We’re Living in Florence, in 1450 A.D.

If you work in technology, you have the amazing luck to be in the midst of one of the great transformations of human society.  There have been numerous times in history when technology has transformed the way we live, our understanding of the world, and the life we are able to experience.  I’ve had one of them on my mind a lot lately – the Renaissance.  I think there are very interesting parallels to be drawn.  It feels like we’re at the height of the first round .. which would put us in Florence, around 1450.

What Caused The Renaissance?

Many forces came together to enable that astonishing transformation of knowledge, art, architecture, and commerce, whose profound impact shaped the world and still fascinates us.

There were some key technology breakthroughs.  Gutenberg is famous for inventing the printing press in 1440, which greatly expanded our ability to distribute ideas.  But just as important, and less frequently remarked upon, was the spread of paper.  We take it for granted today, but it was a magical boost to our ability to capture and disseminate ideas.  Paper is far less costly to produce and can be manufactured in much greater quantity than alternatives like vellum, made from animal skins.  Invented in China in 100 AD, paper remained a closely held secret for several hundred years, but had become widely used by the time of the Renaissance.

The ability to travel and to trade was revolutionized by ocean-going ships (like the Portuguese caravel), which were capable of navigating the globe.  At the same time, the mariner’s astrolabe made it possible to measure latitude anywhere in the world.  With weapons like the arquebus, small groups were able to wreak havoc among less technologically advanced populations.

New technology called for new technique, as well.  The development of merchant capitalism, along with sophisticated means of tracking commercial activities like double-entry bookkeeping, allowed a modern system of banking to emerge.  It was banking that made Florence so wealthy, and that wealth enabled major investments in science and the arts.

In addition to a major infusion of money, the arts were transformed by new techniques as well.  Paintings became far more realistic using linear perspective.  Architecture took advantage of construction techniques both novel and rediscovered.  Grand new structures were created that finally matched and exceeded marvels (like the dome of the Pantheon in Rome) that had been built 1400 years earlier.

This confluence of breakthroughs in technology and technique allowed Europe to leap forward and become the dominant world power in a remarkably short period of time.  Businesses grew to previously unheard of scale and their activities reached across the globe.  Ideas moved much more quickly, too, because they were carried along by the people who were associated with this explosion of trading activity.  Control of knowledge moved from guilds to a mobile class of experts.  Liquidity, supported by precious metals imported from the New World, began to move the basis of wealth from land to capital.  Our world view also began to shift radically – from deism, centered on God, to humanism.  Our conception of the universe was rocked by the discovery that we were one of many planets orbiting around the sun.

The Modern Renaissance

Fast forward to today, and consider what is happening.  In technology, we are seeing two massive changes: devices and the cloud.  The cloud has transformed the cost and reach of computing.  By most estimates, Google runs well over a million servers in their data centers and handles something like three billion searches per day.  This is technology operating at a global scale that was absolutely inconceivable a few years ago.  At the same time, the programmable cloud has made it extremely cheap to build and deploy software.  For a few hundred dollars a month, a programmer with a laptop can take a program they have written and within minutes make it available to more than two billion people.

Smartphones and similar devices are also astonishing in their capability and their reach.  There are now around 1 billion smartphone users in the world with the Internet in their pocket and accessible at all times.  That number is growing rapidly – estimates are that there will be a billion net new smartphone users in the next few years.  The Apple App Store just crossed 25 billion downloads.  The pace of growth and the scale of what has already happened are just staggering.

As always, new technology encourages innovation in techniqueOpen source software has been around for decades, of course, but it has gotten a major boost from its intimate relationship to cloud computing.  A wide body of high quality components are available for free to anyone who wishes to build cloud applications, representing a dramatic reduction in the time and effort required to go from idea to product.  We’re benefiting from that tremendously in our startup.

Another key change is the move from on-premise software to software as a service.  It means that the latest version of every application is available to every customer, without their needing to deploy or manage it.  Services pair nicely with, and encourage, the shift from physical to virtual – instead of manipulating objects, increasingly we’re manipulating data.  We are doing research and developing new products using simulated environments.  We’re transporting knowledge and entertainment as packets over networks, not by sending boxes of plastic and paper around the world.  Increasingly, the basis of value is rooted in virtual goods and services.  I believe that is as profound an economic change as the shift from land-based wealth to capitalism.

Signposts of the Revolution

We have seen some dramatic evidence of the impact that these changes will have, but I think we’re just at the beginning.

  • Facebook has over 900 million active users, and is on track to hit a billion later this year.  It has grown to that size in .. eight years.  To put that in perspective, China’s population today is 1.3 billion; it took around 250 years to grow the last billion (and it took human beings about 12,000 years to hit their first billion).
  • Speaking of Facebook, they recently purchased Instagram.  This company, which serves 30 million users has .. 13 employees.  Two developers run the back-end service for their users.  A few years ago, it would have taken a big company with major resources to support that many users, and now it can be done with a handful of people and no capital expense at all.
  • Consider that icon of the industrial revolution – the car.  A modern premium automobile has something like 100 million lines of code to run the nearly 100 processors distributed throughout it.  It was simulated extensively on supercomputers, is supported by myriad online services, and the supply chain that delivered it to you only works because of massive amounts of software tracking every minute aspect of its progress in real time.

I could go on, but the point is that virtually every industry is in the process of being transformed by the combination of the cloud and the device.  The way we make discoveries and create new inventions.  The way we communicate.  How and what we buy.  How companies interact with each other and with their customers.  And this is all happening incredibly quickly – the cost and effort for new ideas to be tried, refined, and deployed globally has dropped to the floor.  We’ve seen some dramatic changes already, but that was just a warm-up – we’re in for quite a ride.

The Path Ahead is Uncertain

In 1450, Florence was unquestionably at the forefront of the Renaissance, and the city was dominated by the Medici family.  By 1500, the focus of the action had moved elsewhere in Italy and across Europe, and Florence never regained its dominance.  What happened?  Well, for one thing, Charles VIII of France invaded Italy in 1494 and kicked off the Italian Wars, a series of conflicts that involved various city states and several empires.  That first invasion forced the Medici to flee the city, though they returned and ruled it again later.  In the meantime, other parts of Italy and Europe took over and led the Renaissance forward.  I suspect that the fortunes of the early players in our current Renaissance will also dramatically rise and fall.

And worse than losing leadership, there is a darker side to change.  We like to celebrate the Renaissance and the great leap forward in human capability that it represented.  But it wasn’t positive for everyone; it was particularly brutal for indigenous cultures around the world who were now within reach of the Europeans.  Many of them were despoiled and enslaved.  The current changes will not be as violent, hopefully, but we have seen these forces help governments fall and companies be humbled, and there are industries filled with people whose economic future will be dramatically affected.

We can never know ahead of time how things are going to shake out for particular groups during times of great change.  But when transformative forces come along that are this strong, they cannot be denied – they will transform our lives, culturally and economically.

Leonardo Da Vinci.  Michelangelo.  Brunelleschi.  We are still inspired by what they accomplished.  They were amazing people … but they also had amazing luck.  They lived in a magical time and place in the history of mankind.  So do you.  How are you going to be part of this modern Renaissance?

Comments

  1. This exact observation was made by John Scully in his book, 20 years ago. The renaissance moves forward…

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  1. […] I’ve written elsewhere, because of the cloud and devices, technology is in a time of radical transformation – a lot […]

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