Distilling the Fundamentals of the Future
“The only constant is change.”
Heraclitus, the Greek philosopher, who originally coined the expression might as well have been working in tech with that type of mindset.
In a sea of constant change, it’s easy to get drawn into conversations about the future. What type of impact will autonomous vehicles have on how cities are designed? How will VR affect tourism and all the economies dependent on how we define travel today? Will voice represent the next major input model that moves us beyond the era of smartphones?
The answers to these very questions represent billion dollar opportunities. The outcomes of these tectonic shifts and how they will eventually evolve (or not) will have profound effects on the world.
Naturally much of the dialogue about the future revolves around change. In particular, what will change? How? And when? However, what’s equally, if not more important, is a subtle wrinkle to that very question. What will not change about the future?
As with how asking yourself ‘why not?’ may be equally as powerful of a tool as asking yourself ‘why?’ in certain contexts, reflecting on what won’t change can be an incredibly powerful exercise when peering off into the future. An exercise that can be wildly impactful and rewarding.
Jeff Bezos famously says that customers will always want lower prices, more selection, and faster delivery. No matter what changes in the future may take shape, Jeff is steadfast that these are consumer preferences that never will. They are hard truths that he’s built Amazon on and the pillars that’s guided major investment decisions to date. Amazon’s recent forays into pickup locations and drone deliveries are just two examples of explorations being made at Amazon to deliver on the fundamental truth that consumers will always want faster delivery.
But there’s more to this.
This line of thinking touches on a bigger concept: the power of thinking in first principles. At a fundamental level, thinking in first principles involves distilling concepts down to their fundamental truths. Why is something the way that it is? What’s at the root of it all? What won’t change?
As opposed to reasoning by way of analogy and anticipating outcomes based on patterns, reasoning by first principle allows you to break through layers of assumptions that aren’t truths. Assumptions that are in fact purely dependent on the validity of the assumptions on which they’re built upon.
Elon Musk has a great example of reasoning by first principle when posed with the assertion that the cost of batteries will stay high:
With first principles, you say, “What are the material constituents of the batteries? What is the stock market value of the material constituents?”
It’s got cobalt, nickel, aluminum, carbon, some polymers for separation and a seal can. Break that down on a material basis and say, “If we bought that on the London Metal Exchange what would each of those things cost?”
It’s like $80 per kilowatt hour. So clearly you just need to think of clever ways to take those materials and combine them into the shape of a battery cell and you can have batteries that are much, much cheaper than anyone realizes.”
In Jeff’s example, he’s identified elements of consumer psychology that won’t change. Elon on the other hand defined the fundamental elements that make up a battery. Despite touching on two different concepts, both Jeff and Elon sought to identify the root of the subject matter at hand.
As we consider all the changes to come and we build toward the future in tech, some of the biggest innovations will derive from tapping into the essence of some of those truths that will withstand the test of time.
So what is it that we’re confident won’t change? What makes up the bedrock on which our assumptions are built? Only once we identify the fundamentals, can we more reasonably reason about the possibilities of the future.
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