Following on from Matt Edgar’s blog post, I have attempted to be more specific here in my arguments for the rate of change in our modern society as compared with previous eras.
The idea of accelerating pace of change is so prevalent in our culture that it is hard to imagine that it is an illusion. I brought the subject up with a web developer the other day and he vehemently confirmed what we already suspect by claiming that the very foundations of the industry in which he works are changing under his feet as he tries to build, it was simply impossible to keep up with the changes.
Matt has identified the major difficulty in the ‘accelerating pace of change’ argument; what are we comparing and how do we measure it? At first glance this would appear as fruitless as trying to compare the intensity of pain that people feel today with that felt by people from thousands of years ago. How could we know for sure unless we experienced pain ourselves from both eras?
Comparing historical time frames also becomes difficult as single spectacular events such as Mount Tambora or the French revolution distort the picture significantly in any snapshot of a lifetime. We need something more general and universal that we can extrapolate backwards from.
I believe a metric can be found in something that is of significance to all human beings throughout all of human history: weapons.
This graph demonstrates how the development of weapons has increased in frequency and complexity over time. It also demonstrates how each new development— from the Acheulean hand axe, to the nuclear bomb—produces a much greater potential for destruction (and therefore ‘change’) for any human experience.
Another example of accelerating pace of change is life itself. As the universe tends towards entropy over time, life charges in the opposite direction and produces more complex organisms over time. Look at the structure of a tree and you can immediately see how the organism develops from a single stem into more and more complex and diverse branches until the canopy edge is a profusion of activity. It is a logical extrapolation to imagine human culture following the same bifurcation.
Another excellent metric is to imagine how relevant our lifetime’s experiences will be to our children’s lifetime. If we were still hunter-gatherers then the knowledge we had acquired in our lifetime would still be relevant to our children and would be so for generations of children to come. Agriculture probably shortened the longevity of such wisdom from millennia to centuries as climate change occurred at irregular intervals. Until only a couple of generations ago, it was accepted that the son of a clerk would probably follow the occupation of his father and that that son would have a job for life. The daughter of the clerk would have got married, had children and stayed at home. So what knowledge can we pass onto our children today that they will find useful in twenty years time? I think we can safely say that only a fool would attempt to guess what the next ten years will bring, let alone a lifetime and that whatever it does bring, we can be sure that it will be unrecognizable to today’s youth.
Returning to my first example of the history of weapons, we get a clue as to what the major modern malaise is really about. One of the side effects of a nuclear bomb (which is sometimes more feared than the primary effect) is the Electromagnetic Pulse that would disable electronic devices and the data held on them. And here is the essence of what we are really talking about: information.
It is indeed true that human nature has changed very little over time and Isaac Newton would have gone to a coffee house to discuss business arrangements with colleagues, just as we do today. Except today, ordering a coffee takes a huge amount of time if you are new to the establishment and need to consider all the options. Presumably, Issac had two choices— to have a coffee or not. It is this option fatigue that people refer to most when they talk of the accelerating rate of change. Even in my lifetime, I have seen this exponential growth in information and choice.
Take the example of television. Once, just a few decades ago you bought a CRT black and white television with one or two channels available. Then, eventually you had the additional channel of commercial television. Technological advances then gave you the choice of colour sets instead of just monochrome. Today, you have a choice of three different technologies for the delivery of the picture—plasma, LCD and LED. And this is before you investigate whether you want 3D, Smart TV, HD Freeview, FreeSat, Sky and whatever else is available that I am not currently familiar with. Remember, we haven’t even got to the important part of deciding what actual content we want to watch from the thousands of possible channels on offer. The bewildering array of channels is daunting to begin with but once we do watch something then we see the paradox of all this content, of quality being traded for quantity. And no sooner have we familiarized ourselves with most of the controls and options on the new fangled TV then another type of holographic television replaces it requiring the acquisition of a whole new set of skills. One can’t imagine a worker on a farm from hundreds of years ago complaining that he’d only just got the hang of the horse drawn plough before something else comes along which entirely replaces it.
It is not so much the rate of change that we complain about or try to measure, as the amount of information we have to process and we have already reached information overload in modern times.
There is one other factor that lends credence to the idea of the accelerating rate of change, one that is deliberately designed to act as an accelerant to the phenomenon: consumerism.
Consumerism demands an accelerating pace of change even when there isn’t one. There are many products on the market that change from year to year not because there has been significant innovation in them but because they need to appear as if there has been to keep the consumers buying. Make and models appear and disappear at an increasing rate and more often than not, new models are not backwards compatible. Even in journalism, this constant recycling of apparently new ‘innovation’ is referred to as ‘churnalism’.
Matt does acknowledge this digital revolution, but that is precisely the point: transporting physical goods at five hundred miles per hour is the old way of doing things, digital transport happens at the speed of light and so more of it occurs.
Take the financial sector in London. They’re even building a super fast trans Atlantic cable so that the dealers in London can get a nanosecond advantage over their rivals. That’s the accelerating pace of change at work. And if we go back to our example of physical transport, the speed of shipping today probably is close to that of the steam age but the sheer quantity of shipping is many times that of previous centuries and the variety of goods that they bring is also multiplied many times.
Matt’s point about the influence of the media in all of this is crucial and significant. Yes, the media industry is going through turmoil currently as a direct result of this digital revolution, but the media is responsible for hosing the world with accelerant. The media has simply set fire to itself.
Here is my conclusion:
Human beings can only experience so many stimuli. In the past, these stimuli would have comprised of qualia from the natural world. The moon, stars and cycles of nature would have been very real to human experience. We have evolved in a symbiotic relationship with the natural world and learned to deal with it. But now, those of industry displace the experiences of nature and evolution doesn’t work at the same speed. I could go on about the exponential rise of depression in modern populations to prove my point, but I’ll leave that for another time.
The thing about the media and information overload, is that it separates us from purpose. The limitless information we now have access to is a universe away from the time when our only access to information might have been a bible, written in Latin. There is so much information that we spend too much time trying to comprehend it and not enough time considering what we want to do with it. In fact I would go so far to say than when people talk about the rate of change they are specifically referring to information—new legislation, new specifications for buildings, new ways of paying your bills etc. More of our time is taken up with processing information.
I agree wholeheartedly with Matt’s conclusion: the ramifications of resigned acceptance of overwhelming change are bad for society. The movers and shakers of this world are becoming fewer and the shaken, far more numerous. It is time to take a stand against the tyranny of learned helplessness and become the masters of our own destiny once again.