Thursday, June 26, 2014

The Inreasing rate of change

The time between 1945 and 1970 was one of super-acceleration. Since then, many developments have slowed somewhat. For example, the economy did not continue to grow, as we had begun to take for granted that it would. Dominant optimism began to crack. The last stage of this widespread optimism witnessed the coming of an ‘alternative’ overoptimism, with hippies and altered styles of living and working. This movement continues today in the form of holism, transformation management and ‘Aquarian conspiracies’.
In 1980 a ‘World Symposium on Humanity’ was held, proclaiming that the eighties would bring a ‘universal breakthrough to a spiritual world’. This kind of faith in the future is hard to beat, whatever it may mean. A California article of 1983 forecast that after only a few more decades war would be banned and people would be nice to one another, money would no longer exist, and more of such cloud-seven stuff. This overoptimism still exists, but in a weakened form. The Coming of the Messiah has again been postponed, according to one Benjamin Creme.
While the dominant mood has been one of pessimism and cynicism, cautious economic optimism, mixed with disappointments over broken dreams, appears to be the dominant mood in the 90s.
Still, the acceleration of social and economic developments since roughly 1850 has been staggering, and its end is nowhere in sight. Most likely we are witnessing a new stage in the feed-forward character of evolution in general and human evolution in particular. More and more change occurs in shorter and shorter periods. The time scale of the palaeontologic eras has grown progressively shorter. With the presence of greater biomass, and indeed a more varied biomass, we have more conditions available for new species. Carl Sagan estimates that the time needed for each new leap forward in evolution becomes five times shorter than the time needed for the previous leap.
Throughout the evolution of early humanity, three things reinforced one another. These three were walking upright, the growth of the brain, and the use of tools. When our forebears began to walk upright they learned how to use tools, and learning to use tools, they used their hands less for walking. The use of tools develops the brain, and the developed brain develops more tools.
All of this development began inconspicuously. Probably for three million years different species of humans lived next to one another under roughly the same conditions, but then development progressed rapidly. After the Stone Age with its stone tools came bronze tools and the agricultural revolution, then iron tools, mechanics, and finally the industrial revolution, ever more quickly. Today we can hardly keep pace with ourselves.
A similar cycle works within a lifetime. When I was a student I was taught that all of our nerve cells were present at birth. Now we know that those nerve cells may develop powerfully during the first three years. The cells move about and grow either few or many offshoots. How many offshoots they grow and how long these offshoots become probably depend greatly on stimulation from the environment. A rich perception and imagination make for more offshoots, and more offshoots probably enrich the perception and the imagination.
The roots of our modern acceleration began in the 18th-century Enlightenment with its idea that we can improve society. James Watt improved the steam engine. The French Revolution and the Napoleonic wars accelerated social and political development. Later the First World War and the Russian Revolution strongly accelerated development. The Second World War carried development still further.
The ground swell of societal development is the continuous advance of science and technology, while great investments move roughly according to the Kondratieff cycle, with corresponding, but lagging, social moods. Weber analyzed the contents of British Crown speeches between 1775 and 1972. He found a social psychological long-term cycle of four phases:
1.     Bureaucratic;
2.     Progressive;
3.     Cosmopolitan;
4.     Conservative.
These stages correlate to the Kondratieff cycle. The most recent bureaucratic stage corresponds to the phase of economic recovery and beginning of economic prosperity (50s). The progressive stage corresponds to the late prosperity stage in the economic cycle (60s). The cosmopolitan stage corresponds to the recession and depression stage of the long wave (70s). This period is followed by the conservative stage that has probably been characteristic of the 80s, which corresponds to late crisis and beginning of recovery. According to this theory, we have now entered a new bureaucratic stage.
Superimposed on this model are the spasms of revolution and war that, for all their loss of life and destruction of goods, appear to liberate energies rather than to drain them. From the point of ‘societal energy’ - to coin a probably valid, but vague idea - revolutions and wars appear connected to malfunctions and blocks in this ‘economy of energy’. Rate of change can be too fast, but also too slow. At the present time we appear to suffer more from a turbulence and a frenzied pace than from stagnation and boredom. The current rate of change, the acceleration we now experience, began in 1945. The end of World War II unleashed the technological potential developed during that war, as well as the political potential of decolonialization.
We may yet witness even more rapid changes, more turbulence. Isn’t there a limit to the rate of change that may be possible? Economically, the rate of change does reach a critical limit, when so many things change within one lifetime that people become obsolete during their productive years. Psychologically, the maximum speed of development is that speed wherein people can still manage without breaking down or opting out and leaving everything to the next generation. In knowledge development, the natural sciences are presently close to the maximum speed, while the social sciences remain far below that limit. Some people think that science and technology are now so far advanced that for the time being they will slow down and spiritual development will take their place. I rather think that science has hardly outgrown the nursery.
In the end, it is the adaptive capacity of individuals and of society that determines the maximum speed of development. The gap between people who keep up with developments, and people who drop out, could presently be widening. Possibly we are heading for a divided development that takes the form of an international network of cities that enjoy a high-tech culture, and the remaining local rural cultures. Bursts of tension might occur between these two major cultures, but such a quasi separation might enjoy surprising stability.
The most basic problem may lie in the parable of the talents, wherein talented people develop ever more quickly and less talented people stay behind. Much of the historic mix between the two groups has occurred because talented people used less talented people for chores. That need has decreased with the rise in automation, and with the arrival of convenience and low-maintenance products. Many people are dropping out. These dropouts include the obsolete, the simple and the slow, but also the sensitive and the dreamy.

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