So Medium recommended an article with a title I refuse to remember (Medium recommendations are a cypher to me). The gist of the article, though, was a theme that I’ve seen many times before. It is the threat that change is accelerating and as a result you, as a person, must keep up by continually improving yourself at an alarming rate. The author quoted Warren Buffett who apparently insisted that any successful person should “read 500 pages every day,” a discipline that only an oligarch with servants to perform all mundane activities could possibly undertake. The author cites Ray Kurzweil of Google who claims, “My models show that we are doubling the paradigm-shift rate every decade.”
The author then goes on to explain that “paradigm-shift rate” is not the silly, neo-philosophical clap-trap it appears to be but is, in fact, a quantifiable thing that can be defined unambiguously using words of some sort. Word after word of explanation and, in the end, we remain puzzled. The paradigm-shift rate is actually not quantifiable. It is like when a Naturopathic practitioner tells me that this supplement will increase my energy. I will typically ask by how many joules it will be increased. Of course, at that point, the game is up and the Naturopath must admit that the phrase “increase your energy” is as ambiguous as it sounds.
Eventually, the author explains that the rate of change of stuff generally is increasing exponentially. Of course, depending on the value of the exponent, the change can be pretty phenomenal. The author showed a graphic example of an exponentially rising curve noting that if you see only a small part of the curve it appears flat. To demonstrate this the author shows only the first inch of the curve near the origin, where it is most nearly flat, ignoring the fact that a small sample from the other end of the curve would clearly demonstrate a vicious climb. Kurzweil apparently proposes that the paradigm-shift rate will be at 1024x in 100 years. Ten years later, it will be 2048x and ten after that 4096x, doubling every ten years just like Kurzweil proposed. Strange that the paradigm-shift rate would be a convenient doubling every ten years, but paradigms may just be funny that way.
This ignores, of course, Stein’s Law: If something cannot continue forever, it must stop. If change is a real thing, and not just a meaningless abstraction, then it is an actual kind of accelerating movement. All acceleration requires energy. If it does not require energy then it is not acceleration, it is stasis. Exponential change requires an exponential increase in the application of energy. Energy is a limited resource and when it runs out, change must stop — Stein’s Law.
The Basic Problem
OK, the ridiculous claim that change is accelerating to the point that only a Marvel super-hero will be able to survive it requires us to take a breath and consider carefully. All technological change is made by people. All cultural change is made by people. Things made by people may be controlled by people. If we people believe that allowing an individual to possess one billion dollars will give that person inordinate control over the workings of government contrary to the public good, the people may pass laws that convert billionaires to mere millionaires and that malignant change is arrested.
If the people conclude that expert systems (the proper term for most AI) are holding inappropriate sway in hiring decisions, the people may require that AI not be used in that field of endeavor. If the people decide that a central clearinghouse of all data related to each individual’s purchases provides retailers with unacceptable power to sway otherwise reasonable future transactions, the people may pass laws to dissolve that clearinghouse.
The myth of continuous ineffable change accelerating like an atomic freight train into a mega-future of unimaginable horror is just a cheap sales gimmick for pampered personal trainers. Yes change is happening very quickly, and that change is threatening our culture, our environment and our relationships. We don’t have to allow it to continue apace. Choose what change is working for you and openly protest the change that is not. People are responsible for this change and you can influence people. Expend your limited energy to assure that the rate of change is manageable. Reject Amazon and shop at your local store. Walk next door and talk to your neighbors. Check out a book from your local library.
The frightening future is a tale told by capitalists intent upon using your fear to sell you even more change. You do not need to be the dupe in this game. Consider what you need and strive for it. Everything else is just you giving money to rich people; and that distracts you from your actual needs. What you need is, by definition, what you need. Acquire that and see how good life can be.
Julian S. Taylor is the author of Famine in the Bullpen the new book about bringing innovation back to software engineering.
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