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Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

Three new books take stock of the rapid technological change so far in the 21st century and ask whether we can adapt to the even faster change to come.

Why it matters: The 2020s could be the roaring or the raging decade, depending on whether political and social institutions can keep pace with the explosive transformation wrought by the tech sector.

The big picture: In his new book "The Exponential Age," venture capitalist and newsletter writer Azeem Azhar identifies what might be the fundamental conflict of the early 21st century: how businesses and technologies growing at an exponential rate are colliding with social and political institutions that are much slower to change.

  • The source code of the exponential age is Moore's Law, the now-decades-old observation that the underlying cost of computation will roughly halve every couple of years.
  • Ever faster, ever-cheaper computing power is what enabled us to go from the iPod to the iPhone in just six years, and which turbocharged the growth of now trillion-dollar companies like Facebook and Amazon that knew how to take advantage of Moore's Law.
  • The exponential age is one where winners truly are in a position to take all, because companies that fail to adapt early to technological change risk ending up in the same graveyard as Blockbuster and Kodak.

By the numbers: Azhar notes that Amazon's annual R&D budget rose from $1.4 billion in 2009 to a staggering $36 billion in 2019 — a figure that puts it not far behind the entire research and development budget for the U.K.

  • That relentless drive to stay ahead of technological change has helped Amazon build an online retail empire that is eight times larger than its nearest competitor, while also building a side business in cloud computing, media and more that added another $172 billion in sales.

Yes, but: While the tech sector is set up to harness the sheer speed of the exponential age, most of human society — government, social institutions, conventional businesses — have struggled to adapt to that pace, creating what Azhar calls an "exponential gap."

  • "The gap leads to extreme tension," he writes. "In the Exponential Age this divergence is ongoing — and it is everywhere."

Between the lines: That's the subject of a new book, "System Error," by three Stanford professors: philosopher Rob Reich, political scientist Jeremy Weinstein and computer scientist Mehran Sahami.

  • The trio — who jointly teach a popular class at Stanford called "Ethics, Public Policy and Computer Science" — explore whether a new approach to politics and ethics can help close "that profound gap between those who understand technology and those who are responsible for government and society," says Weinstein.
  • Such an approach might involve trying to rein in the speed of technological change through regulation and through making consumers more aware of the implications of the tech they use — or in the case of their Stanford students, the tech they create.
  • Technology will inevitably present trade-offs, Weinstein says — think of the trade-off between user privacy and preventing child abuse presented by Apple's now delayed plan to scan photos on iPhones — but "we need to weigh those trade-offs in a public and deliberative way."

What to watch: The success or failure of efforts to close the exponential gap will have an enormous influence on whether the next decade can harness the best of technological growth, or be consumed by it, writes former diplomat Alec Ross in his new book "The Raging 2020s."

  • The original Roaring 1920s led, of course, to the mother of all financial crises, but it also laid the groundwork for a lasting worker safety net in the U.S.
  • But it could have easily gone the other way, as it did with the rise of fascism in parts of Europe in the 1930s, and Ross worries if we can't broker a new social contract that works for the exponential age, "the next decade could rage like something out of 'Mad Max.'"

The bottom line: The question we'll need to face over the next decade, says Weinstein: "How do we set up a government that can respond to the pace of technological change?"

Go deeper

Updated 5 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Texas governor: "All hostages are out alive and safe"

SWAT team members deploy near the Congregation Beth Israel Synagogue in Colleyville, Texas. Photo: Andy Jacobsohn/AFP via Getty Images

All four hostages have been safely released after a day-long standoff at Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott (R) said on Saturday night.

The latest: "Around 9 p.m., the HRT — hostage rescue team — breached the synagogue, they rescued the three [remaining] hostages, the suspect is deceased," said police chief Michael Miller of Colleyville, located roughly 15 miles northeast of Fort Worth. The other hostage had been released earlier Saturday.

The new normal: Google searches reveal America's COVID shopping habits

Data: The New Normal; Google Trends; Chart: Jared Whalen/Axios

As the pandemic enters its third year, some of America's COVID-era shopping habits — including strong demand for tequila and sweatpants — are here to stay.

Driving the news: Axios worked with Google Trends and the Schema Design firm to create The New Normal, which analyzes the products Americans have Googled since 2020. Items with a lasting increase in search interest help fill in the details of what our "new normal" looks like.

Updated 10 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Omicron dashboard

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

  1. Health: Concerns grow over CDC's isolation guidelines — Experts warn of more COVID-19 variants after Omicron — WHO recommends 2 new treatments — What "mild" really means when it comes to Omicron — Deaths are climbing as cases skyrocket.
  2. Vaccines: America's vaccination drive runs out of gas— Puerto Rico expands booster shot requirements— Supreme Court blocks Biden's vaccine mandate for large employers.
  3. Politics: You can start ordering free COVID tests Wednesday — Focus group says Biden weak on COVID response, strong on democracy — Biden deploying military medical staff to help overwhelmed hospitals.
  4. Economy: America's labor shortage is bigger than the pandemic— Nurses across the U.S. strike against COVID working conditions— CDC COVID guidance for cruise ships to be optional starting Saturday — The cost of testing.
  5. States: Biden admin threatens to take back Arizona's COVID aid over anti-mask rules — Students across U.S. walkout of classes to demand safer COVID protocols — West Virginia governor feeling "extremely unwell" after positive test — Youngkin ends mandates for masks in schools and COVID vaccinations for state workers.
  6. World: Beijing reports first local Omicron case weeks before Winter Olympics — Teachers in France stage mass walkout over COVID protocols.
  7. Variant tracker