Many people think that the speed of change today is unprecedented. That’s just because we have short memories. Historians focused on Western civilisation, like Vaclav Smil, point back to the late 19th and early 20th Century when electricity, radio, the telegraph, telephone, phonograph, cars, planes, anaesthetics, and (a bit later) antibiotics emerged.
Smil suggests that someone from 1914 would recognise much of today’s world, while someone from 1814 wouldn’t recognise the world of 1914.
A visual and audio sampling of change in Victorian England is being projected in Dunedin this weekend. Prof. Sally Shuttleworth talked to Kathryn Ryan on RNZ on Friday about it. An earlier video is shown below, and you can pick out parallels with today.
Thinking about the future is informed by reflecting on the past. But it’s not a competition. The point isn’t to be dismissive about the pace of change in the present (“You think life is quick now, well you should have talked with my great granny!”), or vice versa.
It’s about perspective, and learning how previous societies did and didn’t respond to change, and the longer term consequences of those (in)actions. As well as understanding how we got to where we are now.
Our attention is drawn to things that change quickly.
“… we notice what varies and changes more than what plays a larger role but doesn’t change.”
Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Antifragile
Historical reflection identifies what hasn’t changed as much, and what’s gotten slower.
Andrew Curry has pointed out that some of the challenges we are facing now are not due to an increasing pace of change, but things slowing down – population and productivity growth. The institutions, ideas, and policies established decades ago based on assumptions of (or designed to drive) rapid growth aren’t doing so well when stagnation sets in.
So it’s important to consider not just what is getting faster, but what isn’t, and the future consequences. But it’s not just about extrapolation. Foresight also needs to consider what happens if fast changes slow, and previous slow changes speed up.
We can’t answer the question of whether someone alive now would, or will, recognise 2120 as similar to today. But that’s not a very useful futures question. What we should focus on, as I suggested in my previous post, is what we’d like the future for our descendants to be like, and how we can help bring that about.