Foundations

In Isaac Asimov’s Foundation, Hari Seldon predicts the fall of the Galactic Empire spanning the entire Milky Way and the subsequent dark age lasting 30,000 years. Seldon develops a fictional science, psychohistory. combining mathematics, sociology, and statistics. Psychohistory is able to predict future changes on a cosmic scale. His life’s work leads him to establish the Foundation, a fringe group dedicated to preserving human knowledge in order to reduce the dark age to just 1,000 years and midwife the rebirth of civilization.

What real-life lessons can we draw from this sci-fi trilogy that edged out The Lord of the Rings for the Hugo Award for the “Best All-Time Series”? Quite a few, actually. Originally published as a series of short stories in the 1940s, Asimov’s Foundation continues to exert a fascinating influence on the world.

Just a few tidbits from recent headlines:

  • The Nobel Prizing-winning economist Paul Krugman said he chose to study economics because it was the closest field to psychohistory in the real world.
  • The Winklevoss brothers widely-publicized investment in Bitcoin claimed to be influenced by the book.
  • When SpaceX launched a Tesla Roadster into space in 2018, there was a copy of Foundation on board.

The story’s epic scale illuminates a core central theme: the cyclical nature of civilization. Even the most powerful empires end given a long enough timeline. Nothing lasts forever. Today, tech companies dominate business, modern life, and stock market capitalization. They can appear invincible and able to buy or snuff out any competition. Yet, 50 years ago, not one existed.

Jeff Bezos knows how precarious the situation can be for those who wear the crown. The unofficial motto for Amazon, Day 1, encapsulates the peril succinctly of those who fail to remain vigilant about the thin line separating growth and decay.  Even if you are the richest man in the world atop the most valuable company in the world in the richest country in the history of mankind, everyday is still Day 1. You can never really take tomorrow for granted. Ever.

The strategies that worked today will be the quicksand that slowly drown you tomorrow. By relying on techniques and processes that have worked in the past you can miss the opportunities on the horizon and not even realize how you’re slowly sinking one degree at a time. Of course, it can be incredibly difficult, if not impossible, to alter the habits of one person let alone a significant group of people. The chains of habit are too light to be felt until they are too heavy to be broken. The dazzling speed at which all-conquering platforms and fortunes are built in our Information Age belie a quiet truth: the same speed can destroy your empire just as quickly as it was built.