Halfway to the Wall

Last week I gave my middle-school-aged son my old iPhone 5s (his first cell phone) and got a new iPhone 6s. The new phone is sleeker, sexier, more fun to hold and interact with, and the battery lasts all day long.

Fundamentally, though, it’s no better than my iPhone 5s.  There’s nothing important that I can do now that I couldn’t do before, and all of the improvements are at best pleasing refinements on something that already worked really well.

Reflecting on that, I can’t help but wonder whether I’ve ever made a $750 purchase so blithely (paying $34/month takes the sting out), nor can I think of a time that I’ve spent this much on a product that I enjoyed so much and that delivers so little additional value.

Thinking about this, I began to reflect on how quickly the iPhone has run out of runway. Steve Jobs introduced the original iPhone in 2007. This means that it’s taken eight years to go from revolution to marginal improvement in the most revolutionary product to hit the world since the TV. Eight years.

The iPhone is one of a zillion products that’s running out of space to get any better. Our razor blades can have only so many blades, our TVs only so many pixels, our knives can’t get any sharper, and we can’t execute stock trades any faster.

It’s true that there are some places where we are leveraging the power of global capitalism in ways that will drive global change for everyone – and not just for the richest billion or two. The iPhone revolution will reach the poorer parts of the developing world in the next five year – another 2.5 billion will have smartphones by 2020 – and that could be transformative. Tesla’s investment in batteries has the potential to transform how power is being delivered to the three billion people who don’t have access to reliable electricity.

But we’re not eight years away from solving the vaccine cold chain problem. Or from figuring out how to educate the next billion kids who live nowhere near a qualified teacher. Or from reversing global warming. By 2023, the new Global Goals notwithstanding, we won’t feel ho-hum about yet another primary care hospital chain that can deliver quality care at 1/100th of what it costs today; we won’t feel that the market is saturated with drought-resistant seeds that ensure that a billion smallholder farming families don’t go hungry; and we won’t be saying that we don’t need new ideas for making slums into dignified, safe place to live, because they’ve become so dignified and safe.

Part of the reason this won’t happen is because some of these problems are fundamentally more complex than the purely technical challenge of building a better battery or, even, revolutionizing mobile computing. But it increasingly feels to me that our real limitation comes from funneling the vast majority of the world’s time, talent and resources into solving problems that, increasingly, don’t matter all that much for improving human well-being.

What I wonder most of all is whether there is a shift coming – and, if so, when.

By 2030 will we have a collective awakening that causes us to say “wow, we really can’t create more value with the next best app, but getting another billion people safe, clean, affordable power [or whatever else is truly needed] is an opportunity worth a trillion dollars of investment?”

If not by 2030, what about 2050? 2070 anyone?

At some point, do we hit an inflection point where we say, “all of these toys are great, but we’re through putting all of our energy into getting halfway to the wall?”

And, if we’ll arrive at that inflection point someday, the next question to ask is: what will it take to make that day come sooner?


This is a photo of a water fountain at JFK airport that shows how many plastic bottles have been saved by that fountain.

Elkay EZH2

Just like that, I’m part of something. It makes meaning of my (tiny) piece of the puzzle, and helps me feel like I am making a difference.

Funny how much effort we spend shouting at people asking them to give, and how rarely we tell them what we accomplished, together.