the next game changer is you

My best friend and I had just finished off a tasty dinner at one of our favorite taquerias. We paid the bill and walked out into the parking lot. I was admiring the perfect Los Angeles night – high 60s, not a single star in the orange sky above the strip mall’s neon glow – when my pal dropped a turd in our conversational punch bowl. 

“So,” he said, “What do you think? AI, right? Nah, AI isn’t it. But if it’s not AI, what do you think is the next game changer?”

I wanted to answer my friend’s question, but I tripped on the phrase “game changer.” I love imagining how innovation can change the world and the way we think about it – I believe that all science starts as science fiction – but I can’t stand bro bra tech-speak, especially when it’s parroted by otherwise thoughtful people.

The casual vagueness of “game changer” is about as promising as five guys holding beer cans around the open hood of a car sitting on blocks in the front yard. We are too easily impressed. For all the hype, the game remains the same. Uber is just another way to get a ride. 

Some of the most powerful game changers get the least attention, because they’re not sexy or profitable or coded by some boy genius at Stanford. Aging, disease, paralysis, dementia, or the OGC (original game changer): death. 

Tech culture’s relentlessly positive branding belies the fact that many of us regard real game changers with a mix of fear and contempt because they force us to abandon the familiar. Change is hard, even when you’re doing something that is essential to your survival and quality of life. Ask anyone who ever ended an abusive relationship or conquered an addiction. 

Legitimate game changers are more than powerful motivators. My cousin would never have become a vegetarian if he hadn’t had a “widowmaker” heart attack and emergency quintuple bypass surgery that saved his life, plus an entire team of cardiologists (read: experts) who privately and unanimously told him they also became vegetarians after watching garbage meat products kill their friends, families, and patients. 

Absent a near-death experience, what will make anyone learn enough about AI to use it for something more than making dumb tasks go faster? For that matter, what will make fossil fuel executives tip over their own rice bowls to save the planet?

My friend’s question was important, though, because the status quo is failing and something will inevitably come next. Once every great while, something comes along that compels us to adapt. The internet changed the way we think and communicate. Smartphones redefined the way we interact with our digital tools and each other.

Smartphones qualify as a game changer because they provide so much more than a different way to make a phone call. They altered the rules, the outcomes, and the structural nature of the game itself. Smartphones gave us the ability to manage our whole lives – calendars, documents, meetings, calculations, research, contacts, entertainment, and more – from a device the size of a deck of cards.

Moreover, smartphones introduced possibilities we had never even considered (whether we needed them or not). I’m editing this document on my phone. I can also lock my car doors from miles away. Constantly inventing new stuff we can do with our smartphones has made us dependent on our smartphones. We went from listening, to watching, to hunching, to possibly growing bone spurs in our head due to frequent use. Now we have apps to save us from smartphone addiction. 

But most of the things we celebrate as “game changers” are not smartphone-level innovations. They range from worse-than-useless to reactionary, UX-level updates to modernity that sell us back a taste of the agency we once had to begin with. Sometimes alleged game changers use new tools, but if they stand out at all, it’s because they represent a return to sanity that counteracts negative consequences of previous game changers. 

Slow food and slow cookers have been called game changers in the media and on Reddit, the internet opinion game changer. But is slow food really a game changer? In 1986, when Italian journalist Carlo Petrini rebelled against a McDonalds opening in Rome by handing out plates of penne and launching the Slow Food Association, some people thought slow food was a novel approach.

Slow food is a great idea, but it’s not new. Slow food is ancient. People have prepared, shared, and consumed food with intention since long before agriculture, processed food, and McDonalds. Slow is how we’re naturally designed and inclined to eat. Slow food only seems novel – or slow, for that matter – to people who grew up ordering in the drive-thru because of insane cultural norms, reward systems, and marketing campaigns. 

My problem with “game changers” is the same problem George Orwell had with political language. I’m against trendy placeholder phrases because they are linguistic junk food whose main purpose is to identify speakers and listeners as tribal cult members. Only a surfer can truly get stoked. When you say it, you sound like a poser. The issue is authenticity. People use language they don’t understand in ways that often don’t make sense and no one calls them on it. There is no enforcement of integrity. Black people finally outlawed everyone else’s use of the N word but that is a one-of-a-kind cultural copyright. 

We’ve made a habit of co-opting and strip mining cool-sounding words, mashing words together into brands, and making verbs out of nouns, without any pedigree of voice or respect for their original definitions and significance. These practices make the new terms disposable and robs the original words of whatever meaning they had in the first place. Words like “trauma” or “rape” should never be used metaphorically by people with no direct experience, knowledge, or respect for the concepts the terms originally represented.

You may be guilty of lesser sins. You’ve probably said “in a minute” or “100%” or “amiright” or “brother” (to someone other than your brother) or “fire” or “appreciate you” (when you didn’t really) or something equally hip and meaningless. Don’t get me started on “disrupt.” Repent.

We need to take language seriously at this point in history. Given today’s absence of shared, accepted factual data or critical thinking, language creates reality. If you think for a moment that a venomous narcissist who hates American voters can’t become their president and do severe damage to the world’s strongest democratic republic while simultaneously defending himself in multiple court cases as nearly half the country cheers him on, you are condemned to repeat a very bad past you don’t know or understand. 

With the importance of language in mind, I want to correct a mistake I made in the third paragraph of this post. We can’t afford to make light of dangerous elements in our culture, especially when they are potential game changers. Instead of “bro bra tech-speak” I should have written something more serious and accurate, such as, “the language of cruel, self-obsessed neo-Nazis.” That description is supported by verifiable fact. Again, if you think for a moment that referring to Nazism is a rhetorical exaggeration or an example of Godwin’s Law, and you haven’t heard of Elon Musk or Peter Thiel, consider the recent words of Balaji Srinivasan, former partner at Andreessen-Horowitz and CTO of Coinbase (an alleged cryptocurrency game changer). No less a game-changing visionary than Marc Andreesen wrote of Srinivasan, “Balaji has the highest rate of output per minute of good new ideas of anybody I’ve ever met.”

So what does Srinivasan envision? “A tech-governed city where citizens loyal to tech companies would form a new political tribe clad in gray t-shirts. And if you see another Gray on the street … you do the nod,” he said, during a four-hour (!) talk on a podcast, in which he also said Reds would be welcome in the city where police are stormtroopers, and Blues would not. But really, it’s all about the gray tribe of tech, where if you get to wear the chosen shirt and do the special nod, “You’re a fellow Gray.” Just like in pre-World War II Germany or the Stanford Prison Experiment.

“C’mon, man… you know what I mean…”

My friend is still staring at me in the parking lot.

I don’t want to disappoint him. I break my meditation on the “game changer” and refocus: “The next big idea? That’s a question worth thinking about. How about I give it some time and put some effort into writing you an answer?”

He agrees. In the next few paragraphs I’ll try to make good.

The next game changer will be introduced by serious people who stand on the shoulders of giants in a bold attempt to answer a big question, solve an important problem, or make the impossible possible. The next game changer may use the internet, but it will be more than an online app, a business model, a game, or anything else from the Cult of the Clever. This is about much more than eyeballs or tools. It’s about us.

We already have AI and even access to supercomputers on our phones, but we don’t know what to do with them. We’re not running protein-folding simulations for cancer research or modeling weather patterns. We’re making memes and taking selfies. If there is any game-changing aspect of AI, it’s that it doesn’t need much from us to evolve. That point alone requires another essay to explain. And if I get around to writing it, and you understand it and take it seriously, you will be scared shitless. 

The next game changer will help humanity use technology to (jargon alert!) level up its game.

The next game changer will change the way we understand and manage our health, support our civilization today while stewarding our environment for future generations, and expand our horizons. It will change the way we learn and share our learning.

Here are my top four nominees:

  • Self-managed, proactive brain healthcare and integrated, continuous biodiagnostics. We now have the tools to help grow and strengthen our brains throughout our lives. Not only can we stave off dementia and other diseases, but from childhood on, we can improve our memory, our ability to focus and learn, and our capacity for understanding and navigating our cognitive and emotional experiences. Currently, neurological medical attention is only allocated and/or insured after traumatic injury and/or the presentation of symptoms that suggest injury or disease. Neurologists and advocates for Alzheimer’s research and social justice are increasingly calling for more proactive nutrition, lifestyle, and diagnostic resources to support healthy brain development, maintenance, and early detection. In addition, there are more OTC tools for monitoring cholesterol, glucose, and other markers that can provide insight into mitochondrial / metabolic function, cortisol levels, microbiotic health, early detection of insulin resistance and pre-cancer, heart health, and general well-being. Every middle-aged triathlete gets blood tests and DEXA scans and owns wearables that measure power output, heart rates, VO2 max, and other performance indicators that correlate with exercise, rest, and nutrition. In addition to helping individuals make informed choices, this type of data can change the business of healthcare. Doctors can make more informed diagnoses and recommendations using longitudinal data in real time, instead of relying on a one-time lipid panel or a hurried point-of-care exam that’s 37 minutes behind schedule and requires a referral for additional tests. Insurance companies can make better bets by supporting the prevention of more serious (and costly) illnesses and injuries. Business models may follow suit by reducing premiums for patients who essentially become better investments by opting into data gathering and sharing for the purpose of increasing health and demonstrating better risk profiles. If today’s insurance companies and hospitals don’t adapt, another business model may come along to replace Nixon’s 1970s HMO edition. A real game changer here would underwrite the free dissemination of glucose monitors and other tools, document the health implications, and start making associated practices common for everyone who can’t afford concierge medicine.
  • Hyper-local regenerative food economies. Many communities are raising awareness about diverting organic materials from landfills to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and build compost for soil regeneration and gardening. However, philanthropic and nonprofit norms often force individuals and grass-roots organizations into an expensive, time-consuming competition for attention and fundraising, where they fail to compete with better funded, researched, and produced public relations campaigns of waste haulers, fossil fuel companies, and others who sabotage the message. Grants offer lean compensation and come with onerous reporting requirements. Donors spread their charity around instead of making more sizable impact gifts. The environmental, civic engagement, political, and economic problems of composting, soil regeneration, nutrition, and workforce development contain the solution: a highly visible, transpartisan, community-focused, collaborative hub for environmentally focused individuals and organizations. Everyone with an interest in the environment can learn, trade, fundraise, volunteer / work / recruit / hire, advocate, grade politicians and businesses, and generate revenue through a variety of proven economic drivers that have not yet been fully developed or embraced in the private sector (such as selling finished compost, leasing community garden plots, waste auditing, and creating green business criteria for membership and grades, to name a few). Health and economic impact data can form the basis of a revenue-generating research agenda that explores connections between climate change, community composting, soil building, regenerative food loops, and economic/ workforce development.
  • Fusion. MIT’s Plasma Science and Fusion Center recently completed a three-year study of what appears to be a major milestone. On Sept. 5, 2021, engineers achieved a world-record magnetic field strength of 20 tesla for a large-scale magnet. That’s the intensity needed to build a fusion power plant that is expected to produce a net output of power and potentially usher in an era of virtually limitless power production. The test was immediately declared a success, but that was far from the end of the process. The team tore apart and inspected the components of the magnet, pored over and analyzed the data from hundreds of instruments that recorded details of the tests, and performed two additional test runs on the same magnet, ultimately pushing it to its breaking point in order to learn the details of any possible failure modes. All of this work has now culminated in a detailed report by researchers at PSFC and MIT spinout company Commonwealth Fusion Systems (CFS), published in a collection of six peer-reviewed papers in a special edition of the March issue of IEEE Transactions on Applied Superconductivity. Together, the papers describe the design and fabrication of the magnet and the diagnostic equipment needed to evaluate its performance, as well as the lessons learned from the process. Overall, the team found, the predictions and computer modeling were spot-on, verifying that the magnet’s unique design elements could serve as the foundation for a fusion power plant. Imagine all the power we’ll ever need, generated by plants that run on seawater and emit no greenhouse gasses. 
  • Open-Source Learning. For hundreds of years humanity has entrusted learning to school. As a result, too many people confuse learning with schooling and immediately stop learning as soon as they are no longer compelled to attend school, which has disastrous consequences in every aspect of life, from personal well-being to democracy. The institution of education still serves many valuable purposes, but it wasn’t built for the modern global culture and economy. Learning today means connecting and curating online. Open-Source Learning is the family of strategies and practices that empowers learners to explore and document what they learn in ways that create immediate marketplace value. We already have all the tools we need. Web3 provides much more accurate and detailed documentation than grades or transcripts ever could. Now anyone can explore a question or an interest, connect with a worldwide community of interest for support and critique, create a multimedia portfolio, and mint NFTs to create a permanent record. Recruiters and employers can more accurately evaluate candidates through snapshots of a blockchain than they ever could through grades or letters of recommendation.

Technology can seem complicated, and change can seem hard, but that’s what real game changers do. Of course, if these game changers seem too far-fetched, we could always focus less on the stars and more on ourselves. Maybe we should start by making sure everyone can read in at least one language. Then we could outlaw guns. At bare minimum, everyone over the age of five should understand what the internet is and how it works, so that free high-speed internet access can become a fully subsidized human and civil right for all.