Doubling Down

In 1982, Buckminster Fuller—the theorist/ futurist most often known as the inspiration for Epcot’s Spaceship Earth design and philosophy—developed the theory of the Knowledge Doubling Curve. Fuller’s curve begins at 1 C.E./A.D. Imagine all human knowledge gained before the Common Era—the height of the Roman Empire built on the rubble of early civilizations; 2,600 years of Chinese emperors, 3,000 years of Egyptian dynasties; multiple complex civilizations coming to life in the Americas; everything—is represented by a single knowledge unit.

It took 1500 years for the first single knowledge unit to double, and then until 1750 for it to double again. By 1900, humanity had a combined eight knowledge units—but it only took 50 years for it to double once again to 16 and then a mere 20 years for it to reach 32. Every time knowledge doubles, the time between the doublings is shorter and shorter—creating an exponential growth in human knowledge. When Fuller died in 1983, it was estimated knowledge doubled every 12-13 months. Now, the estimates are the entirety of the world’s knowledge doubles in less than a day. Everyday. Meaning, tomorrow, we will know twice as much as a collective humanity than we do today.

Stop and think about it for a minute. Doubling the knowledge of yesterday does not mean twice as many people simply relearn old facts, it means our collective understanding of the world is twice as deep as it was yesterday. It may be new discoveries in areas as basic as quantum entanglement or as grand as new theories of how to process data on our facial expressions to teach a machine to make us our perfect cup of coffee.

Knowledge is not only coming at us faster, but our old understandings are becoming outdated sooner. Akin to radiocarbon dating, we can measure the usefulness of information by how long it takes for it to lose half its value. For example, memorizing the cost of a Large Mocha Frappuccino may only have a half-life of six months, if it changes price every year. Think about how our understanding of the law suddenly changes when a new case comes out, and then divide the time between cases on a subject by half. Sometimes it is decades—like Third Amendment cases—and sometimes it is days.

To be frank, the law just can’t keep up. Every day, we are presented with new technology, information, and theories that challenge our understanding of the world, the law, and ourselves. The law, by function of the focus on precedent and legislative process, is deeply rooted in the past and takes longer to adapt and grow.

But some of the same things driving the immense growth of knowledge can also help law practitioners push the law to adapt to our ever-changing needs—the greatest being our ability to work collaboratively in a connected world, where knowledge-sharing allows teams and organizations to share knowledge over distance and time. We can access and act as experts for each other. In this issue, we have sought out some of those experts who work in areas where the Knowledge Doubling Curve has extensively reshaped areas, created entirely new ones, or resurrected old ones from a less enlightened past.

Ayah Helmy and Joanna Woolman look at how our ever-evolving understanding of ourselves and our history change (and should change) something as seemingly straightforward as what we call a lake or a road. Kate Baxter-Kauf talks about how Minnesota companies and laws are influencing the ever-expanding field of data breach litigation and case law. Kaleb Rumicho and Caitlin Houlton Kuntz show what is old is new again, by exploring the new laws surrounding industrial hemp. And, finally, Colleen Dorsey jumps into the brave new world of artificial intelligence and machine learning to talk about some basics and the evergreen topic of ethics.

As we learn more, we must also set aside our old notions faster. It is our duty to learn how to learn, relearn, and learn again. If we fail to do so, we—and the law—will be sucked under in the coming knowledge tsunami.

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Ms. Harrington is an attorney at Flaherty & Hood in St. Paul, specializing in the ever-changing area of municipal law. She formerly clerked for the Hon. William H. Koch, and graduated summa cum laude from Mitchell Hamline School of Law in May 2017. Ms. Harrington also holds a Masters of Advocacy and Political Leadership from the University of Minnesota-Duluth, and spent the first 10 years of her career in public service.