Is the pace of change really accelerating?

It's tempting to believe so, because we live in tumultuous times – but think again

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket lifts off from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, Florida, in May. AP Photo
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I don’t know about you, but the fact that it’s already summer has really caught me off-guard. My line of work is foresight and yet I cannot help but feel that I’m constantly catching up, and it’s not just that it has been a busy seven months so far this year. It’s that so much has happened – is happening – and is changing.

As I keenly watch out for new trends, uncertainties and technologies, I wonder whether the speed of change is picking up. Stated differently: is the sequence of new things becoming tighter?

I’m reflecting on the growing inflation, the risk of stagnation, the risk of recession, the risk of a gas-choked freezing winter in Europe, only to be told by people that these will all be short-lived cycles. Then we observe the rise and fall of trends: NFTs have hit stratospheric value, only to be one of the many things our digital world and future is about.

Then there is Covid-19: not over, perhaps tamed, surely normalised in a matter of two-and-a-half years, claiming some 6.4 million lives. Compare this to the Spanish flu, which also lasted two years, claimed some 50 million souls from a world population that was a quarter of what it is today.

Just this year, there have been so many achievements, including sequencing the final 8 per cent of the human genome, or our ability to peer deeper into the universe than ever before thanks to the James Webb Space Telescope more than a million kilometres from the Earth. All of this happening now. Now! We certainly stand on the shoulders of those who have come before us, and yet it does feel like we’re at a moment of convergence for better or for worse.

There is a constant sense of urgency and no time to think, or even to reflect and plan

So here is the thing: I don’t think the pace of change is accelerating. Reluctantly, and years after having discussed this with a bright colleague, and rejected it then, I now buy into the notion that change is not accelerating. “What?,” I hear you ask.

We are living in times when so much comes our way all the time – information, requests, opportunities, demise – but that is just because our means of communication have improved the speed of delivery. Email and social media are infinitely faster than sending a letter by horse and sailboat from London to Sydney, as would have been the case in the 1700s. But they are not radically faster than the telegram. Indeed, historians such as Geoffrey Jones have argued this before: the 18th-century invention of the telegraph has resulted in a step-change not witnessed since.

And this is true for many of the industrial processes that have cropped up also in the 18th century. Similarly, medicine has improved our lives gradually over time, not instantaneously. That step-wise and gradual change means that the pace of change is not as great as we may feel it is.

Instead, the present is compressed and the future is reaching us faster than ever before.

There are many ways in which we can think about the present: the moment right here and now, in the Buddhist sense, for example. Or also, the present time – the current period that defines a historical moment. A convoluted but apt word for it might be “zeitgeist”: the spirit of the time. The feeling I can’t help escape is that the spirit of the time is changing so rapidly.

Recessions come and go so fast; the social cycles of confidence in our future, replaced by collective despair only to be followed by elation, exist in such quick succession. For example, a recent analysis of Ariel Investments and Charles Schwab, a financial services company, has highlighted that African-American investors are exposed disproportionately to cryptocurrency risks because they are more likely to invest in this asset class. And that’s because they felt that crypto were a way into the financial gains (the future) they have been excluded from historically (the past).

The present was compressed as the price of Bitcoin, for example, saw an increase of 595 per cent in the 153 days between October 9, 2020 and March 12, 2021. That is, of course, followed by an equally staggering compressed present of Bitcoin’s fall in value of close to 70 per cent between November 2021 and June 2022. Of course, there have been bubbles that have grown and burst before, but the speed of an event running its course and the widespread impact seems unprecedented.

This means that there is a constant sense of urgency and no time to think, or even to reflect and plan.

It’s a dangerous time, for hasty decisions are rarely fit for the future. But perhaps that’s the point. In future, as in current times, we will flit from one crisis and never really catch up with the needs of the moment or of the future. Technologies, needs, opportunities and disaster will come at us quickly from a future that seemed distant, only for us to manage any impacts and consequences that they will provoke, but for which we have not planned.

And, I’m in that situation, too: I’ll need to deal with the fallout of not having planned for the summer break. Then winter will be just around the corner.

Published: July 28, 2022, 9:00 AM
Updated: June 08, 2023, 8:19 AM