May 312015

I’m preparing a corporate talk for next week on the changing economy and one theme that sticks out is how the Twentieth Century was defined by cheap energy and physical mobility as mains electricity and the internal combustion engine became ubiquitous and affordable.

The picture accompanying this post illustrates that shift, Sydney’s Circular Quay a hundred years ago was just at the beginning of the automobile era. The previous fifty years had bought trams, the telegraph and reliable shipping but the great strides of the Twentieth Century were still to happen.

At that stage the steam engine and advances in electrical transmission had bought reliable power to the masses, although it was still expensive. What was to come over the next fifty years was that energy was about to become cheap and abundant. That drove the suburbanisation of western societies and the development of industries around the availability of cheap power and a mobile workforce.

At the time though information was still expensive, the control of broadcast networks by a few license holders and print operations by those who could afford the massive costs of producing and distributing magazines or newspapers made data difficult to get and worth paying for.

Today we’re at the start of a similar shift in information; it’s no longer expensive or difficult to obtain.

What that means for the next thirty years is what industries will develop in an economy where information is basically free and ubiquitous. Just as cheap energy created the consumerist economy, we’re going to see a very different environment in an age of cheap data.

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