On the Accelerating, Exponential Rate of Change in Society

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While Butler, needy wretch, was yet alive,
No generous patron would a dinner give;
See him, when starv’d to death, and turn’d to dust,
Presented with a monumental bust.
The poet’s fate is here in emblem shown,
He ask’d for bread, and he received a stone
— From Samuel Wesley’s epitaph for Samuel Butler,
Poet’s Corner

The Big Picture
by Glynn Wilson

You cannot begin to grasp the future without understanding the past.


But you cannot even begin to get your head around the present without understanding the accelerating, exponential rate of change itself, both in technology and how that impacts human life and society, including politics and government.

Change is inevitable and there’s not a damn thing you can do about it — except figure out a way to deal with it for yourself. There is no such thing as “getting back to” family values or anything else. We can’t go back.


The change graph

You can try to escape all these changes by living in the rural countryside, maybe with no television or Internet connection. You can stick with using an old technology you are comfortable with (like an analogue phone or even e-mail) and swearing off anything new. (I can’t believe I just called e-mail old technology, but it’s true). You can continue to read a newspaper in print and write paper checks. But not for long.

Even if you drop out and say to heck with trying to keep up, that won’t make the changes stop coming. They will just pass you by and you will never know what happened or how that might effect your world, both on a global scale and locally. And that’s not including how it will effect the future of your children and grandchildren.

With this increasing rate in the pace of change comes a sometimes overwhelming emotional anxiety and stress on the human brain. Every individual has to find ways to cope, and that may mean not watching cable television or not signing up for Facebook or even swearing off getting a cell phone. If you can get by without any of these technologies with your life and job the way they are, that’s great.

But if you are reading this at all, you probably have a clue what I’m talking about. You have at least embraced the idea of reading news on a computer screen in something closer to real time than you could ever get in a day old, or week old, newspaper. Perhaps you are following my links on Facebook.

You have decided, perhaps because of the credentials I show on my Info page, that I am someone to pay attention to. Amongst all of the psychobabble that passes for news and wisdom in the modern world today, human beings inevitably try to find someone to turn to who seems to know what they are talking about.

Now I could sit here and repeat my resume for any newbie lurkers, but instead, I am going to refer you to some other writers who are grappling with the mathematics of change on a full-time scholarly basis.

This is pretty complicated stuff, so I am going to simplify it for you and boil it down and talk about the implications for politics and government, society and the environment.

For starters, there is a Web publication called The Futurist, which is actually housed on the Web under the domain name “singularity2050.com,” which should give you a clue about what they are about. As a moniker, they use a quote from Shakespeare: “We know what we are, but we know not what we may become.”

While this is a science publication of sorts, not a political blog, you can read stories under headlines like: “Why Republicans Will Not Shrink Government.”

Not because these writers are a bunch of liberal, pinko, commie, socialist-Nazis, but because they look at the facts about what has happened in the past and what must inevitably occur in the future based on scientific principles.

The idea of shrinking government sounds good as a political sound byte, and it will continue to be used and exploited by greedy politicians who know a good percentage of the population is not intellectually equipped to deal with all this change.

Let me give you one example to nail this point and then I’ll get to the larger issues.

If you are surfing the Web or Facebook or even television news for the latest on what’s going on along the Gulf Coast in the wake of the BP oil disaster, for example, you might see videos of sick and desperate people screaming at the “govmt” and begging Ken Fienberg, the Obama administration’s so-called pay czar, for relief.

These are mostly regular folks, many of them fishermen and their wives, who also tend to be pretty conservative and live a life that is deeply rooted in the past, in the old ways of doing things. They are not a bunch of liberal activists.

Their lives have been disrupted NOT by too much government, but by too little.

We now know beyond a shadow of a doubt that one of the chief reasons the Deepwater Horizon blew up in the first place was because the Bush administration’s “hands off” notion of anti-government deregulation left industry executives alone to take unnecessary risks for the sake of potential short term profits. Many of the people working for the government agency that was supposed to be watchdogging BP, Transocean and Halliburton were high on cocaine and having sex in a far off hotel room, not doing their job to make sure the companies were following the law and protecting workers, the public and the environment of the Gulf.

That is not a political argument or a matter of opinion. It is an undeniable fact. Those people have now been fired and some of them are under indictment.

Just because you did not hear about it in your local newspaper, your favorite local television news station or on conservative talk radio does not mean it didn’t happen.

I confronted the Obama administration’s Secretary of the Interior myself in person back in May in Baldwin County and wrote a story with links that prove this to be the case.

Speaking of changing one’s mind in a very short period of time, I broke the story in June on the Obama administration’s plan to seize BP’s oil revenue for a massive cleanup along the Gulf. And I wrote a column in August advising the people along the coast that they would be better off trusting the federal government for payback than the state court system in Alabama.

Now I think the Obama administration made a critical public relations mistake. From the very beginning of the crisis, you may recall if you followed this story, that President Obama from the outset said it was BP’s crisis and they were going to have to stop the well from leaking and pay to clean up the mess. I produced a video in May quoting Ken Salazar as saying this in more detail.

But because the administration put a government appointed lawyer in charge of the restitution effort, people are now screaming at the government, not the corporation that caused the problem. And that, my friends, is a problem. But it will take future stories and columns to fully explain it. I can’t fully explain the world in one story or one column, much less in one Facebook post or comment. You’ve just got to follow this over time and I swear you will have a better understanding of what’s going on than you can get just about anywhere else in the world on the Web.

Now for the technical details about change. It is my firm belief that if people only understood this one thing, it would help them cope.

To quote The Futurist: “The single most necessary component of any attempt to make predictions about the future is a deep internalized understanding of the accelerating, exponential rate of change. So many supposed ‘experts’ merely project the rate of progress as a linear trend, or even worse, fail to recognize progress at all, and make predictions that end up being embarrassingly wrong.”

Remember, for example, that in the early 1970s, everyone thought all the Earth’s oil would be used up by the year 2000. Clearly, that is NOT the case. In fact, the average American spends fewer hours of wages on gasoline each week than they did in 1970.

Equally simple-minded predictions are made today by politicians and even some economists, who use incomplete models to try to predict the future.

For example: “By 2080, Social Security will no longer be able pay benefits, leaving many middle Americans with insufficient retirement funds.”

This is an absurd statement, because the world will have changed so much in the next 70 years that no one can predict what it will look like.

Another example, from Pat Buchanan’s books.

“Immigration to the US from third-world countries will make such people a majority of the US population by 2100, making the US a third-world country.”

Another absurd statement. Even the term “Third-World” is already obsolete. The Cold War was declared over in 1989, people, 21 years ago.

In the 1950s, John Von Neumann was quoted as saying that “the ever accelerating progress of technology … gives the appearance of approaching some essential singularity in the history of the race beyond which human affairs, as we know them, could not continue.”

In the 1960s, I. J. Good wrote of an “intelligence explosion,” resulting from intelligent machines designing their next generation without human intervention.

In 1986, Vernor Vinge, a mathematician and computer scientist at San Diego State University, wrote about a rapidly approaching technological “singularity” in his science fiction novel, Marooned in Realtime. Then in 1993, Vinge presented a paper to a NASA-organized symposium which described the Singularity as an impending event resulting primarily from the advent of “entities with greater than human intelligence,” which Vinge saw as the harbinger of a run-away phenomenon.

Let’s just take it as a given that the world of 2100 will be way more different from 2010 than 2010 is from 1910. Draw the line back in time and for each generation and you see the pace of change was slower.

One of the first essays on this topic, often cited, is Ray Kurzweil’s essay on The Law of Accelerating Returns. It will be over the heads of most average mass audience news reader, so let me summarize.

The rate of progress of an evolutionary process increases exponentially over time. Technological evolution and biological evolution are prime examples of this.

“Although technology grows in the exponential domain, we humans live in a linear world,” Kurzweil writes. “So technological trends are not noticed as small levels of technological power are doubled. Then seemingly out of nowhere, a technology explodes into view.”

Can you say Facebook?

Think of the Internet when it expanded from 20,000 to 80,000 nodes over a two year period during the 1980s. This progress remained hidden from the general public, for the most part, unless they happened to read a science or technology magazine story about it. It was not covered by local television news, because back then, the Internet posed no challenge to TV as a news source. But by then, Ted Turner’s Cable News Network was a growing force. CNN did not become the International powerhouse for news it is today until the first Gulf War in 1992-93.

When the Internet went from 20 million to 80 million nodes in the same amount of time a decade later, the impact was rather conspicuous, however. By then, university students at MIT had invented the Web browser Netscape and America Online (AOL) had starting selling a CD that allowed users to connect to the Internet with a very slow (by today’s standards) modem over a simple digital phone line.

Some days, I think of my own father and wish he were alive to see this today. I suspect he would be able to grasp it. You can see why I think this in a column I wrote on Father’s Day in 2009. To summarize, he was an engineer for the old Southern Bell telephone company, before the Reagan Justice Department broke up ATnT. His job was to supervise building telephone company substations, back in the analogue days. When he died in 1973, he was in charge of building the substation in Roebuck, east of Birmingham.

Some say the cigarettes killed him. I say it was the stress. As a kid, I got to hang out in the old noisy analogue substations in Center Point and Pinson. The noise of all those switches going off, all at the same time, as people made phone calls in this area, was maddening.

But to continue with the story, I recently had an epiphany about this new technology. I have been thinking for the past 15 years, since I published my first Website, that at some point, the speed of computers and Internet connections would at last be fast enough to do what we needed to do. There would be no need for progress on this front to continue.

In fact, I think we reached that point last year, but of course that’s when I broke down and bought a MacBookPro computer and was dazzled by the processing speed. That coupled with a high speed cable connection allows me to conduct research online and publish my stories and thoughts at a speed I consider to be “instantaneous.”

Remember, I published the very first magazine ever designed as a formal magazine on the Web, and we did it using the old Web browser Netscape and a modem connection. It was anything but instantaneous. It was gruelingly slow.

My belief in a point of diminishing return on computer and Internet speed was simply naive. The change will just keep on coming, folks. We will never reach a point at which technology is good enough and fast enough. Change is inevitable, and it is exponential.

Run and hide in the country if you must. But the longer you try to hide from change, the further you are going to fall behind the rest of civilization.

The question now for the future is this: Can the pace of technological progress continue to speed up indefinitely? Is there not a point where humans are unable to think fast enough to keep up with it?

This is the so-called “Singularity,” defined as technological change so rapid and profound that it represents a rupture in the fabric of human history. Some would say that we cannot comprehend the Singularity, at least with our current level of understanding, and that it is impossible, therefore, to look past its “event horizon” and make sense of what lies beyond.

This is probably true, but we don’t have to resolve that issue now.

What we have to do is learn to cope with the changes in technology while also forming some coherent public policy for dealing with the very real problems that lie right in front of us.

But this should make one thing abundantly clear. Any politician who tells you we should all just “return to the family values of the past” has no idea what he or she is talking about. Why would you trust your future to someone who is not at least trying to figure out these changes and how to manage them?

A question for your consideration: Is it not now obvious that the oil company BP was trying to push the envelope of change way too fast in the Gulf on that deepwater well for the sake of the stock price and the bottom line?

Somebody has to care enough about the consequences of these things to regulate them in a way that does not destroy human life, the environment or fray our society past the breaking point.

My final thought on this subject for today. Try to get your head around this.

Trying to cling to the ways of the past will inevitably result in an ungovernable future. You think we have anarchy and chaos now? You ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

We must try to grasp what has happened, and wrack our collective brains for a model to propose solutions.

Like President George W. Bush said, “It’s hard.”

But we have no choice. Do we?

© 2011 – 2015, Glynn Wilson. All rights reserved.

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