Will the infovore utility explosion continue?
Jan 31, 2011
3 minute read

In the comments on my last post, Indy writes,

Implicit in your analysis is the idea that the welfare explosion for infovores will continue. But what if the phenomenon of the utility explosion of infovores is reaching maturity and coming to an end?

To which I perhaps too hastily replied,

I think that we have not remotely scratched the surface of what is possible in terms of iterating on the internet.

Indy pressed me and I promised a post, so here goes. I’ll give three reasons.

First, there is probably a big difference between the intentional internet and the ambient internet. Right now, for the most part, you decide to use the internet. You sit down at a computer or pull out your smartphone and access whatever resource you have a notion to access. Could it be different? I think probably so. There are push notifications, but I’m thinking beyond that. What if the internet were omnipresent and all useful resources were pushed to you in sort of a just-in-time fashion? Think brain scans + AI + omnipresent internet access. The AI would know more than you do about what resources are available and use your brain scans to determine what you might want to see.

Second, there is a difference between a partial equilibrium response and a general equilibrium response to a price change, and to a large extent we’ve only undergone the partial equilibrium response. The price of using a network for information storage, transmission, and access has gone down, and therefore we’re doing more of it. This is just the law of demand. But the general equilibrium response will consist of rethinking everything to take advantage of this change in price. A weak analogy is the invention of the car: maybe everyone drives more, but it’s not until you have interstate highways that you start to experience all the benefits. What is the thing that we have to rethink to take full advantage of the internet? What would society look like if it were built from the ground up with an internet assumption? I’m not sure, but what I am pretty sure about is that we haven’t fully done the rethinking necessary for complete adaptation.

Third, I see analogies with the invention of cooking. In The Rational Optimist, Matt Ridley writes about how cooking profoundly changed the course of human evolution. Cooking is like having an external stomach; part of your digestion gets done before you consume the food. But things get even more interesting when you realize that Ricardian exchange means that you can have your food digested for you by the person with the comparative advantage in doing so. It is probably this process of trade in digestion that enabled humans to evolve such advanced brains. I wonder if something similar could happen with trade, not just in knowledge (which has been going on for centuries), but in cognition. Future iterations of the internet may be geared toward exactly this, and this change could have profound effects on how we evolve, or for that matter, modify ourselves as a species.

What do you think? Do these ideas make any sense? Are there other reasons to think we’re not nearing the end of the infovore utility explosion?