“Our electrically-configured world has forced us to move from the habit of data classification to the mode of pattern recognition. We can no longer build serially, block-by-block, step-by-step, because instant communication insures that all factors of the environment and of experience co-exist in a state of active interplay.”
- Marshall McLuhan
Bill Gates famously (ok ok, supposedly) misstated that the most RAM a computer would “ever need” was 640kb. Yet, the text in this article alone far exceeds that amount. The image at the masthead is far larger than that.
The point is, we’re hilariously bad at estimating the future of data storage needs; and those needs are accelerating as we speak.
Today on Insiders, I’m going to teach you about the need to expand beyond the laws of physics if we, the human-fleshbag-marketers that we are, can expect to continue on the exponential growth curve that digital commerce is on; and how we need to evolve not just our technology — but also as humans — in order to keep up.
Welcome to Quantum Thinking.
The Quantum Problem
We’re collecting new types of data all the time — data on people, nature, technology, etc. We’re collecting more metadata, and we’re collecting metadata on the metadata. By 2025, globally we’re expected to generate 463 exabytes of new data globally each day. Imagine the size of the server farm needed to handle this — it’s probably not even possible (given the environmental, energy, and processing implications).
This exponentially compounding data collection is breaking our systems. Our current linear-based algorithms and systems are observed to be failing in five ways:
- New data is being added at a rate that’s impossible to re-integrate into the algo in any timeframe that’s relevant.
- Upon further examination, it’s clear the linear-based model is not as good at achieving the outcome as we initially thought.
- People follow and use the linear system to its full potential but it turns out the outcomes are not as desirable as initially thought.
- Those who interact with the linear system exploit its failings to undesirable outcomes.
- The linear system reaches the end of its solution and works well, but the users desire more because it’s inherently limited.
These failings result in a break/fix cycle where it’s very difficult to know if fixes are even going to be effective, are super-expensive to maintain, and will eventually result in insufficient heavy systems that no one really likes (or very limited systems that don’t do enough).
This exponentially-compounding data collection is also breaking our brains. If we want to keep up with what’s happening in the world, culture, our careers, industries, and even just relationships, we’re now having to consume vast amounts of data — facts, concepts, cultures, what’s possible now, what’s possible in the near future, what will cause the apocalypse — and everything in between. The outcomes of this system failure are harder to draw straight lines to but we can all sense them. Our brains are breaking down, facing the same dilemma as our computers.
We’re absorbing and processing more data than linear methods can handle, both in the technology we’ve created and in linear systems of thinking we’ve developed for our brains to process data. We’ve entered what I’m calling the Quantum Age, the inflection point in history where the volume and complexity of collected data have outpaced the ability of Turing-based (linear) systems and communication modes we’ve built to process it. We need to shift to quantum systems or everything is going to break down.
Qubits to the rescue
To understand why we need quantum systems, first, consider the qubit. Qubits are quantum bits — that is to say, they function according to the rules of quantum physics. You’ve probably heard the word “quantum” before. It’s popping up everywhere now — in popular culture (yes, Ant-Man/Marvel, and also the rebooted series, Quantum Leap) and also all over the news for breakthroughs that have been happening in quantum computing. In June of this year, a company called Quantum Brilliance built the first quantum computer that can run at room temperature. And in May, the Biden administration announced two presidential directives around Quantum Information Science.
Qubits are significantly different from classic bits because they “can represent a 0, a 1, or any proportion of 0 and 1 in superposition of both states, with a certain probability of being a 0 and a certain probability of being a 1” (from Microsoft Azure). What’s a superposition, you ask? It refers to the qubit’s position of being able to be multiple things at once.
Qubits are significantly more efficient than classical bits, with 63 qubits containing as many classical bits as an exabyte. The opportunity to absorb and process this amount of data is impossible to ignore, and naturally, qubits have a lot of interest from scientists and capitalists alike. Quantum processing is so powerful, it has the potential to crack the encryption system that our eCommerce infrastructure is built upon.
In short, qubits and quantum computing have the potential to significantly outperform classical bits and computers as it relates to certain kinds of problems (more on this later).
Quantum computing still has a long way to go before we see it have an impact on our daily lives. And yet, as we step into the advent of this Quantum Age, we’ll find that quantum-like principles will manifest not just in the problems solved by quantum computers, but will permeate every aspect of our lives.
We are built for this to happen.
Our Quantum Nature
It’s been theorized that our brains use quantum computing at some level. In 1989, Sir Roger Penrose (who had a significant influence on Stephen Hawking and is perhaps the most accomplished physicist of our time) theorized in his book The Emperor's New Mind (and followed up on with Shadows of the Mind in 1994), that our brains and consciousness are not algorithmic, but instead function in a quantum-like way (he details his theory of how it might work, which has gone through many cycles of criticism and defense at this point).
We are not linear; we are instead quantum creatures, and we’re surrounded by more quantum problems than we realize.
Some problems are efficiently solved by linear systems. Other problems, however, can take many lifetimes to solve through a linear system. With the rise of Turing-based linear computing systems over the past 80 or so years, we’ve been highly focused on sequential solving. Philosopher, marketer, and professor Marshall McLuhan recognized (way back in the 60s) that this paradigm of linear thinking dates back to a written alphabet.
“The line, the continuum — this sentence is a prime example - became the organizing principle of life… ‘Rationality’ and logic came to depend on the presentation of connected and sequential facts or concepts. For many people, rationality has the connotation of uniformity and connectedness, ‘I don’t follow you,’ means ‘I don’t think what you’re saying is rational’.”
Given that Penrose is correct about our nature, we’ve been struggling to cram our quantum selves and our quantum brains into linear systems for far too long. We’ve been trying to solve quantum problems with linear thinking. In Insiders #108, Phillip covers what he calls Algorithm Anxiety: the feeling that your hard work to tailor a personalization engine will be easily undone. But what if this anxiety manifesting itself in concerns about your Spotify playlist stems from a deeper subconscious fear? We know we can’t keep up the performative linear chain that’s inconsistent with how we actually operate. Linear-Quantum Cognitive Dissonance: the mental condition of trying to solve interconnected problems by following step-by-step solutions.
We’re starting to see content and solutions pop up that tap into our quantum potential.
For the last couple of years, my brain has been stuck on an idea I’ve had a hard time sorting out. I remember exactly when I first started to socialize this idea and was able to dig those initial comments out of the Future Commerce Slack chat history.
Allow me to detail how horrible it is to be in a Slack chat with me. My stream of consciousness results in ten messages to Phillip in what was likely less than 60 seconds with no response. In reality, we all think this way; social decorum prevents us from flooding each other with the unfiltered firehoses of our brains. Unless you’re me.
This style of ideation led to The New Dada. Though it was a pivotal Future Commerce article, it didn’t really slake my brain’s nagging at this idea. More and more things seem to have multiple, antithetical, adjacent, complementary, and seemingly unrelated meanings at the same time. It’s easy to miss when something is more than it seems. Often things don’t even have a “dominant” meaning with a set of secondary/lesser meanings, and instead have meanings on equal footing.
To be clear, I’m not talking about interpretation, these things have multiple meanings that are distinct. They may or may not be connected, and interpretation can come into play when meanings are obscured, intertwined, or ambiguous.
This isn’t exactly new stuff — multidimensional things and content have been around forever — since the beginning of communication. For example, Beowulf is thought to be the oldest surviving English poem. I distinctly remember from my college medieval lit class that the swords in Beowulf apparently didn’t just mean swords (iykyk?). Or a more recent example, I mentioned Ludwig Wittgenstein in my last article, The Asynchronous Fiction, who identified the difficulty of understanding words and images that can have the same meaning depending on viewpoint or context, such as his famous duck-rabbit.
That said, the shift I’ve seen is that content with the potential for multiple meanings (regardless if they were intended or unintended) has become a fashionable and even the preferred or default mode of communication. This mode of communication was inevitably necessary the moment we entered the paradigm of electronic communication.
McLuhan recognized that the multi-layered medium of humor is an effective form of communication for this new world.
“Humor as a system of communications and as a probe of our environment — of what’s really going on — affords us our most appealing anti-environmental tool. It does not deal in theory, but in immediate experience, and is often the best guide to changing perceptions… Today’s humor… is usually a compressed overlay of stories.”
Again, this was written in 1967. Skip ahead to the present and irony and humor seem to be a near-default for getting a point across, as covered in our VISIONS 2022 chapter, “The Celebration of Insincerity.”
The phrase “compressed overlay of stories” got me thinking though. This compressed overlay as a communication mode doesn’t always have to be comedic (although it almost always ends up with a comedic layer, by virtue of being multi-layered). Our communications need to be more than one thing at one time. This reminded me of qubits.
The recent Nathan Fielder HBO show The Rehearsal is perhaps the best example I’ve seen of this multi-layered content. As a “reality” show, it dives deep into using counterfactuals (yep another self-reference) to explore and solve the problems of people who respond to Nathan’s Craiglist post. But that’s just the premise. As the show progresses, you begin to realize the show you’re watching is not the show you thought you were watching and begins to add layers of Nathan’s own experience into the narrative.
At the very end of the show, the camera flashes a significant portion of (**spoiler alert**), Nathan’s butt crack. This crass device placed in the context of bizarre, self-consumed, (potential) self-actualization is somehow both divisive and poetic. Is he the ass, or are we? Is this commentary on his state of being, or on ours, or on the state of entertainment, or was this show some kind of giant, gross, violating joke? Is it ultra-honest or ultra-contrived? Is Nathan having a moment of authentic personal growth, or is he just making a point? And yet, somehow, it’s all of these things at the same time. The dilemmas seem real butt are false. Nathan’s crack turns out to be a quantum statement (a term I believe was semi-jokingly coined by IEEE-published author, Nimish Mishra). Quantum statements are communication packets that have the ability to be more than one thing.
Things that survive in culture are often revealed to be quantum statements. Culture change (or any significantly sizable context change) is a quantum gate that allows quantum ideas to reset their superposition, that is to say, be re-observed. They may have appeared to mean something to a specific generation, group, or situation, but upon reset and re-observance have a new value.
I’m sure you’ve felt quantum statements in action before. Things specific song lines that you find yourself singing on repeat about different situations than the original intent of the songwriter.
“I can't think 'cause
I'm just way too tired”
— Is This It, The Strokes
Not at all intended for my many late nights writing this article, but I sang them with as much conviction as if they were my own. And they did become mine.
I’ve used the phrase “quantum problems” a few times now. What I mean by that is problems that are best solved by quantum systems. Not all problems are best handled by quantum solutions. If we’re specifically talking about quantum computers, there are a limited number of known problems where quantum computing provides a level of exponential efficiency. Quantum problems, however, do require quantum solutions.
In marketing and commerce, brands often come with what looks like quantum problems and try to solve them with quantum solutions. They do this because certain problems feel expensive to address linearly. “How do I efficiently address more than one social media channel at one time?” is a good example. But the reality is that this is a linear question, i.e. a linear problem. Each channel needs a specific strategy. When you try to create something that works for all channels, you often end up with something really bland. Something like Bill and Ted’s song that “saves the world” at the end of Bill and Ted Face the Music ugh (it sounds like Fish covered the Millennial Whoop. Also that movie tried to get quantum and failed).
Whereas if you approach your goals by asking a quantum problem, you may get back an answer that covers more than one social media channel. “What kind of content evokes emotion in both my employees and my customers?”.
Conversely, brands mistakenly think complex questions are linear problems “how do I build a business that is successful 10 years from now?” and they try to answer them with linear solutions such as operational efficiencies and organizational structures. Brands that successfully answer this question usually end up using quantum solutions, but don’t understand why they work, or at least, can’t give a satisfactory linear explanation about what made it work for them vs their competitors.
One of the key problems a quantum computer can solve is “working backward” to do things such as factor large numbers or break encryption - things that it takes a very very long time for a linear computer to do. In the same way, people who have a high Quantum Quotient (QQ) find it difficult to explain why they have an answer or “show their work” as it were — even to themselves. We currently only have linear notation and systems for communicating back quantum answers. That’s why this is often looked at as “using their gut” or emotional decision-making. If you hear that someone has good “gut instincts”, it may indicate that they’re good at formulating quantum solutions that they have no way to coherently express.
In the current paradigm, I believe that Quantum Quotient is often informally measured over a long period of someone’s career and life, often by other people who have a high Quantum Quotient. In the future, I believe we will develop better systems for understanding and measuring this potential.
Not only that, but people themselves count as quantum solutions — they’re multifaceted and can take different forms upon observation. However, not everyone is working with the same amount of qubits. People have a quantum potential (QP). But even if someone’s QP contains fewer outcomes, you’ll still have the opportunity to be surprised with the outcome when their superposition is reset and they’re measured again.
Trust the meta, phor it’s more re-lie-able than i-solate-data
My quantum semi-metaphor (YES this article is mostly metaphor) breaks down if you poke it with math or science too much (I’m way out of my depth, and unless you’re a mathematician or physicist so are you), but here are a few takeaways I think you can rely on:
- McLuhan is right — the problems of our age require being able to absorb all data available from the human experience and even the natural world. The size of this data set is increasing at an exponential rate. When setting out to address a linear problem, you’ll find it often quickly becomes a quantum problem.
- Current algorithmic methodologies have lifespans because they’re Turing-based (linear) systems and will ultimately fail when they hit certain strata of data complexity. Adjustments will prolong the lifespan, but eventually, no amount of adjustments will be able to keep up and the system will fail. That doesn’t mean linear solutions are useless, but they will date/fail more quickly.
- When you use “quantum” methodologies to solve problems, the pathways to your answer will be unpredictable. Quantum solutions are evolutionary solutions. You can’t control the outcomes of observation, and you need to lean into them when they’re evident because they’re the path to your success.
I may have found an answer to my original question to Phillip and Jesse. I wanted to go superposition but it's a bit long, so I’m just going with — in a stroke of originality — the word quantum. In my vocab, it’s now going to be descriptive of something that has the potential to mean more than one thing. Used in a sentence: “Her tone was so quantum, I was unsure if I should be happy or angry, and was curious to know what she would say next.”