It Takes Time, And It Ain’t For Sure.

We’re all waiting for AI.

Not since the iPhone, in the mid aughts. No, not since the rise of the browser and the original web, in the early nineties. No, not since the introduction of the PC, in the 1980s. Ah hell, honestly, not since the Gutenberg printing press in the 15th century – or, fuck it, let’s just go there: Not since the invention of language, which as far as we know marked the moment when homo sapiens first branched from its primate cousins.

That’s how big a deal AI is, according to academics, politicians, and a rapt technology and capital  ecosystem starved for The Next Big Thing.

I tend to agree. First we created language, then we created its digital doppelganger with computer code, and with generative AI, we’re melding the two into a shimmering and molten fun house mirror, one that forces us to question our very consciousness. What the hell does it mean to be human when we’ve created machines that seem to transcend humanity?

“…the Digital Revolution is whipping through our lives like a Bengali typhoon…[bringing] social changes so profound their only parallel is probably the discovery of fire.”

Ah, fire. I forgot about fire, which likely preceded language by a good 50,000 years. Those lines introduced the very first issue of Wired magazine 30 years ago. As founders we were convinced every aspect of society would be reshaped – our culture, our economy, our social lives, our faiths, our sense of self. In those early days we were essentially a cult, a non-denominational sect stoned on a buoyant certainty that we were right – that technology offered all of us an offramp from the tired shit-show of the industrial revolution. Of course the Internet was going to rewire everything – it was obvious. If you didn’t see that coming, you just weren’t paying attention. Our job was to slap you into seeing what was right in front of our eyes: The future, coming fast, screaming into our face with possibility and promise.

And now, here we are. The starting gun has been fired once again- this time the release of ChatGPT.  After a decade of trillion-dollar platform consolidation based on surveillance capitalism and trickle-down innovation,  tech once again brims with optimism, with that original possibility and promise.

If, that is, we don’t fuck it up by forcing our new tools into the structures of the past.

Yesterday Fred posted about voice input over on AVC, and it reminded me how long it takes for consumers to adopt truly new behaviors, regardless of how enthusiastic we might get about a particular technology’s potential. As Fred points out, voice input has been around for a decade or so, and yet just a fraction of us use it for much more than responding to texts or emails on our phones.

While tens of millions of us have begun to use generative AI in various ways, its “paradigm shifting” impacts are likely years away. That’s because while consumers would love to have AI genies flitting around negotiating complex tasks on our behalf, first an ecosystem of developers and entrepreneurs will have to do the painstaking work of clearing the considerable brush which clogs our current technology landscape – and it’s not even certain they’ll be able to.

Some historical context is worth considering. When the World Wide Web hit in 1993, I was convinced this new platform would change everything about, well, everything. Culture, business, government – all would be revolutionized. 1993 was the year Wired first published, and we took to the technology with abandon. We launched Hotwired, one of the first commercial websites, in 1994- but quickly realized the limitations of the early Web. There was no way to collect payment, serve advertising, or even identify who was visiting the site. All of those things and more had to be invented from scratch, and it took several years before the entrepreneurial ecosystem ramped up to the challenge. Then, of course, the hype overwhelmed the technology’s ability to deliver, and it all came crashing down in 2001.

Fast forward to the launch of the iPhone in 2007, and once again, everyone was convinced the world was going to change dramatically. But Airbnb launched in late 2008, Uber in 2009, and both didn’t gain widespread traction until 2011 or 2012. It took another seven to nine years for these two stalwarts of the mobile revolution go public. Along the way tens of thousands of smaller companies were building apps, exploring new opportunities, and generally laying the groundwork for the world as we know it today. But to win, they learned that they had to play by the increasingly rigid policies of the dominant platforms: Apple, Google, Amazon, and Facebook. The dream of “Web 2” – where the Internet would be an open platform allowing innovation to flourish – never truly materialized. The platforms became some of the largest corporations ever to roam the earth, and quite predictably, enshittification followed.

So while many of us are currently enraptured with the rise of generative AI, it’s worth remembering that despite the technology’s huge potential, this will all take time. And unlike 1993, when the Internet was literally a blue ocean opportunity, or 2007, when smart phones were as well, this time everyone’s in on the joke.  Yes, billions upon billions of venture capital is now being deployed against what feel like unlimited opportunities in the space, but these new startups will have to battle deeply entrenched incumbents with almost no interest in seeing their moats breached.

Thirty years after the first issue of Wired, it’s still making for one hell of a story.

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6 thoughts on “It Takes Time, And It Ain’t For Sure.”

  1. Great piece, and value the historical perspective you bring to this moment in AI. Looking forward to following your take going forward… One thing: Small typo, I believe, in the concluding sentence.

  2. Great piece, and value the historical perspective you bring to this moment in AI. Looking forward to following your take going forward… One thing: Small typo, I believe, in the concluding sentence.

  3. I loved this. I was recently talking with another VC and he gave me a telling stat: in 1908, there were 250 startup car companies. If, as investor, you were asked to pick the winners from that lot, mathematically you would have almost certainly failed. Granted, I don’t know if radiotelegraphs across America were blowing up with breathless press releases about the latest horseless buggy tech, but the parallels are still prescient.

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