Historical Case Studies

Before getting into AI, I’m going to use the three-phased framework to talk about historical exponential technologies.


Referring to a virus that originated in nature as a technology may seem odd at first, but biotechnology most certainly belongs in the same category as other exponential technologies. Regardless, this essay isn’t about the technology itself, but how we respond to it. COVID-19 is a particularly good case study because it happened recently and we can all relate to it.
The following figure plots the infection growth rate along with key events within the three phases of exponential technologies.

Figure 2: COVID-19 infection rate in the United States from February 9, 2020, to March 15, 2020. Key historical events are plotted within the three phases. Source: Our world in data

I will share my personal experience during this period. I expect yours is similar.


I don’t recall hearing much about COVID-19 until the end of January 2020. When I did, I ignored it, assuming it would follow the same path as Ebola, SARS, H1N1, and Zika: a critical issue for public health but something that wouldn’t affect me.
During the early days, I was blissfully ignorant of what would ultimately become one of the most significant events of my life.


On February 19, 2020, I received a rather strange email from a mailing list I joined when I lived in China a few years ago. The US Department of State was warning about a virus outbreak (see Figure 3).

Figure 3: An email I received from the US Department of State in late February signals the beginning of thetransformational phase.

I recall thinking to myself, “Good thing I’m no longer in China!” And then I went back to work. Over the next week. I started receiving messages from friends and family. They sent links to blog posts about the end of the world, along with instructions about washing hands regularly and staying safe during travel.

On March 1, I flew to Nashville for a meeting and took a few extra precautions to wipe down my phone and laptop. I even wore a mask for the flight out. On the return flight, I took off the mask when a colleague told me that masks don’t do anything.

Friday, March 6, was a day I will never forget. While walking through downtown Savannah, I spoke to a neighbor about steps her company was beginning to take to prepare for a pandemic. When I expressed some skepticism, she described the possibility of a shutdown in commerce and travel. Something clicked in my mind, and I decided to start preparing seriously.

That weekend I started reading about how to prepare. I bought disinfectant, hand sanitizer ingredients, and copper foil in hopes of avoiding the contagion. At the supermarket I stocked up on essentials. And, yes, this included plenty of beer!


I planned to continue my preparations the next week. Unfortunately, I was too late. By then, companies had started sending workers home, and grocery stores were emptied of essentials. The NBA canceled its season, and other sports soon followed suit. The stock market started plunging.

And you know the rest.


Should I have known in January that a global pandemic was about to shut down the planet? Of course not! There wasn’t enough evidence to make a reliable prediction during the foundational phase.

But during the transformational phase, I could have done better. One question would have changed my course: “What if they’re right and we really are at the beginning of a pandemic? What small steps can I take to prepare?” A few simple preparations during this phase would have been cheap and relatively risk-free.

This decision-making period happens for every exponential technology. The transformational phase grants us a window of opportunity to act. I acted only at the last possible moment, so I faced more scarcity and uncertainty than people who acted earlier.

Those who recognized the moment of decision profited from the stock market’s collapse and bought the last of the toilet paper. Had they been wrong, they would have lost some money on expiring put options and had a few laughs about their stockpile of toilet paper. But these relatively simple and risk-free moves made all the difference when the abundance phase arrived.

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