The pace of change

It has become a commonplace of our culture that we live in a time of accelerating change. Take this extract from Stephanie Rieger and Bryan Rieger’s dConstruct presentation.

Slides 52-56…

It took radio 40 years to reach a market penetration of 50 million…

by comparison we only had 10 years to ‘adapt’ to television…

while the iPod took only 5 years…

and Youtube less than 6 months…

Google+ may reach this milestone in less than half this time…

The rate of change is accelerating, exponentially, we are told. Old verities no longer apply. To which the historian in me cries out. How do you know? Were you there? And what’s the unit of measurement anyway?

Goaded by my Twitter followers after dConsruct, and by Ivor Tymchak’s pseudo-science, I offer this first draft. It’s an attempt to tell an alternative story about change in our culture, why it seems so rapid yet is probably much the same as it ever was. Also, critically, why the misperception is a bad thing and what we should do about it. You can tell me why I’m wrong, what I’m missing, and what I should read before opining on this subject again.

It goes like this.

Yes, there are isolated metrics that display exponential growth. Moore’s Law has held remarkably well on the terms of its clear and specific prediction: it says the number of transistors that can be placed inexpensively on an integrated circuit doubles approximately every two years.

Yet Moore’s Law says nothing about what people will do with that exponential power. Whether playing ‘Pong’ or ‘Call of Duty’ we still have the same cognitive capacities and number of eyeballs. Kurzweil? I’ll believe it when I see it. With my own two eyes.

Besides, these data points tend to conceal three sleights of hand.

First, they are highly selective by sector. While communications technology is undoubtedly in a period of flux, the same cannot be said of other critically important domains of everyday life, such as transport. Granted this is not your father’s cellphone, but the guts of the car you drive would be familiar to Henry Ford. I’m writing this just south of Grantham, travelling up the East Coast Mainline, where the Mallard clocked 125mph in 1938.

Individual sectors and regions may experience periods of rapid change, followed by plateaux of stability. But put them all together and I reckon the pace of change is, overall, quite constant. And anyway how would you measure it? The number of transisitors on an integrated circuit is a great measure for computing power but meaningless in the field of, say, sanitation. So it is with ham-fisted attempts to express pre-digital human creativity in the terms of bits and bytes.

Second, exponential change narratives like the Riegers’ play fast and loose with multiple layers of the same stack, with massively different degrees of significance and disruption. How can one seriously compare 50 million households hearing radio broadcasts for the first time with 50 million men, women, children and spambots taking a couple of minutes to sign up for free accounts on Google’s latest foray into social networking?

We could so easily tell the opposite story. Why not just chain together sequential inventions in the field of short messaging, from the 1794 Chappe telegraph to Twitter in 2006? 212 years! What took you so long, Jack Dorsey?

Jaron Lanier writes about these layers thus:

“Slow-changing layers protect local theaters within which there is a potential for faster change. In computers, this is the divide between operating systems and applications, or between browsers and web pages. In biology, it might be seen, for example, in the divide between nature- and nurture-dominated dynamics in the human mind. But the lugubrious layers seem to usually define the overall character and potential of a system.”

For reasons I’ll come back to, I think we tend to overplay the importance of those local theatres while being blind to the greater significance of the lugubrious layers.

Finally, as David Edgerton shows in his solid and empirical book “The Shock of the Old”, the use-histories of technologies are far more elongated than we’d expect. Finland, for example, reached peak horse only in the 1950s. When will we hit peak transistor? We cannot possibly know until some time after we get there.

There is one factor that is radically different today from any other time in history, and that is the size of the Earth’s human population. But the number of other people (mostly unknown to each other) does not of itself affect the individual human experience. Indeed one might argue that the global population boom is only made possible by stability in whole swathes of the world previously troubled by uncertainty and disruptive change.

I already blogged about the Economist’s breathtakingly simplistic equation of years lived to history made. At the time I made the point that the globalisation accompanying population growth erases the diversity on which change relies.

A billion drinks per day of Coca-Cola is an amazing thought, but such uniformity is a symbol of inertia, not dynamism. For the most part world trade still travels at the speed of shipping containers, not data packets.

And even if we focus solely on the world of information, of culture, fashion and memes, there’s some evidence that the move to digital can prolong the shelf-lives of media properties as much as it can churn them.

When digital downloads were first included in the music charts, it led to a resurgence of golden oldies, rather than the breaking of hitherto neglected new talent. As some in the music business fretted:

“…it’s entirely possible that you could end up with the top 10 in the singles chart entirely dominated by Beatles tracks.”

The remarkable thing about the Cheezeburger phenomenon is not so much its sudden arrival as its amazing longevity – who’d have thought captioned cats would still make an impact after all this time?

Meanwile we find that the past was actually rather good at moving ideas about.

The postal service of 18th Century England ran twice daily mail coaches between major cities. On a bad day that’s more frequent than I check my emails.

The Victorian Charles Mackay chronicled the viral spread of catchphrases:

“London is peculiarly fertile in this sort of phrases, which spring up suddenly, no one knows exactly in what spot, and pervade the whole population in a few hours, no one knows how.”

(“Has your mother sold her mangle?” is my favourite.)

Ideas could certainly be “in the air” without the aid of modern communications technologies – indeed the telephone is a celebrated example of simultaneous invention. It’s as if someone phoned up Bell the night before to tip him off about Gray’s patent.

Even the change trope itself goes back further than we might expect. I ran the Google Books Ngram Viewer for the phrase “accelerating change“. Turns out its rise began around the 1950s and peaked within the literary corpus back in 1970…

Accelerating change is not just a wrong idea, it’s an unoriginal one!

I’m fascinated by the new stuff in our culture, but it seems grossly arrogant, a disservice to past generations, to claim that our experience of change is quantitatively different. Try telling that to a farm worker in the time of enclosure, to a native of a newly “discovered” country, or to the people of a 1980s British mining village.

What explains this fallacy’s enduring appeal? Why does every generation feel as if it experiences change so much more acutely than its predecessors?

I think it has to do with perspective.

We humans see change as if looking through a window at a stormy night sky. Clouds rush by while the Moon appears a fixed point. In fact the Moon is hurtling by at 2288 miles per hour, much faster than the clouds. It’s just further away.

And because the clouds are moving, they draw our attention. We try to make sense of them, and see patterns in their random shapes. In a few hours the wind could turn and push the clouds a different way, but to us in the moment, they move in only one, inevitable direction.

So it is with the past relative to the present. Disruptive changes that happened long ago appear steady, motionless, shorn of their uncertainties and wrong turns, even though at the time there was nothing inevitable about their course.

Meanwhile the things that are changing around us stimulate our primitive motion-sensing reflexes. The new shiny grabs our attention at the expense of the far larger body of things that stay the same.

Add to this some features specific to our time.

One of the domains that is changing fastest right now is the media, the self-same media that drives the discourse around change, and likes nothing better than to talk about itself. How many more column inches have been expended on the disruptive changes in the newspaper business than on, say, the shift from supermarket shopping to online groceries?

The other peculiarity is the fine net curtain that separates culture and knowledge produced in the age of the Internet from everything that came before.

We’re now so much more likely to type something into a search engine than to leaf through the library’s card index that we discount the very existence of all that stuff in the library, even though it may be better quality or more fitting to our needs. Order the journal or cut and paste that random excerpt from Google Books snippet view? Track down the original on 12 inch vinyl or settle for the bedroom remix on MP3? You know what you should do, and you know what you will do.

Like a theatrical lighting effect, the stuff on the digital side of the gauze is so visible, so brightly illuminated, that it renders invisible everything on the pre-digital side. Before the internet there were no revolutions, no financial crashes, no volcanoes. The illusion is complete.

Does it matter that we flatter ourselves into believing we’re special?

Yes. It matters because of the way the exponential change narrative makes people feel. The idea of free-wheeling change disempowers individuals. It puts them at the mercy of forces they cannot control or even understand. It sends them the message that their past experiences count for nothing. It squeezes out critical thinking and softens them up for the change proponent’s chosen flavour of inevitability.

Because there’s always a therefore. Can you guess the source of this quote from the Riegers’ dConstruct presentation?

“events, threats and opportunities aren’t just coming at us faster or with less predictability; they are converging and influencing each other to create entirely new situations.”

Did you guess?

Step forward Samuel J. Palmisano, Chairman and CEO of IBM, who believes his customers seek to “learn from a company that itself had undergone continual change.”

In any era there are people who thrive on uncertainty and on telling others what to do. I know because I’m one of that tribe. If we’d lived 100 years ago we’d be tinkering with starter motors and leaded petrol, just because that was where the change was. 50 years ago we’d be clearing the cities for tower blocks and motorways because you can’t stand in the way of progress. Today it’s information technology. A century from now who knows.

The other risk, if we fall for the exponential change story, is that we never get beyond the low-hanging fruit. Real innovation surely stems from an appreciation of the things that are not changing fast enough, not from being caught up in the coat-tails of the market’s latest flight of fancy.

Edwin Land didn’t spend five years creating the Polaroid camera because he was scared of being left behind. He did it because his curiosity was piqued by his daughter’s impatience. “Why can’t I see it now?” she demanded.

So if you catch me, or yourself, or anyone else, expounding on the exponential pace of change, stop and ask for the evidence. Ask for the motivation. Ask if we mean to undermine people’s sense of authorship and agency.

More likely the changes that matter take decades. You – collectively we – do have the time to consider the implications and shape the direction. True, the only constant is change. But that’s OK, it was ever thus.

See also: Erm, excuse me, but I think Everybody was here all along

18 thoughts on “The pace of change

    1. If the pace of change is constant, how is it that there was no major intellectual breakthrough for 20 million years following the emergence of the human race? You might tell me that we don’t know that for sure- I think we do, but let me tell you something else; if the pace of change is constant, the importance of the change is accelerating- there is no big difference between pace of change and importance.
      FINAL FACTOR; You seem to say that change is moving in steps-1+2+2+2.However, study the facts;each little idea-communication,knowledge etc. , is being expanded upon- the pace of change happens not in two plus two, but in 2x2x4x16 etc.
      the pace is accelarating

  1. This is great – manages to articulate why my bullshit-detector starts going off every time I catch an op-ed throwing around an “increasingly” or “more than ever before.”

  2. Small quibble, and obviously forgive me if someone’s already pointed this out, but Moore’s Law is decidedly linear and in no way exponential (unless that exponent is 1).

    Aside from that, I very much enjoyed this piece and agree with it, too.

    1. Thanks Matthew,
      Maybe I should have made this clearer, but there’s a logarithmic vertical scale on the Moore’s Law chart I embedded above (from, so there is, as predicted by Moore, exponential growth with transistor count doubling every two years.
      My point is that even if we accept this, the exponential change in transistor count does not translate to exponential impact on business or life in general, since the human factors are what really count, and people are much the same as ever.
      Regards, Matt

  3. Even computing seems to be moving relatively slowly, when you look at The Mother of all Demos. They had hypertext, video conferencing, and collaborative document editing in 1968:

    “On December 9, 1968, Douglas C. Engelbart and the group of 17 researchers working with him in the Augmentation Research Center at Stanford Research Institute in Menlo Park, CA, presented a 90-minute live public demonstration of the online system, NLS, they had been working on since 1962. The public presentation was a session in the of the Fall Joint Computer Conference held at the Convention Center in San Francisco, and it was attended by about 1,000 computer professionals. This was the public debut of the computer mouse. But the mouse was only one of many innovations demonstrated that day, including hypertext, object addressing and dynamic file linking, as well as shared-screen collaboration involving two persons at different sites communicating over a network with audio and video interface.”

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