It never ceases to amaze me how so few people truly understand that the world is progressing at an exponential and accelerating rate. This is the most critical and fundamental aspect of making any attempt to understand and predict the future. Without a deep appreciation for this, no predictions of the intermediate and distant future are credible.
Read Ray Kurzweil's essay on this topic for an introduction.
One dimension of accelerating, exponential progress can be seen in the economy. Today, the US economy grows at a median rate of 3.5% per year, and the world economy at around 4.5% per year. This is a growth rate that we have come to take for granted and expect.
But such annual growth rates were unheard of in the 19th century, or the 18th century (when the world economy grew less than 1% per year). Things changed very little over the span of 10 or 20 years. People expected their children to have the same living standards, and be surrounded by the same technology, as they were.
Let's look at a graph of per-capita GGP (Gross Global Product), when viewed from the year 2000, looking backwards.
Historical World Per Capita GGP
The accelerating rate of economic growth is apparent from the chart. Thousands of years of human civilization before the 20th century produced modest wealth compared to what was produced in th emuch shorter interval of the 20th century. Even with the 20th century, growth was more in the latter half than in the first 50 years.
Now, in 2006, 4% a year is assumed, and taken for granted. In fact, 3 billion people in the world are living in economies growing at greater than 6% a year (China, India, Russia, Vietnam, Pakistan, Thailand, Malaysia, and others).
This would have been considered amazing, at any other time in history. But is this just an aberration, or has the trendline itself shifted into higher gear, and can we expect this to continue, or even accelerate, in the future? Continue on to Part II for the answer..