Sep 26, 2016

4 min read

The Third Wave by Steve Case Tells of a Surprisingly Moderate Future

This is my book review, and as always, my derivative diatribe…

I don’t review books I didn’t genuinely like or get something out of. The Third Wave deserves a good rating, as a book. It is a good book. The narrative quality is excellent, and it is informative about the early days of the internet. The core thesis of the book, that the early days contain lessons that are becoming relevant again, is also convincing.

What this book did not do, however, was formulate a strong dissertation about a direction that our future will take. Now, my mind’s eye might be seeing through colored glasses here. I have grown accustom to outlandishly bold titles like The Singularity is Near, Capital in the 21st Century, The High Frontier, Superintelligence, and even Lockstep. The upper bound for these involves predicting the end of time itself within a relatively tangible time horizon. I actually found myself shocked by how moderate The Third Wave was.

I strain to understand exactly how radical Steve Case was in 1980, and how close he was to getting the details right in what he wrote in that year. Many of those predictions were falsifiable, and he turned out to be right. However, if I really give it the time, I can’t exactly come up with a prediction he gave for The Third Wave that is highly falsifiable. Or at least, nothing was said which was very much different from what most people already thought.

The Internet

This book is about the internet. Reading it, I often forgot this, and it got confusing at certain times because of that. In particular, the intersection of tech, business, and the internet is hard to contextualize because there had been a large wave of digitization due to the mini-computer revolution well before the ball got rolling in earnest for the internet, and AOL came into its market. This is even more important to keep in mind discussing The Third Wave, because so much of it regards connecting the elements of the means of production to the internet, but the AOL story is just about the consumer market. Case did a fantastic job of building parallels between his story through the 1st wave and his predictions for the 3rd wave… but I just think it needs to be said that the “industrial internet” is a notable absence in that respect.

The Internet of Everything

This term was used in the book as a replace for the Internet of Things (IoT) buzzword that is commonly used today. The point was to expand the domain of things that the revolution will apply to. While that point is taken, I think it’s also considerably less specific than the IoT. The IoT was already quite non-specific, but going from “things” to “everything” make this phrase very unhelpful.

To be honest about my own motivations, elaborations about the specifics of the IoT was probably my main motivating factor reading the book. But to this author, those specifics are what will come out of entrepreneurship, and the book itself is concerned with business strategy positioning to capitalize on those new ideas. It is not a format where he proposes those ideas themselves.

Rise of the Rest

This term (also introduced in the book) is the one major socioeconomic prediction that is made. In extremely specific terms, it was saying that tech hubs will migrate out of NYC, SF, and Boston, and startups will start to dot the countryside throughout the entire nation. This was the American-centric part of it, and mentions of the rest of the world were largely concerned with the competitive environment.

My misgivings about both of these terms are the same. They predict a diffusion into some sort of everywhere and everything. But this isn’t really how history plays out. While I can see all current minimum wage jobs becoming automated eventually, different industries will automate all at vastly different times and paces. Self-driving cars, for example, are already at our doorstep, and threaten very immediate and very major changes in our way of life. Likewise, I would not predict any thing resembling uniformity in how new tech spreads out to change the business environment in the rest of the nation. History rolls out new things in some sort of patterns. There may be a stripped pattern, where tech innovation first impacts large swaths of regional stretches of urbanized areas, leaving the rural areas behind. There could be major regional inequalities, where a certain fraction (probably a minority) of states see enormous growth in tech, and the rest of the nation is mostly left behind.

His lobbying efforts are also quite admirable, but I think the book contained a few cases of muddling agenda and predictions. He spoke in terms of “if we don’t do ____ to encourage building the next big thing in the U.S., we will lose our competitiveness.” The very fact that this needs to be advocated to our lawmakers in the first place is a sign of where things like likely go, although not a statement about where they should go. A rational reader looking for the predictive quality might do well to just skip to the “then” part of the conditional. A valid interpretation of the above statement is that the U.S. will, in fact, lose its competitiveness. I found myself reading several of his predictions in this way.

Still, it was a fascinating book. It would have stood strong on its own, just as a story about AOL. By tying in views of the next wave of the internet, Case created an accomplishment of an entirely different scope. That all said, it’s much of a work of futurology. The main real prediction is the demise of the Facebook-era, unclear about what will precisely replace. This is a prediction that I fully support myself.

Obligatory analytical writing, online participation account for Medium. Engineering, software, books, space, constant daydreaming.

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