We hear all the time that things change faster today than before, and acceleration is often mentioned as a megatrend – one of the broad, certain, long-term trends that shape the future. But is acceleration in reality just an illusion caused by a sort of temporal myopia, with changes seeming bigger because we experience them ourselves?
Recently you could several places on the internet see a graph with the headline “Consumption spreads faster today” page 56-57. It shows market penetration for various products over the last century – i.e., the time it takes from the introduction of a product until e.g. 80 per cent of all households have it, in this case with the US as the example. The source of the image is in one place noted as being Charlie Catlett, Argonne National Laboratory. You can find lots of other, similar graphs, all with the same message: The market penetration of products happen faster today. They are used as examples of how things simply change faster and faster.
The problem with these graphs is that they on a closer look actually don’t show any clear acceleration of market penetration. Yes, it is true that it only took 10 years for the mobile phone to go from a penetration of 10 per cent to 80 per cent (which happened in the period 1994-2004), while this took almost 60 years for the landline telephone (circa 1905-1963). However, on the other hand, it only took 12-13 years for the radio to go from 10 per cent to 80 per cent (circa 1925-1938), while the dishwasher, after more than 60 years since its introduction, hasn’t yet reached a penetration of 80 per cent. The perhaps fastest penetration of all – left out of the above-mentioned graph, but included in others – is the TV set, which went from 10 per cent to 80 per cent in just 7 years (1961-1968). The boom box (transistor radio with cassette recorder) had a similarly rapid penetration some years later. Some old products’ slow penetration can also be explained by external factors. For instance, in the US the personal car went from10 per cent to 60 per cent in 12 years from 1916-1928 – but then, the Great Depression hit, followed by World War II. Private car ownership actually dropped to about 47 per cent by the end of the war, after which ownership only rose slowly, perhaps because public transportation in the shape of buses and trains had been extended massively during the war, making it less important to own your own car. If you want to demonstrate an acceleration of market penetration, you can easily select a number of products that show that show faster penetration now – but you can just as easily choose products that show the opposite.
This isn’t the only example of postulated acceleration that doesn’t hold on closer inspection. Sometimes apparent acceleration covers a development driven by other forces. When the lifetime of companies in recent years purportedly is significantly shorter than before, it might of course be because companies really do survive for a shorter time due to a general acceleration. However, it may also be because it simply has become more culturally and socially acceptable for companies to merge with other companies or let themselves be bought by them (we could call this ‘equity fund logic’ as opposed to ‘paternalistic owner-manager logic’), and even though a company in this way ceases to exist on paper, it’s not the same thing as it not being in existence any more – no more than a person who marries and changes his or her last name ceases to live.
Another reason for the illusion of acceleration is that the things that change today aren’t the same as changed 50-100 years ago. We speak of how rapid progress is in computer technology and communication, where an ordinary smartphone today has far greater computing power than all the computers used in the Apollo Project combined. This is truly rapid progress, but other things happened just as quickly in the past, just in other fields. Since we mentioned the Apollo Project: In 1958, the first man-made satellite, Sputnik, was put into orbit around the Earth. Just three years later, the first human being was launched into orbit, and eight years after that, the first people walked on the surface of the Moon. Since 1972, no man has set foot on the Moon, so here, progress hasn’t just stood still – it has even reversed. Nor do passenger jets fly any faster than they did 50 years ago, so here, we can’t speak of acceleration either. In fact, the fastest passenger planes – and fastest public means of transportation overall – today are far slower than the Concorde, which was introduced in 1969, but since was taken out of operation.
We can even go further back: It took less than 16 years from when the Wright Brothers in December 1903 flew 260 metres in the world’s first motorised airplane to when Alcock and Brown flew non-stop across the Atlantic in June 1919, a trip of 3040 km. This is more than 10,000 times as long a flight in slightly over 15 years, while computers only can offer about 1,000 times as much calculating power over a similar period.
Progress happened very quickly in the epoch of mass industrialisation. The telegraph was invented and improved – and very quickly the world was covered with telegraph wire. The railway was similarly developed – and spread like a prairie fire. We can’t measure market penetration to the individual consumer for ‘products’ like these, since they weren’t designed to reach the individual households. We can’t even measure the rate of dissemination to cities in any meaningful way, because the telegraph and the railway (along with a few other innovations) transformed the world. The breakthroughs at the time in communication and transportation led to a significantly different development of large regions. Farming was far tighter integrated into the world market and gained a very different service need than earlier times’ subsistence farming. Similarly, many cities would not have become cities if the railway hadn’t come their way – while others lying where the railway didn’t come sank into obscurity. In the same period, urbanisation, fixed working hours, and a money economy came to penetrate everyday life for large groups. School attendance became ubiquitous, and the idea of equality spread – for instance, both women and servants were given voting rights in the wake of industrialisation and the opening towards the wide world that was one result of railways and telegraphs and the complexity that arose from that.
What changed fastest?
Did changes happen faster from 1880 to 1900 than from 1980 to 2000 in the majority of the world? We can easily argue that this is true, if we mainly focus on Western Europe or North America, but what then about developments in Eastern Europe (the fall of the Wall) and in China (the extraordinary communist capitalism)? There isn’t necessarily any clear conclusion: Progress has accelerated at different times in different parts of the world.
Nor is rapid progress just something belonging to the industrial age. Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press around 1450. Fifty years later, the press had spread to all of Europe, and more than 20 million books had been printed – one for every three Europeans. A bit later, the Black Death spread, admittedly slower than a new influenza virus today, but not much slower than the HIV epidemic since the 1980s – and the Black Death spread wider; in large regions, two thirds of the population died. We have (fortunately) not seen anything like it later; at least not at the same scale.
We can also ask: Can we drive faster on the highways than we could 20 years ago? For many people, the daily commute takes significantly longer, among other things because of congested roads. In many well-off cities, more people go by bicycle because it is faster than going by car. Similarly: Do our computers boot more quickly than those we had 20 years ago? And do we really write faster in word processors – or do all the many new functions in actuality mean very little for our daily use?
We speak of the ‘well enough’ revolution in these and other fields: The big leaps have been made; we may be able to make minor improvements in the future, but many of the innovations we are presented with may not necessarily represent improvements in any true sense. And even when we can speak of significant improvements, the great shift may lie earlier. For the authors of this article, the shift to colour TV in our youths may have been an improvement in quality, but not a quantum leap like when our respective parents in their time purchased their very first black-and- white television and brought living images into their homes. And the change to flat-screen TV? Quite practical, but a very marginal improvement compared to the shift from B&W to colour TV. And before our times, the shift from ‘no radio’ to ‘radio’ was probably an even greater quantum leap for people’s everyday lives than the shift from ‘radio’ to ‘television’ that we later experienced. So in the field of electronic mass communication, we have seen a declining rate of progress – until we got the internet, which has given us some entirely new phenomena. But is it a greater leap than the radio, which for the first time brought ‘the wide world’ into our living rooms in real time? It isn’t entirely clear what constitutes the greater change. Most people alive today would probably say the internet, but this is at least in part because we haven’t experienced for ourselves just how big a change the radio represented in its time.
The psychological fallacy
We like to confirm each other in how everything goes faster and faster. It is a convenient explanation for how we can’t find the time for all the things we would like to do or feel we should do. However, the ancient Romans had the same explanation a few thousand years earlier, and perhaps it’s simply a common excuse? After all, we can always find something that changes a bit faster now that 20 years ago – and then we focus on that when we need to explain our inadequacies. We, who in spite of crisis and unemployment still live in an unimaginably comfortable and safe world, focus on stress – but I wonder if people who don’t know if they can get anything to eat tomorrow aren’t more stressed out than those that simply worry that they don’t update their Face book profiles as quickly as their friends?
Is acceleration an illusion?
What can we conclude? Some things change faster today than before – we can mention more rapidly changing fashions in clothes – while other things change more slowly. Whether things overall change faster or more slowly is difficult to say, since it is very easy to overlook some areas and focus too much on others. However, we can at least conclude that acceleration probably isn’t clear enough a trend to really be called a megatrend.
Image via Flickr