The Future Progress

THE FUTURE PROGRESS

When we think about the future, we hope for much progress. That progress can take one of two forms. Horizontal or extensive progress means copying things that work— coming from 1 to n. Horizontal progress is easy to imagine because we already know what it looks like.

Vertical or intensive progress means doing new things—going from 0 to 1. Vertical gain is harder to imagine because it requires doing something nobody else has ever done. If you take one typewriter and build 100, you have made horizontal progress. If you have a typewriter and create a word processor, you have made vertical progress.

At the macro level, the single word for horizontal progress is globalization—taking things that work somewhere and making them work everywhere. China is the paradigmatic example of globalization; its 20-year plan is to become like the United States is today.

The Chinese have been straightforwardly copying everything that has worked in the developed world: 19th-century railroads, 20th-century air conditioning, and even entire cities. They might skip a few steps along the way—going straight to wireless without installing landlines, for instance—but they’re copying all the same.

The single word for vertical, 0 to 1 progress, is technology. In recent decades, the rapid advancement of information technology has made Silicon Valley the capital of “technology” in general. But there is no reason why technology should be limited to computers. Properly understood, any new and better way of doing things is technology.

horizontal progress is globalization

Because globalization and technology are different modes of progress, it’s possible to have both, either, or neither at the same time. For example, 1815 to 1914 was a period of both rapid technological development and rapid globalization.

Between the First World War and Kissinger’s trip to reopen relations with China in 1971, rapid technological development was not much globalization. Since 1971, we have seen rapid globalization along with limited technical development, mostly confined to IT.

This age of globalization has made it easy to imagine that the decades ahead will bring more convergence and more sameness. Even our everyday language suggests we believe in a kind of technological end of history: the division of the world into the so-called developed and developing nations implies that the “developed” world has already achieved the achievable and that poorer countries need to catch up.

This age of globalization

But we don’t think that’s true. answer to the contrarian question is that most people think the world’s future will be defined by globalization, but the truth is that technology matters more. Without technological change, if China doubles its energy production over the next two decades, it will also double its air pollution.

If every one of India’s hundreds of millions of households were to live the way Americans already do—using only today’s tools—the result would be environmentally catastrophic. Spreading old ways to create wealth around the world will result in devastation, not riches. In a world of scarce resources, globalization without new technology is unsustainable.

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