Jonesin’ for the Next Big Thing

Tell me, what is it you plan to do with this one wild and precious life of yours?

—Mary Oliver

My son and I  plan the rest of our lives every Wednesday over coffee at Panera. David is 52, I’m 74. We figure we’ll both make it to a hundred, so there’s lots to plan. We understand, staring at the current state of our economy, that getting through the next quarter of a century will involve dealing with a few annoyances.

The siege of joblessness comes to mind. A consumer economy needs consumers, and consumers need jobs. MIT researchers Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson report  that innovation in robotics, automation and artificial intelligence has accelerated dramatically in the past few years. These sciences are now replacing jobs faster than they are being created elsewhere. The change is so profound, they say, that, for the foreseeable future, the outlook is for higher productivity in the American economy with fewer jobs.

So, the consumer economy appears to be on death watch, and why not? Historically, when order has been threatened, entropy has been the long-run favorite. But Dave and I regard the threat as a passing one that will set us up for the next game changing killer app that will generate an as yet not imagined category of jobs.

A killer app, by definition, creates a new paradigm that has major impact and was unimaginable before it was stumbled on by some crazy dreamer. Not all killer apps are big job producers. The internet produced plenty of jobs, but many of them were offshore. The steam engine, on the other hand, spawned the industrial revolution, which created millions of new jobs for us just when mechanization was killing jobs in agriculture.

Perhaps the all-time killer app was the stirrup. For centuries, the Saracens came over from North Africa and beat the snot out of the Europeans on raiding parties. The Europeans had no answer for this until Genghis Khan attacked from the East on horseback. Khan’s warriors rode with a device, the stirrup, that enabled them to stay aloft their horses while fighting. Charlemagne  adapted the idea for the military of the Carolingian Empire, giving them shock troops to effectively combat the Saracens.

The requirement for a cavalry created the need for land for producing income to sustain the knights and their entourages. In exchange for protection and security, Pope Leo made Charlemagne the Holy Roman Emperor and ceded all of the church’s lands to him, which were meted out to vassals in return for their fealty. The nobility based feudal system was born, which lasted almost a thousand years. Talk about a killer app! The stirrup generated an entire economy and system of government.

Dave and I are confident the next killer app is in some tinkerer’s garage, somewhere, as we speak. We just hope that the primary job category it generates is something other than serf.



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