O’Reilly would not have had so much success with his companies. The first part of this book was about predicting the future by determining the trajectory of existing technologies. He called this developing a road map. The big point is that old road maps often blind us and often need to be discarded. Tim shared some stories about his experiences with open source software and shared his thoughts about Uber and Lyft. The future is made by today’s people, today’s decisions, and today’s technologies. Our decisions today dictate the shape of the future.

In part 2, Tim talks about platforms, including Amazon and the US government. He argues that governments need to be structured more like a platform. He compares a government to Apple or Android operating systems. These platforms dictate the rules, but they allow independent developers to create apps. Successful technologies are built on platforms with clear rules. The government needs to do a better job at understanding the needs of its population and implementing efficient solutions. It seems that the government is navigating by an old road map. In the modern world, where results are immediate, search results provide instant answers, and packages are delivered in one day, it still takes weeks to process government paperwork. This is unacceptable. We need a government 2.0. Unfortunately, ideas are a dime a dozen. Implementation is expensive. O’Reilly thinks that the government needs to create more rules.

Tim argues against fake news. He says that social media sites like Facebook and Twitter are littered with it. Fake news is a problem. I don’t disagree. I didn’t find anything useful in this part of the book.

Tim also talks briefly about machine learning, which mostly just tempts me to study machine learning algorithms. I want to develop a custom program. Google is basically a large, complex brain with billions and billions of connections. The decisions that Google makes are determined by the algorithms that we create. It’s a black box that we don’t understand. Tim believes that we are losing control.

I agreed with many of O’Reilly’s observations in part 2 of the book. Yes, many of the market decisions are driven by algorithms. Yes, these algorithms are fed by large amounts of data collected from cell phones, sensors, and the internet. Yes, we don’t understand all the intricacies within the AI algorithms, because it’s too much data for our feeble brains to process. But something about O’Reilly’s claims does not sit well with me. Something makes me feel uncomfortable, and I don’t know exactly what I disagree with yet. I can’t articulate why O’Reilly’s claims and conclusions do not agree with my gut. Let’s explore. O’Reilly thinks that we need more government oversight and control. He thinks that algorithms are biased towards the 1.0%, that the algorithms are optimized to drive profits, which consequently reduces wages of workers. Ok, that’s interesting. Financial market algorithms and business algorithms are developed to drive profits. They do this effectively. Part of the consequence of this is that people need to be optimized in their job roles and costs need to be cut. The algorithms do exactly what they were developed to do. O’Reilly thinks that theses algorithms need to be refined in order to shrink the financial gap. And he thinks that increased government regulation is the answer. I’m not sure that I agree. The current US government and economy has enabled companies like Google to prosper. Obviously, the government must be functional, else Google and Amazon wouldn’t have emerged. And I like life much more because of these companies. Are these companies responsible for displacing workers and causing the severe economic separation? Possibly. But are algorithms to blame? Or are people to blame? I think that’s what doesn’t sit well with me. Algorithms optimize. You can’t change that. Optimization algorithms do exactly what they are intended to do. O’Reilly tries to place the blame on algorithms and executives who are seeking personal profit. I think that the blame should actually be placed on our disappearing moral foundation. The foundation that society is destroying by their efforts to kill God. Killing God has led to greedy, power hungry decision makers who have no objective morals. Don’t blame the algorithms.

The last part of the book is called “It’s up to us.” Tim talks about some proposed solutions. In my opinion, the last two chapters of this book were the most engaging. I didn’t care how Tim thinks the government should be structured or how open source software should be the standard. But I like the points that he makes towards the end of the book. In chapter 13, he talks about “supermoney,” which was a completely new concept to me. Real money is the money that you and I have in the bank, and it’s what we use in our daily lives. Supermoney is what large companies like Google and Walmart have. It is millions and billions of dollars in the stock market. It is the ability to spend enormous amounts of money, because your company has enormous stock value. Tim argues that too many business executives focus on keeping shareholders happy and stock prices high. This means cutting worker wages so that more money lands in the accounts of top executives. He thinks that CEOs should value their companies around something other than stockholder value.

Throughout the book, he also supports open source software. He says that open source software supports the good of all. And improving the lives of all people should be the aim of our society. O’Reilly gives many examples of successful open source projects and how they have defined our current economy. We wouldn’t be here if Linux and the internet and Android weren’t open source. Over and over again, we see people joining together to produce products that are good for all of society. Beyond open source software, we have communities that review products and restaurants. We get many people together to provide feedback about services, and this community feedback benefits all people.

There is a section about caregiving. Tim sees caregiving as one of the jobs in a category of jobs that cannot be replaced by technology. There are certain jobs that require human creativity and human touch. Motherhood for example. Mothers cannot be replaced by machines. Artists for example. Machines cannot generate creative designs and sculptures like a talented artist. Eating meals with other people is another good example. The relationships that are formed over meals cannot be replicated by a machine. It’s a purely human activity. It’s a creative activity. Fashion, poetry, sports, and entertainment are all good examples of creative activities. Tim refers to money spent on items such as experiences and luxuries as “creative money.” As opposed to “machine money.”

In the ending chapters, O’Reilly also talks a little about his own rise to success. As a child, he read many, many science fiction novels. I see this theme over and over again. Reading, especially from a young age, appears to have tremendous positive impact on future success. Maybe it develops a certain part of the brain? I don’t know, but I do know that there is a correlation between reading and success. In college, O’Reilly studied Greek and Latin, but he claims that his greatest skill is his ability to learn. His ability to learn is his greatest asset. It’s how he was able to parse through so many textbooks and write user guides. This is also something that I’ve noticed in my own life, as well as the lives of others. It is the ability to learn that is most lucrative.

Speaking of lucrative, Tim makes the point that people should pursue opportunities that make a difference and are interesting. Do not pursue a job for money alone. Your pursuits should be more interesting than the money. Pursue work that is meaningful, work that adds value to the world, work that makes you a better person as a result.

As technologies emerge and mature, different skillsets are required. The most lucrative skillsets emerge because there is a missing skill. If you can master a new skill before it becomes normalized, then you will have a lucrative career. To do this, you must be able to see technology vectors, anticipate the skills of the future, and then learn those skills. If you can combine the ability to forecast the future with the ability to learn, then it appears that you have a great chance of success. In today’s market, simple programming skills are becoming the blue collar jobs. There’s nothing special about being able to program. It’s expected for nearly all technology-related jobs.

The future is made by today’s people, who are creatively drafting ideas that push our boundary of plausible, and implementing steps towards achieving those implausible ideas. There is absolutely no reason that I can’t be the person shaping the world’s future.

Recent Posts

The Changing World Order

Broadly speaking across all metrics of wealth and power, the US is declining, whereas China is exponentially rising. What does this mean?

The Decarbonization Imperative

Is it possible to reach net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050? If not, then we face severe potential consequences. If so, how?

bottom of page