Where Will the Latest Economic Slump Take Technology?

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Are we on the cusp of the next technological revolution that will come to define our globalized planet in the next few decades or more? From the printing press to the telephone and the electric light bulb, to the television and personal computer, each of these paradigm-shifting inventions took hold during economic depressions or deep recessions. 

Currently, with inflation rampant, corporate earnings in question, wars waging, and countries around the world at serious risk of default, it’s no surprise we’re seeing the development of technology like the metaverse that intentionally looks to rewrite reality and stake its claim as the next technological breakthrough.

Intuitively, it makes sense that during times of strife, without the luxury of free-flowing resources, market demand gravitates toward needs, not wants. Without unlimited time and resources, innovation leans toward increasing feats of efficiency and technological progress instead of excess. 

Why is this? Necessity, the old adage goes, is the mother of invention. Take that further and the real reason lies at the intersection of two basic human tendencies and an inescapable reality. 

Adversity Breeds Innovation

People don’t evolve until the pain of staying the same becomes greater than the pain of change. Cheap money values, low energy prices, and infinite resources cause distractions. Game changers spend too much time chasing markets and investors while settling for quick technological fixes. Add in the reality of a growing global population approaching eight billion people, and it becomes clear we simply need more to survive and thrive. 

These ingredients create an environment of waste when times are good and real change when times are bad. In short, maybe adversity is a necessary ingredient to drive meaningful progress.

Let’s take some of the most important inventions and companies founded or discovered in the past 50 years that are still shaping our lives today: MRIs (‘73), the cell phone (‘73), the barcode (‘74), digital cameras (‘75), Microsoft (‘75), Apple (‘76), GPS (‘78), the computer virus (‘82), Word (‘83), Google (‘96), Bluetooth (‘99), Facebook (‘04), Bitcoin (‘09), 3D metal printing (‘18). 

Most of us can’t go a few hours, days, or weeks without a meaningful encounter with these advancements. Yet only three of the fourteen were created outside what most economists agree is a recessionary economic period. This suggests that, while the door for innovation may be open during good times, bad times open the floodgates. 

What’s Now and What’s Next

Are we heading toward a recession and facing other catastrophes with globally detrimental ramifications? We’ll only know the true answer in hindsight. And don’t get me wrong. There are countless details to fear in an economic contraction and nobody in their right mind would wish a harder life on those already suffering, living paycheck to paycheck, or those without a job and unable to afford basic necessities. 

But, technologically speaking and thinking in the long-term, a contraction isn’t all bad when taking into account what could be produced when we go through it. So what is the one thing we can look back on and pinpoint as the next step in the early twenty-first century?

Advancements in artificial intelligence and robotics, in connection speed, media quality, and clean energy could see leaps forward in the advancement of remote surgery across the next decade. We could be entering a time when battery-powered, autonomous flying cars became the norm. Or we could witness feeding and remote monitoring technologies and management systems that could revolutionize animal welfare and food supply shortages. 

Those are all good candidates, but nothing has become more of a buzzword for current technological advancements than the metaverse. 

Immersive Virtual Worlds at a Cost

The idea of developing advanced augmented and virtual realities has become a bit of a punching bag concept, as if the enormous investments in the concept are itself an example of the types of corporate hype excess during prosperous times mentioned above. But what’s exciting now is that there will most likely be a shift in what people perceive the metaverse is going to be if a true effort to advance the technology follows the current economic strife.

What the metaverse could be is far off. What it is right now is Roblox, Minecraft, Fortnite, and more. It’s the seeds of a solid gaming platform. 

A virtual world that’s indistinguishable from reality will only become possible through the advancement of Web3 frameworks. Fiber that uses rare earth metals like erbium and thulium, the ability to increase online speeds to 300 terabytes per second and above, and the ability to power a sustainable universe through quantum computing are all essential. As oil prices rise, the push toward clean, renewable energy will only become more urgent. Whether this fuels advances in hydrogen or nuclear energy options, we’ll be able to create abundant energy at a fraction of the price to power such virtual worlds. 

Eventually, it’s going to be people’s escape. What draws them there is going to create communities of like-minded people living the lives that they want to live that they don’t feel they have in real life. When people spend more time there in general, then companies will move in to cater to an eager consumer base. In terms of hardware, a clunky headset might be step one. But the experience of the metaverse will eventually use a more sleek, sophisticated piece of hardware that may not have been invented yet. 

This brings us back to the question of economic strife. Around 28,000 U.S.-based tech employees were laid off in 2022 alone, with hiring freezes and plummeting stocks spooking other industries. If the tech sector continues its downturn, companies will have to find ways to make monumental changes to bring new tech to life.

There will be a first-mover advantage for those that are going big in the face of downsizing right now. Investments of $10 or $20 billion now maybe won’t pay off for the next 10 years. But in 20 years we may look back and think of this time as we do with Silicon Valley in the 1970s. When these civilization-advancing inventions will arrive is still anyone’s guess. But it’s worth thinking about how a pullback in economic activity could be the very thing that spurs our next leap forward.

James Brooks is the founder and CEO of GlassView.