Summit Europe 2014: Tech’s Pace Is Like a Dozen Gutenberg Moments Happening at the Same Time

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From sunny San Diego last week for the Exponential Medicine conference to the rainy and overcast Netherlands for Summit Europe this week—I’m on the road with Singularity University. At the DeLaMar theater in central Amsterdam, some 900 participants are here to attend the largest event in SU’s history.

Whereas Exponential Medicine took the theme of exponential technology and applied it to health and medicine, Summit Europe will drill down into the concepts and consequences of our exponential pace.

SU’s global ambassador and founding executive director, Salim Ismail, set the stage.

We’re at an inflection point, he said, where we are digitizing and augmenting the human experience with technology. That digitization is accelerating change. The question is: How can individuals and society, more generally, navigate it?

Five hundred years ago, Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press freed information as never before. Ismail framed the current pace of technology as Gutenberg to the extreme, “We’re having about a dozen Gutenberg moments all at the same time.”

It’s true…currently, I’m listening to experts communicate new and novel ideas. I take notes on a laptop, connect to the internet, find images, load the article—and publish (for free). Ideas from the mouths of the few to the brains of the many in mere moments.

This flow of information is driving idea cross-pollination and innovation on a massive scale.

Listening to Ismail’s talk, I was reminded of a quote. Generally attributed to Elbert Hubbard, it goes like this, “The world is moving so fast these days that a man who says it can’t be done is generally interrupted by someone doing it.”

I wasn’t struck by the sentiment—a fairly common one around these parts—but the period. Hubbard was a denizen of the 19th and early 20th centuries (1856-1915), but the sentence feels so modern, Peter Diamandis could have said it yesterday.

Our sense of cultural and technological acceleration isn’t new.

Hubbard lived at a time when scientific revolutions were common currency. He bore witness to Darwin, Einstein, Edison, and Ford. In his era, humankind flipped from a species preoccupied with feeding itself to one in which a tiny fraction feeds the rest (less than 2% in the US today)—freeing tens of millions to do myriad other tasks.

However, if you believe we’re progressing at an exponential rate—Hubbard’s words are not just doubly true today; they’re orders of magnitude more so—and that translates into Ismail’s dozen simultaneous Gutenberg moments.

Then as now, people were excited and anxious in equal measure. Ismail showed a video of someone riding in one of Google’s self-driving cars as it navigated an obstacle course at top speed. The rider is amazed and a little nervous—the video ends with him letting out a little involuntary scream. Today, the world is letting out a little collective Google scream.

Will we let the latest technology take the wheel? Perhaps not at first. But as a car (or any technology) proves it can reliably handle something normally entrusted to humans—it will become as accepted, mundane, and utterly useful as an elevator.

We’ll be covering Summit Europe today and tomorrow, so stay tuned!

Image Credit: Willi Heidelbach/Wikimedia Commons

Jason is managing editor of Singularity Hub. He cut his teeth doing research and writing about finance and economics before moving on to science, technology, and the future. He is curious about pretty much everything, and sad he'll only ever know a tiny fraction of it all.