Thursday, December 8, 2016

Keeping Pace With Pace



No, we are not talking about picante sauce. We are talking about the rate at which things change — things being technologies, social structures, institutions, norms. Those things are changing fast. Not only are they changing fast; they are changing faster and faster. In other words, the rate at which our world is changing is accelerating. It is not a constant rate; it is an exponential rate. At some point, if we have not already approached it, that rate will begin to grow, then leap, then bound. Can we keep pace?

To guide us through this question are two references. One is the now infamous Moore’s law. However, when you read it, in between commercial breaks this weekend, you may not quite notice the law, per se, embedded within what Gordon Moore hypothesizes. There is more to the notion that computing power will double every several years. Instead, you will see some technical jargon about depreciating costs of increasingly efficient circuits — more stuff in smaller spaces at less cost. The impact of that prediction has been and will continue to be dramatic. Thus, the companion reading is a chapter from Thomas Friedman’s new book, Thank You for Being Late. I cannot more strongly recommend reading this book than to say, go get it and read it right now. If you haven’t done so yet, you are already behind. Now go get it.

Friedman’s thesis is that the pace of change is accelerating and that the phenomenon of acceleration is the forthcoming global challenge. While I am not advocating for the exactness of the components of his thesis, the issue of accelerating pace is very thought-provoking, and very concerning. It should raise many questions related to how we will handle both change and the pace of change in the future. Consequently, the future is now.

The obvious and observable example of what Moore and Friedman discuss is in the arena of emerging technologies. These technologies are interesting in and of themselves. However, I think they represent something deeper, that is embedded in the way social contexts are organized. As innovation spawns more innovation, social behaviors adapt to those new ideas and vice versa. The question to ask, then, is whether existing institutions can handle both the innovation specifically and the impact to social behavior generally.

Therefore, in our present context of predominantly democratic institutions, can democratic institutions manage the foreseeable accelerating rate of change? Are democratic institutions as we currently understand them in need of a drastic overhaul? Could we conceive of an evolved organizing political framework that is agile enough to handle, exploit, and manage what might be a new normal – disruptions? Similarly, what happens when defense can no longer comprehensively defend the polity? What happens when what needs defending is beyond the technical, procurement, and procedural capability of a defending institution, like the DoD? 

These are not unfamiliar questions. In fact, about 100 years ago, the world was facing a titanic shift in the way polities organized and defended themselves. A confluence of technological, social, and ideological changes reprogrammed the way the world works in the early part of the Twentieth Century. In 1951, Hannah Arendt characterized it like this.

Only two decades separated the temporary decline of the antisemitic movements from the outbreak of the first World War. This period has been adequately described as a “Golden Age of Security” because only a few who lived in it felt the inherent weakness of an obviously outmoded political structure which, despite all prophecies of imminent doom, continued to function in spurious splendor and with inexplicable, monotonous stubbornness. Side by side, and apparently with equal stability, an anachronistic despotism in Russia, a corrupt bureaucracy in Austria, a stupid militarism in Germany and a half-hearted Republic in continual crisis in France — all of them still under the shadow of the world-wide power of the British Empire — managed to carry on. None of these governments was especially popular, and all faced growing domestic opposition; but nowhere did there seem to exist an earnest political will for radical change in political conditions.[1]

Are we approaching a bubble of some sort — be that a technological bubble, an innovation bubble, a social structural bubble, a learning bubble? Or are we headed straight into a wall? Is the accelerating pace of change going to collide with the currently understood laws of physics? In other words, are we going to reach a point technologically, structurally, socially, where we can go no further, at least until something gives way?

What might these questions imply? I tend to think we need to think differently. That does not mean we need to think about things in a different way. No. We need to do the process of thinking in a fundamentally different manner. We need to recognize that we exist or are about to exist in a wholly different plane of existence. If we do not, someone else will. Or more likely, someone else already has. At that point, we will not only be left behind. We may never be able to catch back up.



[1] Arendt, H. (1966 (originally published 1951)). The Origins of Totalitarianism. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., p. 50. Emphasis added.