VISION FOR THE FUTURE CREATES HISTORY. To determine the evolution and manner in which science, technology, and society will unfold requires vision. The ability to imagine what can be and work towards that goal. Without creativity, without passion, and without perseverance, we are lost to roam shiftless and blind like a ship without a sail in the night. - Eric C. Leuthardt

 

Why is the World Changing So Fast?

When I was a kid I used to dig holes in the backyard for entertainment – seemed like fun at the time.  These days I see children the same age as my hole-digging days playing with hand held play stations, navigating the web through wirelessly connected laptops, and getting weepy when their transfer rates are too slow.  Beyond this underlining that I am getting old, it also speaks to the fact that life as we knew it back then was very different from what it is now.  Today, most people say “well, OK, things change with time – that’s progress.” And yes, they are right, it is indeed progress, but the rate at which we see things change in our lifetimes has been essentially unseen in human history.   People often point to the current centenarians and contemplate the dramatic scope of how life changed for them – the horse-and-buggy to the space shuttle.

            What if that type of change happened every ten years? Every five years? When we think back to the last thirty years the differences are no less stark.  It is almost hard to imagine life with just  a cord dependent telephone. We went from the first PC, to cell phones, to internet, to wireless computing, to smart phones, to cloud computing and nearly limitless computational capabilities on demand.  And even still, things are continually accelerating in terms of technical capabilities. Why? When I ask friends and colleagues, the common answer is Moore’s law. Namely, that the number of transistors that can be placed inexpensively on an integrated circuit has doubled approximately every two years. The trend has continued for more than half a century and is not expected to stop until 2015 or later. If it was just Moore’s law that is at play we should just have really really good calculators.  Increased computational power, doesn’t explain change.  Just because we can compute faster, that doesn’t make us smarter, more creative, or alter our social perspectives.  So why are innovations occurring more and more rapidly?

            I would propose a hypothesis (since its my blog, I’m going to call it the “Leuthardt Hypothesis”) that social and technical evolution is exponentially proportional to the rate at which humans exchange information. I think we can map this trend out for the last two thousand years.  In the first millennia, with the exception of major wars, five to ten generations of people could reasonably expect the same type of lives. Namely, that one’s great great (add eight more greats here) grandfather could experience the same level of technology and social interaction as that of their distant offspring.  It wasn’t until the printing press that was invented by Gutenberg in 1440 which enabled the creation of books that allowed for massive social and technical advances to follow.  With the dissemination of books in high volume, information and ideas could be organized and distributed in ways that literally took centuries  to penetrate a population prior to creation of the printing press.  Its unsurprising that during this time that we see the end of the Middle Ages and the emergence of the Renaissance.  Also, where it took roughly 1000 years  to pass through the Middle Ages, it only took about 200 – 300 years to see the Rennaisnace give way to the Age of Reason and Enlightenment. After that, only a 100 years to progress to the Industrial Revolution.  Each of these transitions heralded exponential social and technical change ranging from substantial political upheavals in social thinking (i.e American and French Revolution) to substantial changes in technology (steam engine and transatlantic migrations).  Central to these changes were the ability for humans to communicate ideas.  With the evolution of the book, then  general social media such newspapers and magazines, ideas spread at an ever faster rate allowing for people to consolidate and advance thoughts to create and enact all sorts of novel ways in how we see and interact with the world. With the twentieth century, we see print taken to manufacturing scale, the creation of the telephone, and the new phenomenon of the radio and television.  This brings us to the lives of our grandparents that we marvel at.

            Now its our turn. I would posit the reason for the accelerating change is similar to why networked computers are so powerful.  The more processing cores that you add the faster a given function can occur.  Similarly,  the more integrated that humans are able to exchange ideas the more rapidly they will be able to accomplish novel insights.  Different from Moore’s Law which involves the compiling of logic units to perform more rapid analytic functions, increased communication is the compiling of creative units (ie humans) to perform ever more creative tasks.  Today with the advent of blogging, social networking,  and wireless communication it still takes several minutes to hours to create an idea and similar amount of time to understand an idea.  The time lag of transmission, however, is near zero.  Given these rapid timescales, we can expect the emergence of novel and world changing events (both good and bad) to occur more and more frequently. Change will be the new norm for our lives in the future.